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December 25 ... The rest of the story

SoVaNow.com / December 19, 2013
Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25?

For the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn’t even on the calendar. If it was observed at all, the birth of Christ was combined with Epiphany (Jan. 6).

In the first and second centuries none of the early Christian writers even mention celebrating the birth of Jesus. Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) even went so far as to scoff at Roman celebrations of birthdays, calling them “pagan.” It’s hardly likely that the celebration of Jesus’ birth would have taken place in such a negative atmosphere.

When Christians finally got around to even thinking about the date of Jesus’ birth, there was naturally little agreement. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20 but others held out for April 18, April 19, May 28, Jan. 2, Nov. 17 or Nov. 20. One scholar argued for March 21, because for some bizarre reason he’d figured that was the precise date on which God had created the sun.

Jesus’ birth date is contentious because celebrations of his birth are nowhere mentioned in the Gospels or Acts. There is no date given, not even the season of the year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth might suggest Spring, but in colder weather the sheep might well have been sheltered. For these and many other reasons, most Biblical scholars warn of the hazards of trying to ferret an exact date from a story whose focus is theological rather than historical.

Dec. 25 was finally settled on as early as 273. One reason for the choice was that the date coincided with several pre-existing pagan festivals: for instance, the Roman Natalis Solis Invicti, created in 274 by the Roman emperor Aurelian, was held on Dec. 25. It celebrated the birth of the “Unconquered Sun.” The date was also the birthday of the Iranian god Mithras, a deity Roman soldiers were particularly fond of. Both of these were among the many Winter solstice festivals that had already been held for countless centuries in many different cultures. The solstice, which occurs on Dec. 21, marks the shortest day of the year, after which days become longer … for uncounted centuries a very good reason for celebration.

(The seasons are the result of the earth’s axis being tipped about 24 degrees. The result is that in the Summer, the northern hemisphere gets longer days and more direct sunlight, and in the Winter shorter days and less direct sunlight. The days on which daylight or night are at their shortest are called the solstices. The Winter solstice, for example, occurs on Dec. 21. When day and night are of equal length - which occurs in the Fall and Spring - we have the equinoxes. Which means, of course, that the reason for the season is astronomy.)

Just as Christians usurped the pagan Spring equinox festivals for Easter, they absorbed the pagan Winter solstice festival into their own. And even if this was not done deliberately, the early Christians were nevertheless following a long tradition of celebrating the solstice as a time of rebirth and a time when great things were expected to occur. Whether or not the early Christians did this consciously is a matter of debate among some scholars, but it’s almost moot. The point is that they chose those dates for precisely the same symbolic reasons the pagans had.

(Of course, in the centuries following, Christians did indeed deliberately usurp a great many pagan traditions, from solstice gift-giving and mistletoe to the Christmas tree.)

One of the earliest written mentions of Dec. 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from The Philocalian Calendar, a fourth century Roman list of the death dates of Christian bishops and martyrs. Dec. 25 reads: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

Christmas was first officially celebrated in western Europe on Dec. 25, 336. Eastern churches, however, clung to Jan. 6 as the date for Jesus’ birth and his baptism. To this day there is disagreement about the actual dates on which to celebrate Jesus’ birth and baptism. The modern Armenian church, for instance, continues to celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6 (because it was calculated that Jesus must have been conceived on April 6, which is nine months before Jan. 6).

Deciding on a specific date for Jesus’ birth has been a game that has occupied theologians - professional and amateur - for centuries. All have their pet theories which they support with reams of convoluted evidence and calculations. Of course, all attempts to fix a specific date for the birth of Jesus are based almost entirely on conjecture and the personal agenda of whoever is doing the calculating. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Around 200, Tertullian of Carthage figured that the date of the Jesus’ crucifixion was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman calendar. This is exactly nine months before Dec. 25. This led to the date becoming the Feast of the Annunciation, commemorating Jesus’ conception. Therefore, according to Tertullian, Jesus had been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year, not because there was any historical or biblical evidence for this but rather because it made things tidy theologically.

Another early authority agreed with Tertullian, stating that “…our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the calends 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.” The author concludes from this that Jesus was born on the winter solstice.

St. Augustine agreed, writing that Jesus “is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered… But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25.” Even Augustine admitted that the Dec. 25 date was entirely arbitrary.

In any case, more or less by compromise, we ultimately have Jesus being supposedly conceived in the Spring (March 25 or April 6) and being born near the Winter solstice (Dec. 25 or Jan. 6), a difference of scarcely two weeks. Both agree that the date of his conception and the date of the crucifixion coincide. This idea is largely derived from ancient Jewish Talmudic tradition in which creation and redemption occur at the same date. This means that the dates chosen for Jesus’ birth and crucifixion were chosen more by theological necessity and the forces of tradition than any verifiable historical evidence. However, it can hardly be a coincidence, either, that the date chosen for the birth of Jesus just happened to be that of a traditional celebration of the reappearance of the sun and the promise of a new year to come, and the date for his death and resurrection a traditional celebration of rebirth as the northern hemisphere blossoms into Spring.

So the answer to the question, Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25?, would seem to be that it is the result of a mixture of astrology, numerology, Judeo-Christian theology and pagan tradition.

Ron Miller
South Boston


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