Why do Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th, a known pagan holiday?
The Winter Solstice
December 25th is the winter solstice. For most of the northern hemisphere, it is the day with the smallest amount of sunlight that there’ll be all year. Most Bible scholars agree that this was not likely Jesus’ date of birth but rather they suggest it was in September. Some believe the date was coupled with what is called “the epiphany” which was among the first feasts of the Christian church. It is also called the “Three Kings Day” or “Twelfth Day” which was observed on January 6th. Epiphany means “manifestation” and in this context, it was the manifestation of Jesus as both Man and God where the Word became flesh and dwelt with mankind (John 1:1-3, 14). Apparently the early church had the idea that there were three kings who brought gifts to Jesus but the number of kings or wise men (magi) were never numbered. Only the gifts they brought were counted, being gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Why December 25th?
When the angel of the Lord announced to the shepherds who were out in the fields at night, he said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The fact the shepherds were out there at night suggests that this announcement couldn’t have come in late December in Judea but rather closer to September, but even here, we cannot say with precision. It may have been the spring lambing season, when the new lambs were often born. This would make sense of the shepherds living out in the fields at night because during the lambing season, that’s what they typically did in Judea.
The first observance of Christmas may have been around AD 273 but it appears that the Roman church set the date “officially” to observe December 25th in AD 335, at least by the Western Christian churches, so December 25th was decided sometime during the fourth century by church bishops in Rome but did the church take over and confiscate the winter solstice and turn it into a Christmas holiday or “holy day” which is what the word holiday means? Some are convinced that this was an attempt to Christianize these popular pagan celebrations. All we know for sure is that December 25th is the date which the Western Roman Empire celebrated Christmas but it was January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor).
Perhaps the loudest arguments are that Christians borrowed from pagan celebrations and the one that was on December 25th was the biggest one of the year for most. That’s when the Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival but for the barbarian peoples of northern and Western Europe, they also kept festivals at similar times. In AD 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of “the birth of Sol Invictus” (or, “the Unconquered Sun”), on December 25th so most believed that Christians just spun off their Christmas holiday from that. Some believe they did it in the hopes that the pagans would accept their holiday in place of their own pagan one, thus converting some. They reasoned that since Christians didn’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, they might as well use this date because it already had lots of feasts going on during that day. The problem with this is that church history is silent about any Christmas observation on December 25th before AD 250-300, and at that time, the church was focused on withdrawing from the world and that would’ve included any pagan holiday dates. Pope Gregory the Great did write a letter in AD 601 to a Christian missionary working in Britain and he asked that the local pagan temples should not be destroyed but instead, they should be converted into churches. If the missionary knew of any pagan festivals celebrated on certain dates, they should be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. The truth is we don’t have concrete evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, which was the time when the date for Christmas was established. In the end, it seems highly unlikely that December 25th was simply selected to correspond with a pagan solar festival.
Christians don’t celebrate a day or a month; they celebrate the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords and Savior for all those who repent and trust in Christ. To repent means to turn away and forsake their sins, not just be sorry for them. It’s leaving them behind and turning away from them and turning to God and placing their trust in Christ. Jesus says you have only one of two options: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.