You know what I think? Everything we know about the date of Christ’s birth is pretty much wrong! Now, the intent of this article isn’t to settle the matter once for all. And it’s not to prepare you, the reader, for your next appearance on Jeopardy. Instead, it’s my hope that this review of recent research in archaeology and sociology and such will be useful for apologetics and maybe even help promote a more “Christian” observance of this holiday season.
Didn’t early Christians decide to celebrate Christmas on December 25 to match up with pagan festivals already being celebrated on the winter solstice?
While this seems to be the prevalent opinion, there is now some evidence against it. In fact it’s just as likely that the December 25th date was independently selected by both Christians and pagans. In reality it shouldn’t come as a surprise that both pagan and ancient Jewish (and later, Christian) groups have a tendency to associate events with calendar days that are marked by “signs and portents in the heavens.” What may come as a surprise is that there is evidence of astronomical observations being used as a basis for assigning the birthdate of Christ to the winter solstice as early the 2nd century.
It’s also a little simplistic to think that all Christianity this as the date for the nativity. Beginning around 100 AD and continuing for the next couple centuries, a variety of dates were proposed and defended enthusiastically. (And even then some folks were pointing out that shepherds and sheep wouldn’t be sitting around in a field in the middle of winter!) Truth is that the Christian church has never been united in our currently-held date. The Orthodox Church, for example, has always held January 6 as the proper date for the nativity. Many now believe that in the west it wasn’t until the end of the 3rd century that church teachers came to an agreement that Jesus was conceived and died on the spring equinox and born on the winter solstice. According to this idea they further clarified that John the Baptist was conceived on the fall equinox and born on the summer solstice. They even used John’s statement in John 3:30 “He must increase [i.e., was born under a waxing sun] and I must decrease [or born under a waning sun]” as a proof statement.
To be clear, there is no incontrovertible proof that Christianity and pagan beliefs independently homed in on December 25 for their celebrations. There just simply aren’t any records that the church fathers really did calculate dates in this way. On the other hand, there’s no proof that Christianity’s date is merely “recycling” dates of pre-existing cults.
Thirdly, there’s some disagreement about whether Saturnalia, the major pagan festival being celebrated at the time, was really associated with winter solstice. In the first century it was a one-day pagan holiday held around the first part of December. It wasn’t until the end of the second century that it became a seven day-long event, and moved so that it would end on December 25, but not deliberately coinciding with it. Largely from both of these points scholars now hold that the two religious groups converged on December 25 and do not accept any close relationship between Saturnalia and the Christian Christmas.
Then there’s that pesky cult of Sol Invicta, or the “Unconquered Sun.” We don’t know much about it but it is thought to have been a 3rd century cult that was carried into Rome from Syria around 280 AD. Some scholars even think that the Sol Invicta cult was actually encouraged by Rome to inject worship or respect for Roman emperors and that the choosing Dec 25 as the birthday for Sol Invicta was to allow it to replace the commonly celebrated Saturnalia. However (and this is a big however) recent study has debunked the idea that this cult was a recent import and argues that the idea of Christmas being overlaid on top of this cult is result relies on anachronisms with an intent to confirm an idea, rather than scholarly reconstruction. In truth there are problems in the evidence used by the Sol Invicta “theorists.” Their central document, the Chronograph of 354, reports an event being celebrating on the 25th of December as the birthday of Invictus and they then assume that the Invictus whose birthday is being celebrated is that of Sol Invictus, even though this term is a commonly found honorific. More importantly, none of the other information we have on this cult indicates they ever had winter solstice celebrations. It’s also interesting that this same document contains a list of Christian martyrs, with the heading “the birth of Christ in Bethlehem on December 25.” Some scholars also point out that the only versions of the Chronograph available seem to be from ninth century, making them less than reliable witnesses. All this has led to the conclusion by many scholars that pagan authorities of the ninth or tenth century “rediscovered” this cult to cast doubt on the validity of Christianity’s increasing influence over the winter solstice.
But I was also told that the early Christians celebrated on secular holidays because they could then “hide” their own feasts.
An attractive idea, but this does not square up with the facts as recognized by scholars. We do know that the earliest celebrations of the nativity by Christians (including January 6 as well as December 25) came in the latter half of the 3rd century and early 4th centuries, a time when Christians were still struggling and under severe persecution. These church fathers were primarily motivated by drawing a sharp line between themselves and the pagan religions from which many of their adherents were drawn. So while some “shy” Christians may very well have participated in the cultural festivals so they wouldn’t stand out from the crowd, there’s more evidence that this would have been in direct opposition of Christian teaching, rather than because of it.
