Maybe we should deck the halls with a few more boughs of holly. From the best evidence, it appears that Jesus Christ was born in 6 B.C.

If a Roman monk hadn't made a simple miscalculation 1,400 years ago, the world would be celebrating the 2,000th Christmas next Sunday. And the Sunday after that, we'd be celebrating New Year's Day 2000 - the first day of the third millennium.How did the mistake happen in the first place? It started with an attempt to fix the date not of Christmas but of Easter, the holiest and most ancient day of the Christian calendar.

Easter, like Passover, is based on a calculation involving the lunar and solar calendars. The calculation can be done any number of ways, and by the sixth century A.D., differences abounded. Finally, in 525, Pope John I commissioned a well-regarded scholar, the monk Dionysius Exiguus, to develop a system that everyone could agree on.

Dionysius was an expert not only in canon law but in astronomy and mathematics, and he had no trouble coming up with new tables for Easter. The hard part was getting bishops to adopt them.

It may have been to popularize his system that he hit on another bright idea: renumbering the years to focus on the birth of Christ.

At the time, most of Europe was still operating under Emperor Diocletian's version of the old Roman calendar, which dated the years "ab urbe condita" - from the founding of the city.

Diocletian had been one of the church's fiercest persecutors, argued the monk, so why rely on him for its system of dating? And which was more important - the founding of a collapsed empire or the incarnation of Jesus Christ, savior of the world?

Dionysius designated the first year after Christ's birth as anno Domini (year of our Lord) 1. Jesus' birth, then, took place late in the year before that: not 0, but 1 B.C.

Dionysius' theology may have been on the mark, but his chronology wasn't. Somehow he decided to place Jesus' birth in the 753rd year of the old Roman calendar. Christian scholars have long questioned this reckoning, and for good reason.

Herod the Great, King of Judea, died in the 750th year after Rome was founded. As we know from the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born in Herod's reign. So Dionysius was at least three years off - and the evidence tilts more strongly to five.

In Matthew's account, Herod interrogates the Magi who come to visit Jesus, and after establishing the date of the child's birth, he orders the killing of all the male children of Bethlehem aged 2 and under. Joseph is warned by an angel to flee to Egypt, he returns with the Holy Family only after Herod dies.

Contrary to conventional piety - and millions of creches - the Magi were not at the manger on Christmas night - or even Epiphany (Jan. 6), when their arrival is celebrated. Matthew indicates that their journey took months, not days.

By the time they arrived and lingered in Jerusalem, consulted with Herod and moved on to Bethlehem to worship the child, more time would have passed. Jesus would no longer have been a newborn.

By the time the Holy Family fled to Egypt, lived there, then returned at Herod's death in 4 B.C., he would have been as old as a year or two. That places his birth before 5 B.C.

Luke doesn't mention the Magi. His only reference to a historical date is a census that was taken "while Quirinius was governor of Syria." That can't be right, since Quirinius became legate in Syria in A.D. 6 - by which time Herod had been dead for 10 years.

But Roman records tell us a Quintilius was legate in Syria from 6 B.C. to 4 B.C. Did Luke - writing some 70 years after the event - get the name wrong? - It's not unusual, even in the Gospels.

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Placing the birth before 5 B.C., yet during the time of Quintilius, would mean Jesus was born in 6 B.C.

The Magi, of course, were following a star. Of the many attempts that have been made to identify it, one is especially intriguing. Chinese astronomers recorded what must have been a supernova in the early spring of 5 B.C. If, as Matthew says, the Magi began their journey after Jesus was born, this would suggest a birth date in the winter of 6-5 B.C. - around, say, Christmas?.

Every Christmas is special, and the Christmas message is timeless whether one accepts the Gospels literally or figuratively.

But it may add a glow to a cold, crisp night in December 1994 to know that this is the 2,000th Christmas to warm the human heart.

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