Scala/Art Resource, NY

A blanket of snow covers the little town of Bethlehem, in Pieter Bruegel’s oil painting from 1566, now in the Musée d’Art Ancien, in Brussels. In the right foreground is Mary, wrapped in a blue blanket and seated on the back of a donkey led by Joseph. At lower left, the crowds assemble to register in the worldwide census described by the Gospel of Luke. According to Luke 2:1, Mary gave birth when she and Joseph returned to his hometown to register.

Although Jesus’ birth is celebrated every year on December 25, Luke and the other gospel writers offer no hint about the time of year. The most popular theory of how Christmas got its date is that it borrows from pagan solstice festivals celebrated on and around December 21. But a far less popular—yet much more ancient—theory suggests that Jesus’ birth date is calculated from the date of his death.