Why Christmas is on December 25

Biblical Archaeology Review has a good scholarly discussion of why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. And it is evidently NOT because it was superimposed on a pagan holiday:

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly. . . .

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. . . . In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E. . . . .

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

The article goes on to document other ancient sources that associate the day of Jesus’s conception with the day of His death, going back to rabbinic Jewish texts that make similar connections.

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.

  • inexile

    Thank you for posting this Dr. Veith. That the ancients would have connected Christ’s birth and death together in such a profound way has so much more meat on the bone than the connection of His birth to a pagan festival does. It strikes me as having some of the same “doctrine vs. mission” approach to things that we struggle with today, ie. what will appeal to the pagans vs. what will proclaim Christ crucified. I’m anxious to chew on this bone some more.

  • Mike

    I wonder why we so love Christmas when our American spiritual ancestors, the Puritans, hated it so?

    From the records of the General Court,
    Massachusetts Bay Colony
    May 11, 1659

    “For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    This is a fascinating piece of analysis. At the very least it puts a large question mark over the facile dismissal of Christmas as a “pagan holiday.”

    I’ve got one Fundamentalist man in our subdivision who makes a point each year of putting a letter in everyone’s door that has Christmas lights up, basically chewing us out for celebrating a pagan festival and telling us we need to be truly converted.

    Our yard features white lights, and a creche illuminated with a floodlight that casts a huge shadow of the manager, Mary, Joseph and Christ on the front of our house. Kind of hard to miss it.

    I wrote him back and invited him to reconsider his self-righteous legalism and told him how much I was offended. Of course, I heard nothing back.

    For these people, it is more about pushing their Fundy agenda than any sincere interest in the people to whom they are “making their testimony.”

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I love this stuff. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Joe

    That is really great stuff. Its very interesting to think about.

  • Jonathan

    Where can we find out more about the connection between Jesus’ conception and his death being on the same date?

  • http://www.geneveith.com geneveith

    Jonathan, I blogged on this a year or so ago, citing a specific scholarly article that explains the connection in rabbinic lore between the day a prophet was conceived (notice that for the ancient Jews and Christians life begins at conception!) and the day the prophet dies: http://www.geneveith.com/why-christmas-is-on-december-25/_183/

  • http://www.geneveith.com geneveith

    Mike, for this you can blame or praise us Lutherans! What wrest the holiday from the grip of the Puritans was the influence of German and Scandinavian Lutheran immmigrants. Even in England, the holiday took its Dickensian form when the German House of Hanover assumed the throne and even more so when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Germany and adopted his Christmas customs.

  • Peter Leavitt

    The Puritans were mistaken in their austerity about Christmas and other holidays, Fortunately in New England the people came to good sense on this issue, as well as on music.

    Our family had the pleasure of a boat trip along the Rhine during Christmas season that focused on the wonderful outdoor Christkindl markets. The German people, for all their modern secularity, know how to celebrate the birth of Christ.

  • Joe

    Lets not be to hard on the Puritans – as I understand it their concern was that such a heavy focus on the birth would erode the importance of his death and resurection. I think history has borne out the truth of this fear. Of course their reaction may have been harsh – teaching and preaching is the correct salve for the problem.

  • Dan Kempin

    Veith #8,

    Another example of the tremendous cultural influence exerted by the German empire before WWI. It seems that a lot of these connections were largely expurgated after the two great wars.

  • Karin

    I am unclear how His birth was in winter if indeed they traveled the way the Bible states. It is also winter in Bethlehem.

  • Dan Kempin

    Karin,

    Winter in Bethlehem is very similar to winter in southern California.

  • Steve Schaper

    There is more to this. We know when Zachariah’s division served in the Temple. We know that John the Baptist was conceived after he got home. We know that after Gabriel visited Mary, she went to Elizabeth her cousin, John’s mother, who was in her sixth month of pregnancy. This gives us a time frame for Christ’s birth of late December, and perhaps early January. VP Paul Maier may have something on this.

    I believe it was Peter Kreeft who has his character Socrates say at one point “Easter doesn’t come at springtime, Spring comes at Eastertime.” Our planet’s northern hemisphere seasons are fairly insignificant compared to the eternal God. . .

  • Carl Vehse

    In his December 24, 2007, thread, Dr.Veith refers to the article of Roman Catholic professor, William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas”, which appeared in the December 2003 issue of Touchstone magazine. As noted in the first comment from the 2007 thread:

    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.

  • http://mikesnow.org sdcougar

    Dan Kempin said:
    Veith #8,

    “Another example of the tremendous cultural influence exerted by the German empire before WWI. It seems that a lot of these connections were largely expurgated after the two great wars.”

    Read the wonderful descriptions of the Christmas truce in 1914 in soldiers’ letters to home, here:
    http://www.christmastruce.co.uk/

  • Steve

    It’s the theory of integral age, in which it was believed that various saints died and were born on the same day. So, if it was the case for the saints, then why not the Christ?

    Carl Vehse (#15) refers to the Touchstone article, which elaborates on this point. It’s a very intriguing article, and an important point made, since many critics love to lambaste Christians on the whole “You’re just copying the sun worshippers” theme.

  • Susan

    This really is something to think about; but I have been given to understand that Christ may well have been born during the Feast of Tabernacles, when He came to ‘tabernacle’ among us.

