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?
Frank answers: 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. But a number of solstice practices have accrued to Christmas because of its proximity to the winter solstice. And Christianity itself has incorporated solstice images into its Christmas celebration by identifying Christ as the “sun of righteousness.” As Charles Wesley put it in his popular Christmas carol, “Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!/ Hail the sun of righteousness!/ Light and life to all he brings,/ Ris’n with healing in his wings.” In this answer we will look at the emergence of the Roman solstice festival, the simultaneous emergence of the Christian observance of the nativity of Jesus, the competition between solstice and Christian symbols down through the ages, and how the incarnation brings together nativity and solstice.
Winter solstice festivals were celebrated around the world. There’s still something enchanting about the longest night/shortest day, with the cosmic assurance that the daylight will increase along with the sun’s warmth. This was very important in agricultural societies. The original Roman solstice festival was Saturnalia, a feast in honor of the god Saturn. the god of agriculture. It was celebrated at the beginning of the week leading up to the winter solstice and continued for a full month. Saturnalia was a hedonistic time when food and drink and parties were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the military often celebrated the birthday of Mithras, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithras, an infant god of Persian origin, was born of a rock.
The festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“birthday of the unconquered Sun”) actually emerged 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; as well as Mithras, the sun 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.” It was a fitting symbol for imperial Rome.
The New Testament does not give a date for 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—a date on which solstice festivals had been celebrated since time immemorial.
A winter festival was the most popular festival of the year in many northern hemisphere 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 (January 1); and Yule logs from Germanic and Nordic feasts. Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late-December to early-January period. Since 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. The long nights in the far north made the symbolism of light all the more important. This is seen in the Swedish Sankta Lucia observance on December 13 (the original solstice date before the change to the Gregorian calendar) with the transplanted Sicilian saint appearing in cold, dark Sweden wearing her (martyr’s) crown of lights. 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. 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 appeal to the 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. The Pascha (passage) of Christ from death to life occurred at the time of the Passover (Pesach). 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. The conception of the divine Word in the womb of Mary was the beginning of the incarnation. The image above this post is “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. The birth of the child nine months later is 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 at all. 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. The pope had noticed worshipers on the steps of the original St. Peter’s Basilica making salutations toward the sun and assumed they were sun worshipers. But they may have been Eastern Christians who faced the rising sun (orient) for prayer, taking the rising sun as a symbol 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). Alas, the commercial Christmas brings Santa Claus and the solstice symbols with it
Some beloved Christmas symbols originated in a Christian context. 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. It came to England in the courts of the German kings George I, George II, and George III, but was really popularized during the reign of Queen Victoria through the influence of her German consort, Prince Albert. German immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries brought the Christmas tree to North America. Quite frankly, Christmas wasn’t much observed in Puritan America.
At the base of the tree we usually place the manger scene. This is obviously taken directed from St. Luke’s Gospel narrative of the birth of Christ. Manger scenes are also erected outdoors. The erection of a birth scene is attributed to Francis of Assisi who thought that Christians needed a visual reminder of the the poverty into which their Lord was born. From miniatures to life size these manger scenes are central symbols of Christmas.
Some of the nativity sets have a kind of romanticized kitsch about them and there has been an effort to recover what the real birth of Jesus in a cave that served as an animal shelter might have looked like. The rocky hill country of Judea is filled with caves that served as shelters for both humans and beasts. Here is one contemporary artistic reimagining.
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 could be seen as a distraction from the real thing. But is it? Should Christian worship always be reduced to the bare minumum?
As I said, Christmas is, theologically, about the incarnation of the divine Word in human flesh. We hear in the Gospel for Christmas Day (John 1:1-14) that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Incarnation is the coming together of spirit and matter, made concrete by the conception of the Word in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation was God’s way of making contact not only with his human creatures but with all creation. After much longing and desiring on the part of God’s chosen people Israel, it seemed that this was the way in which we could have access to the presence of God in a personal way — Immanuel, “God with us” — through a particular human being. We continue to be joined in union with Christ through material elements — the earthly elements of water and oil, bread and wine.
We bring representatives of the whole creation into the Christmas narrative. The chancels of our churches are decorated with evergreen trees and poinsettias. Our manger scenes include animals — Mary’s donkey, oxen and cattle that ate hay from the manger (feeding troth) the new-born Jesus was laid in, the sheep of the shepherds, and the camels of the wise men. Don’t forget the star that the wise men followed. The birth of the Christ was a cosmic event. Astronomical efforts to discern what kind of star the wise men saw seem fruitless and even irrelevant. (Some have speculated about Haley’s comet.) These magi were astrologers from Mesopotamia who were used to reading signs in the heavenly bodies based on prophecies.
