It might seem absurd to talk about Jesus celebrating Christmas. You can easily think of a long list of Christmas-type things we do now that Jesus never did.
Certainly, he never hung up his stocking on the chimney on Christmas Eve. He never wrapped presents and put them under the Christmas tree. He never sang Christmas carols. He never listened to Handel’s Messiah. He never sat down to a turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce meal with his family.
But the point of Christmas is that it celebrates the birth of Jesus and reflects on what he did for mankind. Is it possible that Jesus and his family ever held such a celebration?
It’s common for pious people these days to claim that Jesus could not have celebrated his birthday because birthday celebrations are a “pagan custom.” If you search around online, you’ll find a fair few articles making exactly this claim.
That is rather weird logic. Eating is a pagan custom. So is sleeping. So is getting married. So is a funeral. These are things all humans do, pagans or Jews. There is nothing particularly pagan about any of these. And there’s nothing particularly pagan about celebrating a birthday.
That raises the question of whether we have a record of any Jew in Bible times who celebrated their own birthday. And in fact, we do…
A Jewish Birthday Party
We know for a fact that a very famous Jew in the time of Jesus celebrated his birthday. You can read the whole story in Mark 6:14-26.
To summarize, Herod Antipas, who was “tetrarch” of Galilee, gave a banquet to celebrate his own birthday, sometime close to the year AD 30.
Sidebar: You may be wondering, who was Herod Antipas, and what’s a “tetrarch?” Herod Antipas was one of the few surviving sons of King Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. One of those sons, Archelaus, got half the kingdom. Two other sons, Herod Antipas and his brother Philip, each got a quarter of the kingdom. So Herod Antipas and Philip were “tetrarachs”—rulers of one quarter of a kingdom.
We don’t know the exact year Herod Antipas gave this banquet, but I calculate that he was near 50 years old at the time. I would call it a plausible guess that this banquet celebrated either his 49th or 50th birthday. Plausible, but not certain.
Anyway, at this birthday banquet, Herod’s step-daughter Salome did a dance that got all the men in the party quite excited. The girl was probably 11 or 12 years old at the time. (We know that she married her uncle not long after the banquet.)
Herod liked the dance so much that he offered her practically a blank check—she could have literally anything she asked for, up to half Herod’s kingdom.
The girl’s mother told her to ask for the head of the prophet, John the Baptist. She asked, and Herod gave.
Sidebar: The Jewish historian Josephus tells us this event happened at a desert fortress named Machaerus, in modern-day Jordan. The fortress has been excavated, and I visited it a couple of years ago on a very hot day in July. Here is a photo of me sitting in the exact spot where Herod sat when he gave the order to cut off the head of John the Baptist.
You may recall that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. You may also recall that Herod Antipas heard about Jesus and wondered if he was John, risen from the dead. These facts tell us that this birthday banquet happened during the very time Jesus was teaching in Galilee.
But Was Herod Jewish?
If you search around online, you’ll sometimes see claims that Herod Antipas was “pagan.” This is false. Herod was Jewish. Every historian on the planet knows this. Herod Antipas wasn’t a nice guy, but most kings of the time weren’t. Herod was Jewish, and he celebrated his own birthday, and he lived in Galilee, only a few miles from Capernaum, where Jesus had his headquarters.
We have no way of knowing whether Herod celebrated his birthday every year. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t. The only actual evidence we have is that he did it at least once.
We also have no record that Jesus ever celebrated his birthday. You might think that means we can’t really know. I’ll deal with that issue shortly.
But first, we should ask a more basic question. Did Jesus even know what day he was born? If you search around online, you’ll find claims that he didn’t, that nobody much cared when their birthdays fell. But does that make sense?
Jesus Knew His Birthday
The author of the gospel of Luke certainly thought Jesus knew when he was born.
Luke 2:41-49 tells a famous story of one year when Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem for Passover. After the feast, his family headed back home, assuming he was in the group with them. But Jesus had stayed behind, and they had to go back and get him. Verse 42 specifically says Jesus was 12 years old.
The only way to know if you’re twelve years old is if somebody has been tracking when you were born. So Jesus and his family (according to Luke’s account) knew how many years had elapsed since his birth. They had reason to know. And they probably also knew the exact date of his birth. Here’s why.
A major event in the life of any Jewish boy is the day he becomes a man. This happens when he turns 13. The only way to know when to celebrate this coming of age is if you know the boy’s birthday.
Jews, of course, had a calendar at the time of Jesus, which they tracked with great care. Most Jews used a lunar calendar, with 12 months in normal years and a 13th month added as needed to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar.
So it would not have been hard for the parents of Jesus to know the exact date he was born. When you have a calendar, you have dates. Unfortunately, we don’t have any precise info on when that date fell. But it seems very, very likely that the family of Jesus knew it.
The Bar Mitzvah of Jesus
Assuming that Jesus and his family knew his date of birth, they would have celebrated his coming of age on a Shabbat near his thirteenth birthday. On this date, Jesus officially became a man. A son of the commandments. In Aramaic, a bar mitzvah.
And how did Jesus and his family celebrate this occasion? For many hundreds of years, part of that celebration has been a reading from the Torah by the young man in the synagogue. Did Jesus do that?
In the time of Jesus, few men could read, and even fewer could write. A standard estimate is that only about one man in ten could read, and about one in a hundred could write. So it’s not clear what a normal bar mitzvah celebration looked like in ancient Galilee. (The rabbinic writings, such as the Mishnah, the Palestinian Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud, were written hundreds of years after the time of Jesus, and they’re not a good guide for what life was like in the first century.)
So we can’t really know exactly how Jesus celebrated this important occasion.
But I think we can say very safely that he and his family actually did celebrate it. On or near his birthday. And if the real spirit of Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, then that celebration qualifies as the first Christmas celebration. Especially since that bar mitzvah celebration was full of expectation for the kind of man his family expected him to become.
Those of us who celebrate Christmas do so precisely because of the kind of man Jesus actually became.