Why Christmas is on December 25

[From an old WORLD column]

According to conventional wisdom, Christmas had its origin in a pagan winter solstice festival, which the church co-opted to promote the new religion. In doing so, many of the old pagan customs crept into the Christian celebration. But this view is apparently a historical myth—like the stories of a church council debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or that medieval folks believed the earth is flat—often repeated, even in classrooms, but not true.

William J. Tighe, a history professor at Muhlenberg College, gives a different account in his article “Calculating Christmas,” published in the December 2003 Touchstone Magazine. He points out that the ancient Roman religions had no winter solstice festival.

True, the Emperor Aurelian, in the five short years of his reign, tried to start one, “The Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” on Dec. 25, 274. This festival, marking the time of year when the length of daylight began to increase, was designed to breathe new life into a declining paganism. But Aurelian’s new festival was instituted after Christians had already been associating that day with the birth of Christ. According to Mr. Tighe, the Birth of the Unconquered Sun “was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.” Christians were not imitating the pagans. The pagans were imitating the Christians.

The early church tried to ascertain the actual time of Christ’s birth. It was all tied up with the second-century controversies over setting the date of Easter, the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection. That date should have been an easy one. Though Easter is also charged with having its origins in pagan equinox festivals, we know from Scripture that Christ’s death was at the time of the Jewish Passover. That time of year is known with precision.

But differences in the Jewish, Greek, and Latin calendars and the inconsistency between lunar and solar date-keeping caused intense debate over when to observe Easter. Another question was whether to fix one date for the Feast of the Resurrection no matter what day it fell on or to ensure that it always fell on Sunday, “the first day of the week,” as in the Gospels.

This discussion also had a bearing on fixing the day of Christ’s birth. Mr. Tighe, drawing on the in-depth research of Thomas J. Talley’s The Origins of the Liturgical Year, cites the ancient Jewish belief (not supported in Scripture) that God appointed for the great prophets an “integral age,” meaning that they died on the same day as either their birth or their conception.

Jesus was certainly considered a great prophet, so those church fathers who wanted a Christmas holiday reasoned that He must have been either born or conceived on the same date as the first Easter. There are hints that some Christians originally celebrated the birth of Christ in March or April. But then a consensus arose to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25, as the Feast of the Annunciation, marking when the angel first appeared to Mary.
Note the pro-life point: According to both the ancient Jews and the early Christians, life begins at conception. So if Christ was conceived on March 25, nine months later, he would have been born on Dec. 25.

This celebrates Christ’s birth in the darkest time of the year. The Celtic and Germanic tribes, who would be evangelized later, did mark this time in their “Yule” festivals, a frightening season when only the light from the Yule log kept the darkness at bay. Christianity swallowed up that season of depression with the opposite message of joy: “The light [Jesus] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Regardless of whether this was Christ’s actual birthday, the symbolism works. And Christ’s birth is inextricably linked to His resurrection.

UPDATE:

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Carl Vehse

    So in summarizing – The early Church used John’s Gospel to determine the crucifixion date of 14 Nisan, according to the Jewish lunar calendar, which the Greek Christians translated to their calendar as 14 Artemision, and then around 300 AD the date was converted to April 6 (the year is now known to be 33 AD). However, according to Professor Tighe:

    “In contrast, second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29. (As an aside, I will note that this is impossible: 25 March 29 was not a Friday, and Passover Eve in A.D. 29 did not fall on a Friday and was not on March 25th, or in March at all.)”

    Then, with absolutely no Scriptural basis, a Jewish legend is used to connect the dates of Jesus’ death with his conception and birth. From the Jewish legend Jesus’ conception (and the Feast of Annunciation) is set at March 25 (the erroneous Latin date), and Jesus’ birth is set exactly nine months (rather than 40 weeks) later on December 25.

    No wonder Tighe concluded that December 25th “is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth”.

    Ironically, several RC websites reverse the explanation to note that the Feast of Annunciation occurs on March 25, exactly nine months before Jesus’ birth on December 25.

  • Carl Vehse

    So in summarizing – The early Church used John’s Gospel to determine the crucifixion date of 14 Nisan, according to the Jewish lunar calendar, which the Greek Christians translated to their calendar as 14 Artemision, and then around 300 AD the date was converted to April 6 (the year is now known to be 33 AD). However, according to Professor Tighe:

    “In contrast, second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29. (As an aside, I will note that this is impossible: 25 March 29 was not a Friday, and Passover Eve in A.D. 29 did not fall on a Friday and was not on March 25th, or in March at all.)”

    Then, with absolutely no Scriptural basis, a Jewish legend is used to connect the dates of Jesus’ death with his conception and birth. From the Jewish legend Jesus’ conception (and the Feast of Annunciation) is set at March 25 (the erroneous Latin date), and Jesus’ birth is set exactly nine months (rather than 40 weeks) later on December 25.

    No wonder Tighe concluded that December 25th “is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth”.

    Ironically, several RC websites reverse the explanation to note that the Feast of Annunciation occurs on March 25, exactly nine months before Jesus’ birth on December 25.

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  • E Kent

    While this addresses Rome’s pagan celebration of Dec. 25, it doesn’t sufficiently consider the pre-Christian origins of our Christmas traditions – including the date of the celebration – from northern European societies. I’d like to see contemporary citations supporting the “depressing” nature of their Yule. The viking sagas, for example, while admittedly post-conversion in their current form, suggest the pagan Yule was a time for merry socializing and sharing of winter stores. There is no question pre-Christian northern Europeans were intimately familiar with the sun’s annual path and would recognize the longest night of the year. Considering recent discoveries on how sophisticated these societies actually were, it seems unlikely they would mark this time by cowering in a primitive state of fear.

  • E Kent

    While this addresses Rome’s pagan celebration of Dec. 25, it doesn’t sufficiently consider the pre-Christian origins of our Christmas traditions – including the date of the celebration – from northern European societies. I’d like to see contemporary citations supporting the “depressing” nature of their Yule. The viking sagas, for example, while admittedly post-conversion in their current form, suggest the pagan Yule was a time for merry socializing and sharing of winter stores. There is no question pre-Christian northern Europeans were intimately familiar with the sun’s annual path and would recognize the longest night of the year. Considering recent discoveries on how sophisticated these societies actually were, it seems unlikely they would mark this time by cowering in a primitive state of fear.


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