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Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25?

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Around Christmas time every year, many people reflect on the birth of Jesus, and ask, "why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th?" This is a great question, but unfortunately many of the answers provided online are high on bluster, but low on accuracy. On one side, many fundamentalist Christmas-haters come out of the woodwork to prove that Christmas is pagan, and that those who celebrate it are "dabbling in paganism." On the other side, many skeptics vocally attack the origins of Christmas in an effort to discredit the holiday and Christianity itself. I have visited the forums and websites, and heard the arguments against Christmas, arguments which seem at least somewhat plausible on the surface, but is there anything to them?

Nativity (Christmas) Icon

Before I get into the history of the traditional Christmas date, I want to briefly state why I am not convinced by the arguments that Christmas is pagan. Philosophically, I do not accept the basic logic that leads one to conclude Christian holidays can even be "pagan." For example, I don't really believe a calendar date can be "good" or "evil": they are morally neutral.

Why is it that no day can really be "pagan," as some fundamentalists and some skeptics claim? Well, Christians believe that God created everything, including space and time, and while I am interested in non-Christian holiday celebrations from the past because of my interest in history, I don't attach too much significance to what a non-Christian celebrated thousands of years ago. Some pagan somewhere celebrated something every day of the year; it's a fact! Also, I don't believe a practice can be pagan either. I believe a practice can be wrong, and one reason it can be wrong is that it is anti-Christian, but just because a pagan originally did something, doesn't necessarily mean it cannot be appropriated by Christians. After all, Christians and pagans share beliefs and practices in common, and it is uncharitable and uncritical to immediately dismiss a belief or practice simply because a pagan believed or practiced it in the past. When I put up a Christmas tree, I do so to honor Christ and his incarnation, even if non-Christians had a similar practice thousands of years ago. This is not a weird concept: many Jewish holidays and practices (e.g. Purim and the resurrection of the body) were borrowed from the Jews' pagan neighbors and conquerors. Do I think any less of the resurrection of the dead simply because Persians happened to believe in it before Jews and Christians did? No. As far as I know, God doesn't run a patent office whereby if a pagan did something (like take a tree inside his house during the winter), it can never be used in the future by Christians for Christian purposes.

At any rate, I am still convinced that Christians chose the date of December 25th for Christian reasons, not pagan ones, although when devising the Church calendar, ancient Christians probably countered a few pagan celebrations along the way. Sure, Christmas is not celebrated in Scripture, but the nativity stories, forming the basis of the celebration of Christmas, are recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, as a historian, I have never found this to be a distressing matter. The Church was developing, and determining its own separate way from Judaism during the first century AD, and as this happened, Christians began developing their own calendar apart from the Jewish feasts, feasts whose celebration was not required of Gentile converts to the Church.

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I do not intend to provide a detailed description of the history of Christmas or an in-depth analysis of each of the theories about Christmas listed below; this would be well beyond the scope of this article. This essay is not intended to address the issue of when Jesus was actually born, but rather, I am interested in exploring reasons why Christians chose December 25th to celebrate Christ's birth, although based on the theories below, it is certainly plausible that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. Basically, I want to provide an overview of recent historical scholarship regarding the origins of Christmas that suggests that the date of Christmas was chosen primarily for Christian reasons, as opposed to so-called pagan reasons. I have researched this topic for years, including while at graduate school, but was motivated to write this article after I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Dr. Joseph F. Kelly of John Carroll University at the Ohio Catholic Education Association conference this year.

Before I get into Dr. Kelly's work, and explain the choice of December 25th, I should note that multiple early Christian writers speculated on the date of the birth of Jesus, and reached different conclusions about both the date, and its significance. Origen of Alexandria (d. 254 AD) was not concerned with the date of the birth of Jesus, considering it unimportant. Origen's teacher, Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 AD) recorded that some Christians of the time placed his birth date in April (see Stromata I:21). Hippolytus (d. 236 AD) may have believed that Jesus was born on April 2nd, but there is also evidence he believed Jesus was born on December 25th (see below). Thus, in the early Church, there was no fixed date for the celebration of Christmas across the entire Church, or even agreement as to when Jesus was born. The current date of the celebration of Christmas, like the final decision on the canon of Scripture, took hundreds of years to become established throughout the entire Church.

