Question: Is December 25 really the date of Christ’s birthday? Wasn’t Christmas invented by Christians to counter the pagan Roman sun festival? And aren’t a lot of Christmas symbols hold overs from pagan solstice celebrations?
The short answer to these questions is “no”. The date of Christ’s nativity was arrived at by means of a theological calendrical calculation. And some of the main symbols of Christmas originated in a Christian context.
Actually the emergence of the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“birthday of the unconquered Sun”) occurred at about the same time as the earliest references to Christian observance of the Nativity of Jesus. The use of the title Sol Invictus allowed several solar deities to be worshiped collectively, including Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; Sol, the god of Emperor Aurelian; and Mithras, a soldiers’ god of Persian origin. Emperor Elagabalus (218–222) introduced the festival, and it reached the height of its popularity under Emperor Aurelian (270–75), who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday. This day had no significance in the Roman festival calendar until it was introduced in the third century. The festival was placed on the date of the solstice because this was the day on which the sun reversed its southward retreat and proved itself to be “unconquered.”
Roman Imperial repoussé silver disc of Sol Invictus (3rd century), found at Pessinus (British Museum)
Several early Christian writers actually connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c. 215) mentions several possible dates of our Lord’s nativity, but December 25 isn’t among them. But later authors comment on the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the winter solstice. Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 250) wrote: “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born.” John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) also commented on the connection: “They call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as our Lord . . . ?” So what really happened is that the Nativity of the Unconquered Sun and the Nativity of Jesus the Christ, Son of God, collided on the same date—on which solstice festivals had been celebrated since time immemorial.
Site of the birth of Christ in the grotto of the 5th century Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The star (which looks like the disc of the sun) marks the spot.
A winter festival was the most popular festival of the year in many cultures. There was less agricultural work to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached. Yes, many Christmas customs are borrowed from pagan celebrations: gift giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; and Yule logs and various foods from Germanic feasts. Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late-December to early-January period. As northern Europe was the last part of Europe to be Christianized, its pagan traditions had a major influence on Christmas, giving us the Nordic Christmas Man and his reindeer. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the word Yule is also synonymous with Christmas.
But this does not mean that the festival of the Nativity of the “Sun of Righteousness” was invented to compete with the solstice festivals. And there are beloved Christmas symbols that originated in a Christian context.
The New Testament does not give a date for the birth of Jesus. In Chronographai, a reference work published in 221, Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox. The equinox was March 25 in the Roman calendar, so this implied a birth in December. But the reason behind this suggestion was a Christian elaboration of a Jewish spiritual reckoning of time. Jewish tradition held that the world was created at Passover time. Christians reasoned that the new creation also began at Passover time, also the time of the Pascha (passage) of Christ from death to life. The beginning of the new creation was the invasion of the Divine Word into human life as announced by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. Augustine of Hippo, in On the Trinity (c. 399–419), writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he 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, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” This “tradition” was as much associated with North Africa (note Cyprian of Carthage, cited above) as with Rome.
The feast of the Annunciation on March 25 is the actual celebration of the incarnation of the Word in the womb of the virgin Mary. It has more theological significance than the nativity. That followed nine months later as a matter of biology. It just happened that it occurred at the time of the winter solstice in the midst of solstice festivals. Obviously, Christians would have to compete with and contend against these pagan observances—as we still do.
These two theories of the origin of Christmas—history of religions and calendrical calculation—are not mutually exclusive. It was not a foregone conclusion that the nativity of Jesus should be celebrated. In his Homilies on Leviticus in 245, Origen of Alexandria observed the propensity of the pagans to celebrate their birthdays and stated the opinion that “only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) celebrated their birthdays.” But if calendrical calculation, even of a spiritual sort, put the birth of Jesus in proximity of the winter solstice, bishops of Rome especially could use such a celebration to counter the influences of the pagan celebrations, which lingered longer in the old capital than in other places. As late as the time of Pope Leo I (reigned 440-61), we see in his sermons on the Nativity that there was a need to counter the pagan solstice celebration with the Christian festival, and to contrast the false worship of the sun god with the true worship of Christ the Sun of Righteousness.
Actually, Christians have continued to combat the winter solstice festival ever since. It is particularly grating that solstice symbols like Santa Claus, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Frosty the Snowman should be regarded by the general public as Christian symbols. The fact that Christians in the southern hemisphere celebrate Christmas at the time of the summer solstice shows that the truth of the festival doesn’t depend on the natural symbols. The truth of Christmas is the incarnation of the Word of God in human flesh. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity” (Charles Wesley).
The central cultural symbol of Christmas, the Christmas Tree, is probably not originally a solstice symbol. It’s origin might be a prop used in the late medieval mystery play of Adam and Eve performed on December 24—the tree of life (hence the custom of hanging fruit on an evergreen tree). It is thought that German Lutherans, perhaps Martin Luther himself, put candles on it to proclaim Christ, the new Adam, as the light of the world. Whether or not it was Luther, the Christmas tree with its hanging fruit and lighted candles was popular in 16th century Germany.
At the base of the tree we usually place the manger scene. This is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi who thought that Christians needed a visual reminder of the the poverty in which Christ was born.
Of course, the true celebration of Christmas is to gather with the faithful on the Eve of the Nativity of our Lord and on Christmas Day to greet the Lord of all who condescended to be born in humble human circumstances surrounded by other representatives of God’s creation in a cave-like stable because “there was no room for them in the inn”—and to receive this same Lord sacramentally in bread/body and wine/blood in Holy Communion. Christmas is the Christ Mass. Everything else is just a distraction from the real thing.
Pastor Frank C. Senn
Images: above this post – “The Annunciation” (1712) by Paolo de Matteis (1662 – 1728), an artist from Sicily who developed a delicate, graceful manner that broke with the excesses of the Baroque. Mary is portrayed as a young maiden pondering Gabriel’s announcement.
below – Mary Nursing the Infant Jesus by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472 – 1553), Wittenberg artist and burgomeister, a contemporary of Martin Luther, and undoubtedly influenced by Luther’s earthy Christmas sermons. He captures Mary pondering in her heart what it means to be the Mother of God (Theotokos).