The reason we celebrate Christmas at all should be obvious: The birth of Christ in the “fullness of time” of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the most significant event in human history. Despite secularist efforts to change how we reckon time, even our calendar is divided by what occurred “Before Christ” and after Christ, “in the year of the Lord.”
But why December 25th? And when did the Church work this into her own liturgical calendar? After all, the Bible is far from clear on the point.
The conventional explanation is that December 25th was chosen by the Church as a means of “baptizing” the pagan worship in ancient Rome and thereby evangelize the culture. It is true that on December 25, 274 A.D. the Roman emperor Aurelian declared the sun god the principal patron of the empire. This gave rise to the feast of Sol Invictus, or the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. The date fall on the Winter Solstice, which of course would be fitting to celebrate the birth of the sun.
And so the common view is the Church adopted this date for the feast day of the birth of Jesus in the fourth century. Christians of all generations have understood Christ to be the “light of the world,” the “Sun of Justice,” and “morning star,” so selecting this date would be in essence a counterpoint to paganism. If that in fact is the case, that doesn’t render Christmas a “pagan feast.” But rather than pursue that line of discussion, the more interesting question to me is whether in fact this is really how it all came about.
For one thing, there is evidence that the early Church was interested in the date of Jesus’ birth quite apart from pagan feasts. There was a widespread belief among Jews of Jesus’ day that great prophets were born or conceived on the same day on which they died. This belief carried over into the early Church.
There were two competing dates in the early Church as to when Jesus actually died on the Cross. The Jewish calendar date of 14 Nisan translates to April 6th in the Greek solar calendar and March 25th on the Roman calendar. Early on, the second date won out, and the feast of the Annunciation–which marks the date of Jesus’ conception by the power of the Holy Spirit–was established on March 25th. Yet we still see the effects of the two separate traditions.
The East celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6th, the West chose December 25th, which as noted above are nine months after the calculated date of the Passion of Jesus and thus the date of His conception. Eventually East-West cross-pollination brought us December 25th as Christmas and January 6th as the Feast of the Epiphany.
The belief of the early Church that Jesus was conceived the same day He suffered may well have played a key role in dating the Nativity on December 25th. The idea is best attested in the Church in North Africa where Tertullian asserted that Jesus’ conception took place on March 25. The idea is echoed a century later in an anonymous North African treatise called On Solstices and Equinoxes where March 25th is again put forth as the day the Lord was conceived.
In De Trinitate, no less an authority than St. Augustine wrote, “Jesus is believed to have been conceived on March 25, upon which day he also suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried . . . but he was born according to tradition, on December 25.”
This treatise by Augustine can be dated to about 400. But it is unlikely that Augustine believed this “tradition” of December 25th to have been established in his own lifetime. In other writings of his against the Donatists, he mentions that they remained attached to Christmas festivals on December 25 while they rejected January 6 as an innovation. Since the Donatists were fierce “ultra-traditionalists” of their day who came about as a result of the Diocletian persecutions of around 312, it is likely that the December 25th date was well established by then. If this is true, the date of Christmas did not arise in response to paganism.
Other factors support this theory as well. Aurelian’s establishment of the birth of the Sun feast at the Winter Solstice was a type a pan pagan revival to unify the various cults around a common holiday and thus shore up divisions and decay within the empire. Of the various cults then in existence many such as Persian-based Mithraism had a devotion to the sun. None however had any record of a feast associated with the Winter Solstice. This feast appears to be an innovation of Aurelian himself and it is not unthinkable that he adopted it to co-opt Christmas, even though there are no explicit records of Christmas being celebrated as a liturgical feast in 270 A.D.
While this point merits further research, in the first centuries of her history the Church was not in the habit of “baptizing” pagan customs. Rather, the pastoral priority was to draw a sharp division between paganism and Christianity, the latter being a persecuted minority religion that could only survive by jealously guarding its identity. The pattern of “baptizing” pagan practices did not generally arise until after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire later in the fourth century.
And of course, a source no less than St. John Chrysostom advanced the date of December 25th based on elaborate calcuations stemming from Zechariah’s priestly service in the Temple as described in Luke 1.
But I guess regardless of how the feast eventually ended up on December 25th, whether on biblical or historical calculations, or because of the Winter Solstice or to co-opt a pagan feast, the key is that all Christians, from very early times, have known full well what–or Whom–we celebrate on Christmas. May we remain focused on Him as we prepare yet again for His coming into the world.
As an endnote, I just wanted to mention my indebtedness to Eric Stoutz’ without whose research this post wouldn’t have been possible. Eric is one of our senior information specialists at CUF, and whenever CUF members have any question whatsoever regarding Church teaching or practice, Eric or one of his colleagues is there to provide solid Catholic responses. CUF members should send their questions to www.cuf.org.