According to Dr. Kelly's research, summarized in his books The Origins of Christmas, and The World of the Early Christians, the main reason early Christians chose December 25th for the date of Christmas relates to two significant and symbolic dates: the date of the creation of the world, and the vernal equinox. According to some Christians, both events happened on March 25th. Early Christian writer Sextus Julius Africanus (220 AD) speculated that the world was created on March 25th, based on his chronology of Jewish and Christian history, presumably contained in his Chronographia. So he suggested that Christ became incarnate on that date; this makes perfect symbolic sense, since at the Incarnation, the new creation began. According to Julius, since the Word of God became incarnate from the moment of his conception, this meant that, after 9 months in the Virgin Mary's womb, Jesus was born on December 25. The anonymous author of the work De Pascha Computus, likely written in the 3rd century, and attributed to Cyprian, too speculated the world was created on March 25th. However, since the sun was created on the fourth day of creation, the author speculates that Christ was born on March 28th, not March 25th. Thus, unlike Julius, this author conceives of Christ's incarnation beginning at Christ's birth, rather than his conception. How did this anonymous author reach his conclusions about the date of creation? Based on a synthesis of the time of Passover, the vernal equinox, and a prophecy from Malachi about the "Sun of Righteousness." While the scope of the influence of Julius and the anonymous author of De Pascha Computus upon their peers is unknown, nonetheless, we encounter reasons why the date of December 25th was chosen for the birth date of Jesus that are rooted in Christian thought.

According to Get Religion, Hippolytus of Rome, writing around 225 AD, close to the time of Julius, may also mention the date of Christmas as December 25 ("eight days before the kalends of January"), in Commentary on Daniel. However, there is debate as to whether this line is genuine, or an interpolation in the genuine text of Hippolytus. The best manuscripts of Hippolytus mention both December 25th and April 2nd as possible dates for the birth of Jesus, although the latter could refer to his conception, which would then place his birth in December. In addition to Kelly's books, The Origins of the Liturgical Year provides much insight into the speculation discussed here.

There are other good, Jewish, Christian, and biblical reasons why Christians chose the date of December 25th. One is based on the estimated date of the death of Jesus, which some early Christians speculated happened on Friday, March 25th. Incidentally, this is historically impossible, since March 25th would not have been a Friday the year Jesus likely died. Nonetheless, based on the Jewish idea of the "integral age," that great prophets were conceived on the same date as their death, these early Christian writers thought that Jesus, who died on March 25th, was also conceived that date. Again, if we assume nine months in the womb, this means he was born on December 25th. The work De Solstitia et Aequinoctia Conceptionis et Nativitatis Nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae, falsely attributed to John Chrysostom, supports this view:

Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth day of the kalends of April in the month of March, which is the day of the passion of the Lord, and of his conception. For on the day he was conceived, on the same day he suffered (quoted in Stuhlman, Redeeming the Time).

Scholar William Tighe makes a strong case for his theory in his essay Calculating Christmas, which is apparently similar to arguments made by Louis Duchesne and Andre Wilmart years earlier. This line of speculation was occurring about the same time other Christians were speculating about the date of Christ's birth based on the date of creation. Perhaps this interest in December 25th among early Christians is because they were already celebrating Christmas on this date?

Yet another reason for choosing the date of December 25 is advanced by 4th century bishop and writer Saint John Chrysostom. According to this article from the North County Times, John Chrysostom reasoned:

Luke 1 says Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist. During the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Mary learned about her conception of Jesus and visited Elizabeth "with haste."

The 24 classes of Jewish priests served one week in the Temple, and Zechariah was in the eighth class. Rabbinical tradition fixed the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 and, calculating backward from that, Zechariah's class would have been serving Oct. 2-9 in 5 B.C. So Mary's conception visit six months later might have occurred the following March and Jesus' birth nine months afterward.

