Enough of the war on calendars

December CalendarI am glad Young Master Pulliam cited the story below, which properly states that the “War on Christmas” was — and is — waged most furiously by some Calvinists. But there was a doozie of a problem with it:

Although no one knows when Jesus was born, his birth was celebrated on Dec. 25 in Rome as early as AD 336 as an ascendant Roman Catholic Church preempted the pagan celebrations. Most Eastern Orthodox churches later accepted that date too, although the Armenian church retains Jan. 6.

“It’s the way Europe got Christianized. The pope would write letters to the bishops saying let them keep doing what they are doing as long as they change the name,” said Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and author of “The Battle for Christmas,” which traces the evolution of the holiday.

I realize this is a popular notion. I realize this is a widely held belief. But it should not be inserted into stories on blind faith. The theory is only a few centuries old and widely trumpeted by those who thought the liturgical calendar was a bad thing. But the important thing is that there is another, older theory. And one that explains, unlike the Saturnalia theory, why the Eastern and Western church have similar but different dates for Christmas. Here’s the Associated Press’ Richard Ostling from last year, thankfully still online:

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, [William] Tighe [, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College] said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

And the reason why the Eastern church celebrated, and some still celebrate, Christ’s birth on January 6 was because they were using different calendars.

Sorry to go off on this, but this Saturnalia theory is just one of those things that belongs more in a Dan Brown novel than a news story.

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  • http://raphael.doxos.com Huw Raphael

    The existence of multiple theories of origin is rather important: did the date of Christmas evolve from the Satunalia or was the Church’s calendar designed with some intelligence to offer some teaching in its very structure? (I’ve sometimes heard the Orthodox calendar referred to as a teaching icon.)

    I’m glad to see even some older media (still online) offering alternative theories since, as with other issues, it may be impossible to validate one over the others.

  • Mark Vassilakis

    The first quote betrays the pervasive lack of historical knowledge among American Protestants. It is an anachronism to speak about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denominations in the fourth century.

  • http://u2sermons.blogspot.com Beth

    Thanks for posting on something that needs to be much more widely understood. Anyone who wants to do deeper reading on the calendar issue might pick up Thomas Talley’s “Origins of the Liturgical Year.” His calendar calculations are much more persuasive than the Dan Browny, makes-a-good-story theory which is far too often treated as fact. (However, to be almost ridiculously technical, if I’m not mistaken, I think the putative preempted feast current after the 3rd c. in the Roman Empire was Sol Invictus, a single day which came after the Saturnalia week ended…)

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  • Eric Phillips

    Interested folks can find William Tighe’s article on this subject at:


  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Rather good luck (or bad luck depending on your view) that Christ’s birthday landed on the same day as the Sol Invictus and Mithras birthday celebrations.

    Coming up with a good reasoning for a Judeo-Christian origin for December 25th doesn’t erase the political and evangelical considerations no doubt on the minds of those figuring the dates. It certainly doesn’t make those talking of the influence of pre-Christian celbrations on Christian holidays Dan Brown-esque conspiracy theorists.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    If you follow through to Tighe’s article, he shows that Christmas was likely celebrated on that date long before it became an official church holiday and that evidence suggests that it’s not coincidence that it shares the date with other celebrations — but not because Christians syncretized it. Read it to find out more.

    Also, it probably bears mentioning that most Christians couldn’t care how the date was chosen — it’s just important for reporters to get their facts straight.

  • Brad


    The way Mr. Ostling’s article reads, those *weren’t* pre-Christian holidays…it says that a writing by Hippolytus about Jesus’ birth being in December predated Aurelius’ creation of the holiday (which took place in 274).

    So, by those pieces of evidence, the traditional dates for Jesus’ birth were there before the Romans had their holiday, but Christians hadn’t started *celebrating* it until after that time.


  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters


    I did read the article, while the festival of Sol Invictus was created by Aurelius, the Hellenic celebration of the birthday of Mithras is much older. It is just as likely to say he was trying to steal some mojo from Mithras as he was from Jesus (the Mithras cult was quite popular at that time).

    Furthermore Tighe is quite open about the fact that there is no actual evidence that there were any liturgical celebrations on the 25th until long after the rule of Aurelius. He makes a good case that Christians might have acknowledged or believed Christ’s birth to be on the 25th but that no evidence exists that it was celebrated in any organized or widespread fashion. The emphasis was on Easter not Christmas.

    Personally I don’t care when Christians want to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. But this one historian doesn’t turn alternate points of view on the celebration of Christmas into anti-Christian Dan Brown clones.

  • http://geocities.com/Heartland/2964/homily-narniachristmas.html Fr. Phil Bloom

    Thanks for posting this. In *A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and the Liturgy Today* Cardinal Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict) has a learned discussion of how the Church Fathers arrived at December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth. The evidence points to the Annunciation date being determined first and the coincidence of Christmas with Mithras/Saturnalia being a happy (or unhappy) afterthought.

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  • http://suburbanbanshee.blogspot.com/ Maureen

    There’s a rather good scholarly book (can’t remember the title!) which talks about the various Roman pagan religious customs, and how the Christian church fit into them. The book pointed out that indeed, pagan Romans started incorporating Jewish and Christian customs into their rituals fairly early, but not so much the other way around. (Some of the “religious drinking and burying club” structures did come into Christianity, though.)

    And the best evidence showed that the date of the Mithra and Sol Invictus celebrations were chosen to try to syncretize Christmas celebrations into pagan religion, not the other way ’round.

    Ronald Hutton is another scholar with much to say about how many supposedly “ancient pagan” customs are actually Christian and recent. I highly recommend his book Stations of the Sun.

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