It was only after Constantine converted to Christianity, from about 350 AD on, bringing with it a formal recognition of Christianity that would have supported “Christianization” pagan festivals. Even then at this point in time the intent wasn’t to adopt the current celebration but to recast its focus and meaning, similar to the example of Paul who used the “worship of the unknown God” in Athens to show that their cult was a shadow of the Christian Truth.
But isn’t it telling that secular historians have been the ones who, in the December 25 date, have acted as the “whistle blowers?”
This just isn’t a valid charge: If nothing else the Nativity date has been the subject of an ongoing debate between Orthodox and Western churches. The roots of the most recent attacks on the traditional western date for Christmas reach back to the Reformation of 1500’s. In fact, in 1593 theologist Rudoph Hespinian is the one credited with first suggesting that Christianity had merely co-opted pagan celebration dates. His purpose was to divorce the faith from the gluttonous practices and observations which, though they had their roots in the pagan celebrations, were now associated with Christian festivals. Nor was he alone in this war. In 1561 the newly-founded church of Scotland included a ban on the celebration of Christmas in the First Book of Discipline. Nearly a hundred years later, during the English Civil war, Yule-tide celebrations became so outrageous that church leaders in England openly attempted to divorce “Christian Christmas” from the secular celebrations being held at the same time.
But all of your Christmas traditions (the feast, giving of gifts, decorating the tree, e.g.) are borrowed from pagan practices of Saturnalia and the Germanic Yule … what does that show?
Now THAT’s a good question! To me I think it means a couple things – chief among them that that I like to eat and get gifts! Of course, the Bible never tells us to celebrate the birth of Christ, which is why for the first 600 years or more of church history the nativity just wasn’t a big deal and certainly wasn’t one of the celebrated events. So from one point of view we can’t be accused “doing it wrong.”
A little trivia here: Actually “ignoring” the birthday of Christ for so many years may itself have been a reflection of ancient pagan beliefs. Recognizing one’s birthday seem to have come from a time when ancient kings and nobility celebrated the date of their birth, accompanied by astrological “revelations,” as a way to support their claims of divinity. During this same time the common folk actually feared their birthdays, thinking that on this day they were more open to attack by evil forces. OK, end of trivia
Nevertheless, there’s a valid point in this question. After all, if there’s no difference between Christians and the secular world in the conduct of their lives, then how does this affect our witness? Now I’m not certainly not proposing that it’s “wrong” to celebrate the nativity. After all, one of the defining tenets of Christianity is recognizing that God came to earth in human form in the person of Jesus, so it does seem like the event is due some recognition, Yes? But I do feel our celebrations should reflect our intended message. What does it mean that we sing about Jesus being born in a rude and common stable and then display a nativity scene constructed from precious metals and woods that costs well in excess of $15,000? How is the birth of our savior highlighted in a collection of lavish presents and pageantry whose main purpose seems to be to compete with those of the year before?
You know… I’m not upset (or surprised) at all when our enemies rally to remove nativity scenes from public places. Over the last years of church history, these outward symbols have somehow become regarded as tools of evangelism – something that would probably greatly distress the church fathers. A witness to the glory of savior of the Lord is only effective when it’s visible in the lives of Christians – it simply doesn’t matter what they display in their front yards. It is not whether we celebrate, but HOW we celebrate that sets us apart. So, instead of wishing you “Merry Christmas” I’ll instead join with you to proclaim, “Let us Rejoice!”
Rock Hill Church
For those interested the following is a list of the principal sources used for this article
Emanuel Nothaft, Carl Philipp. “From Sukkot to Saturnalia: The Attack on Christmas in Sixteenth-Century Chronological Scholarship.” Journal Of The History Of Ideas 72, no. 4 (October 2011): 503-522 (ebscohost.com, accessed November 26, 2014).
Nothaft, C.P.E. “The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research.” Church History 81, no. 4 (Dec 1, 2012): 903-911 (ebscohost.com, accessed 2 Sep 2014).
“Happy Birthday to You.” USA Today Magazine 131, no. 2694 (March 2003): 8 (ebscohost.com, accessed November 26, 2014).
Salusbury, Matt. “By Jove! It’s Christmas.” History Today 59, no. 12 (December 2009): 6-7 (ebscohost.com, accessed November 26, 2014).