Every year around Christmas time, a post will inevitably appear on social media claiming the celebration of Christmas on December 25th is pagan in nature. The post will likely be suggesting either one of two things:
- There was a pagan festival around the Winter Solstice and Christians established December 25th as a date of Jesus’ birth to co-opt the festival away from the pagans. This claim is meant merely as a courteous fyi; a history lesson for the church. Or…
- That Christmas has pagan roots and has been infiltrated by all manner of pagan rituals and decorations. This latter intention subtly suggests that the church do away with Christmas and purge itself of pagan influence altogether.
Both claims are interesting but, as is often the case with internet pop history, things typically are not exactly as they seem. In fact, we will see that neither of the proposed options above are historically accurate. In this blog, we will look to answer these questions related to the timing of the Christmas holiday:
- When was Jesus born?
- Is Christmas a co-opted pagan holiday?
When was Jesus Born?
Central to this larger question of Christmas and paganism is the date of Jesus’ birth. Was he born on December 25th? The answer is both “yes” and “probably not”… Let me explain. In the early church, calendar keeping was a complicated task. In the first century, there were two major calendar models – the Julian and Jewish calendars. The Julian calendar was based on the solar cycles and was the official calendar of the Roman Empire. The Jewish calendar is a lunar model that follows the phases of the moon. Because the Sun and Moon cycles do not align perfectly, the days and months of particular events were hard to keep track of between the two models.
For early Christians, the problem of date keeping emerged when the church was collectively trying to determine the exact date on the calendar to celebrate Easter (or Pascha). They wanted to celebrate Easter on the exact date of Jesus’ resurrection. But what day was that specifically? Even though the church was separating from the lunar calendar, in order to figure that date out, they had to figure out which day Passover fell in the Jewish calendar the year Jesus died. Oh and to add another wrinkle, what year was Jesus crucified – was it AD30 or AD33?
Uncertain of whether it was AD 30 or AD 33 – there are arguments made for either – two dates emerged as possible candidates for the Easter celebration – the Western church adopted March 25th and the Eastern church April 6th.
Is December 25th Jesus’ birthday?
At this point, you may be asking what does this have to do with Christmas? The answer: ”it doesn’t…at least not yet.” You see, for early Christians, the date of Jesus’ birth was not as important to the liturgical calendar as was the Easter celebration. Nonetheless, there were those who did suggest a date for the birth of Jesus.
There was a tradition, not supported by the Bible, that great Prophets died on the same day they were conceived. This was known as the idea of the “integral age.” According to William Tighe, it seems this idea was widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ and was adopted by early Christians.1 Applying the notion of integral age to Jesus, if he died on March 25th or April 6th then he must have been conceived on either date. Human pregnancies are generally 9 months…what is 9 months from either date? December 25th and January 6th.
It should be noted before moving on that the date of December 25th is likely not the real date of Jesus’ birth. The reason is simple: in AD 30 or AD 33, the accepted dates of Jesus’ death, the Friday before Passover did not fall on March 25th. Also, there is no evidence to suggest the notion of “integral age” is accurate. It appears to be merely symbolic. Nonetheless, this is an accurate historical account of how the date for Jesus’ birth was determined, but notice that only answers part of the question for us. Yes, the church had a date established but was it also a date they celebrated in the liturgical calendar? To answer, let’s look at the next question.
Is Christmas a Co-opted Pagan Holiday?
The claim that Christmas is either a pagan holiday or was selected as a date to co-opt a pagan holiday, centers around the festival of Sol Invictus – the celebration of the unconquered Sun. It is true that there was ritual worship of the Sun in Roman times. But it should be noted that the connection of any festival to the winter Solstice – the time of year where the sunlight begins to lengthen in the day – did not occur until the Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted it around AD 274. Cult worship of the Sun reached its zenith under Aurelian and it was he who established the date for the festival as December 25th. It should also be noted that Aurelian was no fan of Christianity and it seems very likely that he chose that date because it was significant to Christians – not the other way around.
We know the date for Jesus’ birth was determined very early on in the church’s history but it was not necessarily celebrated until later. Tighe notes that the first reference connecting Jesus’ birth to a feast comes from around AD 380 from a sermon of St. John Chrysostom.2 If we were relying on this evidence alone, then it would be difficult to say Christmas was not established as a response to the pagan festival. However, regardless of when it began to be more formally celebrated in the church, it is safe to assume the date of December 25th as the birth of Jesus was set long before that same date was chosen as the festival of Sol Invictus. When it began to be a more formal celebration in the church is not known. But December 25th was a date determined by the Church very early on because they were more concerned with when Jesus died, not because they were trying to co-opt pagan worship of the Sun.
So was Jesus born on December 25th? “Yes” in the sense that it is evident the early church came to accept Jesus was born on December 25th very early on. But “probably not” in the sense that we can also be fairly certain it wasn’t the actual day he was born. Also, it is quite evident that the church did not establish this liturgical date in order to co-opt a pagan festival of the Sun. The dating of December 25th existed long before Sol Invictus became an official Roman festival. Thus, it is safe to say the celebration of Christmas, at least the timing of it in the calendar year, is free from pagan influences. This still leaves the question of “how” we celebrate Christmas on the table of the pagan/Christian debate. But this question will have to wait for another time.
1William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25th.” https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v