Is Christmas Christian?
Why December the 25th?
The main problem in trying to establish the date of Christ’s birth is that there simply isn’t any real evidence to go on. The gospels don’t provide any dating evidence apart from the reported roman census and an astronomical phenomena, the star, to go on. Nowhere in the gospels is the date of conception or birth actually mentioned. Unfortunately there seems to be no records of any census undertaken in that period, strange as the Romans were methodical record keepers, and research has shown no contemporary records of any astronomical event sufficient to pinpoint a date to more than a few years accuracy let alone an actual day.
This wasn’t a problem for the early church as birthdays were not seen as something to actually celebrate so the only interest in establishing the date was purely theological. The main problem is that despite the hard work of the theologians, they generally met with a stunning lack of success in actually agreeing on a date.
In about 200AD Clement of Alexandria reports that “assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ’s birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus”. (Ideler , Chron., II, 397, n.) Others reached the date of 24 or 25 Pharmuthi (19 or 20 April). In Cyprus, at the end of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserts against the Alogi (Hær., li, 16, 24 in P. G., XLI, 919, 931) that Christ was born on 6 January and baptized on 8 November.
In Jerusalem, Egeria the 4th-century pilgrim from Bordeaux, witnessed the feast of the Presentation, forty days after January 6, which must have been the date of the Nativity there. According to the early church writer Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem asked Julius I, the Pope at that time (336 to 352 A.D.), to look into the issue of the exact timing. In 350 A.D., he came up with the date of December 25 as the most probable time.
As we can see during this period there was little agreement on the exact date of Christ’s birth but with the Bishop of Rome deciding on December 25th the scene was set for December 25th to become the de-facto standard date
Was there a pre-existing pagan festival in existence to re-badge? Records show us that there were festivals throughout the month of December, much as any other month. Looking around December 25th we see
- Feast of Hathor 23rd (Egyptian)
- Larentalia (Roman) 24th. – Celtic tree month of Birch begins
- Modranect (Saxon) 25th. – Birth of Horus (Egyptian)
- Dies Natalis Invicti Solis (Roman)
- Birthday of Mithras (Persian)
- Haloa (Greek)
- – Feast of Neith (Egyptian)
- – Holy Day of Hekate, Selene and Apollo (Greek)
Not to mention Saturnalia. This runs from December 17th until December 23rd. In Northern Europe we unfortunately have little written evidence for rituals and festivals of any type but the existence of obviously ritual structures that have solar alignments does suggest that Midwinter was an important date in the ritual calendar of the pre-roman Celts, and indeed for thousands of years before them, of the area
In Ireland we have the Megalithic passage tomb, built around 3200 BCE. This kidney shaped mound covers an area of over one acre and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, some of which are richly decorated with megalithic art. The 19 metre long inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber. The passage and chamber of Newgrange are illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December.
In England Stonehenge is a Neolithic and Bronze Age monument located near Amesbury in the English county of Wiltshire, about 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Salisbury. It is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones, known as megaliths
Stonehenge is aligned north east — south west, and it has been suggested that particular significance was placed by its builders on the solstice and equinox points, so for example on a midsummer’s morning, the sun rose close to the Heel Stone, and the sun’s first rays went directly into the centre of the monument between the horseshoe arrangement. On Midwinter conversely the sun would rise at exactly the opposite side of the circle. It is unlikely that such an alignment can have been merely accidental.
We can see that there were indeed many festivals in existence that pre-date the onset of Christianity. In fact as we have observed before it would have been almost impossible to pick a day when there wasn’t some sort of pagan festival or celebration.
Given the fact that Rome, both in its position as controlling most of the western world and in its religious power being as it is the home of the bishop of Rome, the fact that the celebration of Sol Invictus falls on the 25th of December would seem to be significant. When we look at the theology behind Sol Invictus we see that it may well be the most significant pre-existing festival when considering the development of Christmas.
Sol Invictus (“the unconquered sun”) or, more fully, Deus Sol Invictus (“the unconquered sun god”) was a religious title applied to three distinct divinities during the later Roman Empire. This puts it in line with the northern European mid-winter festivals that are hinted at by the alignments of ritual sites as well as documented festivals from the Viking lands.
The title first gained prominence under the emperor Elagabalus, who abortively attempted to impose the worship of Elegabal, the sun-god of his native city Emesa in Syria. With the emperor’s death in AD 222, however, this religion ceased, though emperors continued to be portrayed on coinage with the radiant sun-crown, for close to a century.
In the second instance, the title invictus was applied to Mithras in private inscriptions by devotees.
The emperor Aurelian introduced an official religion of Sol Invictus in AD 270, making the sun-god the premier divinity of the empire, and wearing his rayed crown himself. While not officially identified with Mithras, Aurelian’s Sol borrowed many features from Mithraism, including the iconographical representation of the god as a beardless youth. Aurelian dedicated the Sol Invictus Temple on Dec 25, 274 in a festival called dies natalis Solis Invicti or birthday of the invincible Sun.
One problem we face is that there are no documented records of this celebration dating from before the emergence of Christianity.
While the dates of its introduction to Roman life predate any documented agreement of the date of Christ’s birth it cannot be known whether or not the two religions are truly independent or whether one or other borrowed elements of ritual and belief from the other. A deliberate decision to overlay?
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons – born in about 120CE, and Tertullian, an ecclesiastical writer in the second and third centuries, born 160CE, omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday.
The first evidence of a celebration, is from Egypt in about 200CE, but actually celebrated in May as we have seen. By the time Pope Julius is asked to settle the argument about dates, in 385CE, the festival of Deus Sol Invictus was well established and by many accounts rather popular with the inhabitants of Rome.
It is this decision that fixed the date not only of Christ’s birth but also of any celebrations since then. It is therefore sensible to ask whether or not Pope Julius was influenced by the existence of a popular mid-winter feast. There seems to be little evidence for the fixing of the date to December 25th before Julius but there are hints, such as the Chalki manuscript of Hippolytus, that suggests that people had indeed suggested December 25th long before Julius, in about 203CE.
Whether or not Julius knew of the earlier calculations suggesting December 25th as the correct date it would seem unlikely that the existence of a popular celebration didn’t in some way influence his decision to formalise the date of Christ’s birth, and therefore Christmas, to be December 25th.
Was this a deliberate decision to try to supplant the existing Pagan faiths with Christianity? Well there certainly is no recorded evidence of this and choosing the celebration of Deus Sol Invictus to attack would seem to be a strange decision when there were more ‘important’ religious dates, if not more popular ones.
There is also little or no sign of any concerted attempt to suppress the existing Pagan celebration, either on December 25th or at other times of the year, that would be expected if this was a deliberate attempt to supplant the existing pagan faiths and festivals with Christian ones. Indeed we see as late as 1000CE bishops such as Wolfstan railing against pagan midwinter celebrations and rituals.
By the time Christianity became a state religion of Rome, under emperor Theodosius beginning in 381CE the date of Christ’s birth had been established as December 25th for 20 or 30 years. It was in becoming a Roman state religion that it finally spread throughout the known world and the date of December 25th became the default date for the Christmas celebrations.
While I think it fair to suggest that the Christmas celebration, its date and some of the rituals that go with it are undoubtedly influenced by pre-existing pagan rituals it seems unlikely that the festival of Christmas was deliberately designed to displace any pre-existing ritual or pagan faith. We need to remember that the Roman society at the time that the date was fixed was a very pluralistic society with many different competing faiths. Christianity was just another among many.