Thus, for John Chrysostom, the date of December 25 was based on Scripture and Jewish tradition. While it is possible John was mistaken, this demonstrates that Christians at the time were choosing the dates of feasts based on Scripture, not paganism.

David Morrison explains yet another possibility, again providing a rationale for the choice of December 25:

The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary "in the sixth month" of the Jewish year...that is, in Adar (our February/March). Count nine months for the pregnancy and you come to Kislev (our November/December). According to some Church Fathers, Jesus was born during Channukah. Therefore, Jesus Christ was born of the Holy Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judaea in the Jewish month of Kislev (December) during the Festival of Lights. And I say likely on what is December 25th.

Christmas Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, photographed by David Bennett

So, we have multiple reasons why ancient Christians chose December 25th as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. And while we may not agree with the reasoning behind the choice of December 25th, nonetheless, there are no pagan conspiracies at work, and no evil machinations of the emperor Constantine, just solid Christian symbolic reasoning. This is not surprising, considering Christians of the time were very concerned about the influence of paganism, and took great pains (even giving their lives) to avoid worshiping or celebrating non-Christian gods. Besides, virtually every historical and Apostolic Christian church celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25 (those using the Gregorian calendar that is), and it is highly unlikely every Church in every region caved into pagan influence so readily. While all of these explanations are certainly subject to questions and certain criticisms, they certainly are worth exploring.

At this point, you may be asking, "but wasn't Christmas chosen to counter pagan festivals?" Well, yes, in a sense, but not in the same way that the anti-Christmas crowd claims. According to Dr. Kelly, Christians of the late third and early fourth centuries had been engaged in a propaganda war with pagans since the Emperor Aurelian established the Sol Invictus, the feast of the unconquered Sun, on December 25th. For Christians, Jesus is the true Sun, the Sun of Righteousness (a title derived from Malachi 4:2). In fact, Aurelian may have established the Sol Invictus because of the rising popularity of Christianity, and may have established the date of the Sol Invictus in response to Christian celebrations already occurring that day! Since Christians probably accounted for ten percent of the population of Rome at the time, this is not far-fetched in the least.

Kelly also explains the connection of Christmas to the Saturnalia feast of ancient Rome. Many websites claim that Christmas is really just the Saturnalia festival dressed up. According to Kelly, since the festival of Saturnalia always ended at the latest on December 23, the claim that Christmas was chosen to coincide with Saturnalia is rather weak. However, since the celebration of Saturnalia occurred around Christmas time, it is very possible that this made December 25th, already celebrated by many Christians as Christ's birth because of Jewish and Christian reasons, even more of an ideal date, because it offered an alternative to the popular Saturnalia festival in Rome.

This, of course, brings up the issue of the relationship between Christian feasts and pagan ones, and we must ask, "is there anything wrong with Christians borrowing some practices and concepts from pagan festivals?" The Catholic and Orthodox answers are "no." Did Christians put an end to every Saturnalia custom? Probably not. Did some Saturnalia customs become associated with the Christmas feast because the dates of the festivals were close to one another? Certainly. However, Christians took these customs, baptized them as Christian, and now these customs honor the true Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ. Additionally, Saturnalia was celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year, and it signifies the lengthening of days, i.e. the approach of warmer and brighter days of springtime. Thus, there is rich Christian symbolism of light and renewal associated with choosing a Christmas date so close to the winter solstice.

In conclusion, December 25th was an ideal date to celebrate Christ's birth for a variety of Christian reasons, even if "pagan" reasons may have played a role in the date's choice as well. While we will never be completely certain of the exact date of Christ's birth, nonetheless the whole world knows that on December 25, Christians from all over the world celebrate the birth of the Sun of Righteousness, Immanuel, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is based on two articles originally appearing on the Per Christum Blog: Christmas is Pagan? Hardly: The Origins of Christmas by the author, and Saint John Chrysostom: Yet Another Theory on the Date of Christmas by Fr. J.

Page last updated 12-01-2012

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