    Personally I’m not that concerned about Jesus’ actual birthdate. I love the trees, lights, gifts, food and sacred and the older secular music. And of course my family. Sure, we could never have Easter without Christmas-but is it not Easter that verifies Christmas in the first place? :)

  • Susan

    This really is something to think about; but I have been given to understand that Christ may well have been born during the Feast of Tabernacles, when He came to ‘tabernacle’ among us.

    Personally I’m not that concerned about Jesus’ actual birthdate. I love the trees, lights, gifts, food and sacred and the older secular music. And of course my family. Sure, we could never have Easter without Christmas-but is it not Easter that verifies Christmas in the first place? :)

  • Booklover

    Thank you for posting this. All of my books, authored by Christians, state that it was a replacement of the pagan festivals. It’s good to have other information.(It didn’t bother me to have it replace pagan festivals–I love Christmas either way!)

  • Booklover

    I love Christmas, Mike #2, because the Christmas music loudly proclaims the gospel in shopping malls and Christmas school programs.

    In fact, I played for many Christmas school programs whose music more loudly proclaimed the gospel, and more beautifully, than some churches’ Christmas programs.

    I also love Christmas because it reminds us that Jesus is from heaven, salvation is a GIFT, over and against a time when many churches are preaching that it is something we earn or deserve if we act or behave rightly.

    I love Christmas because of the beauty of it. It reminds us of heavenly things and of eternal things and of things that really matter all the while the world is trying to pull us down with material matters.

  • Mike

    Gene, you are undoubtedly correct when you observe that the Lutheran and Anglican traditions guide our current observation of Christmas. And it was against these traditions that the Puritans were reacting to. As Perry Miller states it, the Puritans took that Augustinian strain of piety and rarefied it to the point where they sought the light of the gospel in its pure essence without any adornments. To do otherwise they regarded as “popery.”

    The larger question is, of course, what is the relationship between the gospel and culture? I must say that when I read the NT, it seems to me that the Puritans were on to something, but this question is now a dead letter. And so, we ponder the antecedents of Christmas and work overtime to put Christmas in a Christian cultural context. However, excepting a few isolated “nut cases,” as Rev. McCain appears to characterize it above, we never pause to reflect whether or not our cultural observation of Christmas (and other similar observations) has degenerated into the “days, months, and times” of Galatians 4:10. I’m not convinced that it has done so, but the fact that we don’t even pose the question seriously anymore says something.

  • Z

    http://www.bethlehemstar.net/

    slam, dunk. The star was on the 25 of Dec..who knew?

  • http://www.geneveith.com geneveith

    Mike,

    Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16 clearly say that Christians may or may not honor special days. It was the Puritans who passed judgment on their brothers saying that people mustn’t observe Christians. The book of Galatians, with its emphasis on Christian freedom in the Gospel, is certainly against the sort of regulations that many Puritans were so fond of. It isn’t that we have to “work overtime to put Christmas in a Christian cultural context.” Christmas IS the celebration of the birth of Christ and has been celebrated by the Christian church since the 300′s A.D. That the culture celebrates it is because the church has had a profound cultural influence. To uphold “the light of the gospel in its pure essence” could hardly forbid celebrating the birth of the Giver of that Gospel. And to pass laws against doing so, as the Puritans did, is surely in the realm of the Law, not the Gospel. I guess I don’t understand the objections.

  • Bruce Gee

    Well, it sure appears to be a pagan holiday now, heehee.
    I had thought that was just Aurelian’s Revenge.

  • Mike

    Gene,

    I certainly don’t have to agree with the Puritans (I don’t in many respects) to understand their concerns. They emerged from a state church that had all the “smells and bells” without any substance. In their minds, form had replaced content. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it can be, as history has shown over and over again. And does our culture celebrate the birth of Christ as a result of the influence of the church, or has the culture co-opted Christmas and sacrificed it for a bowl of materialistic and ceremonial pottage? I know what you think, and I know what the Puritans thought, and I’m willing to ponder both alternatives. On Christmas morning, our family will open presents and partake of a wonderful meal. But to not “understand the objections” is to not understand the Puritans, and to not understand the Puritans is to not understand American history, or at least so thought Perry Miller.

  • John

    The Puritans stood against the Christmas celebrations because they saw the debauchery that was taking place by the people observing it. So, they were not against the idea of celebrating the Savior’s birth, but rather the drunkenness and other lude and crude things. They decided to just get rid of it since it just tends to bring the worst out in people. I’m not saying that there are not those who do not celebrate with a pure heart, but let’s be honest, by far Christmas is a commercial endeavor. The numbers don’t lie. That, and I don’t think Jesus would ever lie to a child about a person who has god-like powers who can tell if you are naughty and nice and has flying reindeer. I celebrate Christmas, but I won’t lie to my little girl about Santa. I celebrate Christmas, but I’m not going to have a birthday celebration where everyone exchanges gifts except for the one Who’s birthday it is. I’m not saying we should not share gifts, but if you really want to give to Jesus then the bulk of your time and money should be spent on Him. Give the biggest and most lavish gifts to the widow, the orphan, the poor.

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  • http://bibleclassified.com/ Paul Drockton

    great site for christan dating!


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