We humans are created out of the matter of creation into which God breathed his Spirit (ruach) so that the man of clay might become a living being. The Christian tradition has interpreted the infused breath as “soul” (psyche) or “spirit” (pneuma), although the Hebrew is “living being.” The use of the term “soul” or “spirit” is justified because “the breath of life” suggests more than animation; it suggests also a purpose. We humans are body and soul/spirit, which are inseparably joined. Both body and soul/spirit are created by God. Our spirit needs to be stirred up by the Holy Spirit, given to us in Baptism and awakened and strengthened throughout our lives by the word and the sacraments. Being incorporated “into Christ,” we “are being built into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). As St. Paul wrote, we are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). Divinity is still embodied in us by the infusion of the Holy Spirit.
Tantra yoga, on which Hatha yoga is based, shares a similar view of the body as a house of divinity, and also of the need to stir up prana (the life force usually identified as the breath). The asanas (poses) are ways of expanding the body in twists and stretches to receive and contain more energy. The sun salutation (surya namaskara) in its variant sequences is a way of stretching, folding, and extending the body to receive the energy which ultimately derives from the sun. It is regarded as a solar practice. Here is a diagram of a sun salute sequence that I included in my book, Embodied Liturgy, p. 107.
To what sun deity is the salute given? Why not to Christ, the sun of righteousness. In my book I broke up the words of the Gloria Patri to be chanted aloud or silently in the flow (vinyasa) through the twelve positions (p. 108). Bhakti (devotion) can be shown to any deity. Yoga is mind-body-spirit practice. Our mind decides to do this movement and directs the body. The breath (inhaling, exhaling) provides the energy for the movement. All three are needed. To me that suggests a trinitarian reality. The salute can be made to a Trinitarian God.
As Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in his book On the Incarnation, “The Word (Logos) assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of God. He endured shame from men in order that we might inherit immortality.” What Christ did in his body reflects God’s intention for us. The shame in Christ’s life was public nakedness in his crucifixion. That was the deepest point of the incarnation. On the cross “he gave up his spirit” by breathing his last. Our exhales are a little reminder of death for all of us.
Incarnation focuses on the body. God created our bodies from the material of the earth (Genesis 2:6-7). Our physical bodies connect us materially with the cosmos because the material of the earth is star dust. The Earth is composed of the material of its star, our Sun, from which it broke free (not yet totally free since Earth is restrained by its gravitational orbit around its parent star). It’s no wonder that we humans are drawn to the Sun. In a sense the Sun is our grandparent, just as we speak of Earth as our mother. We want to bask in its life-giving warmth. But the Holy Spirit infusing our minds with faith causes us to recognize that the Sun too has a Creator and is therefore imbued with the sacrality of the Creator’s touch that we share with the whole creation. So we may enjoy and honor our physical and spiritual connection with grandfather Sun in our life on this blessed planet, our mother Earth. Christians have not been remiss in incorporating all the images of nature — animals, plants, and stars — in their Christmas celebrations. But the focus of the story is the body of the naked-born infant wrapped in swaddling cloths.
St. Francis of Assisi, who contributed so much to our Christmas celebrations, spoke of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” He identified with the creation. His motto, “naked, I follow the naked Christ,” was not just a sign of humility and penitence; it was also a bestowing of honor on the body God created rather than the garments bestowed by social class and culture. In the public square of Assisi Francis cast off the fine clothing his wealthy merchant father had provided, left Assisi naked, and donned the robe of a beggar. Clothing protects us from the elements. But clothing is also the way in which we project our chosen identity or hide our identity or create a false identity or an idealized one based on our hopes and dreams. We can use clothes as tools or weapons; to communicate something important about ourselves, to establish dominance over others, or even to set up a false humility. Some of Francis’ followers realized the false humility of their habit and had naked penitential processions through the streets.
In the wake of the Franciscan movement late medieval and Renaissance artists portrayed the naked Christ breastfeeding from the Virgin Mary. Artists did not hesitate to show Christ’s penis to emphasize his full humanity. It was easier for artists to gain ecclesiastical acceptance by portraying a naked infant than by portraying a naked crucified Christ or a naked risen Christ, although Michelangelo sculpted both figures and even painted a naked Christ the Judge of the last judgment in the mural above the altar of the Sistine Chapel.
As a result of the fall into sin, we are ashamed of our bodies. But there is no shame here since “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Our naked bodies are graceful in themselves. That’s why artists would rather paint nude figures than enclothed ones.
The Gospel of St. Luke sets the nativity story in the context of the social-political context of Palestine at the time. It is an occupied country with a puppet king Herod, who was a friend of the Romans. Joseph and Mary must take the trip to Bethlehem to comply with an imperial census requirement. After the birth, Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day and presented in the Temple on the fortieth day, when Mary must also be purified following childbirth. Jewish rituals are observed in the context of Roman dominion over the Jewish homeland. Luke’s Gospel reports, “when then holy family had finished everything required by the law of the Lord. They returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:39-40).
This, too, is incarnational.
Pastor Frank Senn