Saturday, December 19, 2015

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Christians have celebrated Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, on December 25th for centuries. Without any real record of Jesus' birth and without any information within a few generations of Jesus' time on earth providing any sort of date, how did we come to decide that Jesus was born on December 25?  Nothing in the Bible indicates any particular date.  For the first couple of centuries, there is no indication that early Christian communities celebrated the birth of Jesus at all, let alone on December 25.  Some Christian sects today celebrate the birth of Jesus on January 6.

Roman Celebrations

One of many artists' renderings of the birth of Jesus.
In fact, we know almost nothing about how it actually appeared.
Some theorize that early Christian leaders chose the date to correspond with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which was a week long celebration lasting from December 17 through December 25 as measured by the modern calendar.  This was  mid-winter celebration that was highly popular throughout the empire by the time of the Christian era.

Another theory is that it was meant to replace the festival of dies natalis solis invicti, ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’. This was a celebration of the winter solstice, when the days began to get longer again.  It was also celebrated on December 25 (they were a few days off from what we know today as the actual solstice).  This was also a Roman civil holiday for the religion of Mithras.  Mithra was often portrayed as a baby in these celebrations marking the beginning of a new year (much like baby new year today).  Mithra was also popular in Egypt and Syria at this time.  These regions were also major centers of Christianity. Emperor Aurelian (214-275), was a proponent of the cult, making its holidays widely followed.  This was only a few decades before Emperor Constantine (272-337) made Christianity the State religion.

The notion, however, that early Christian leaders would simply perpetrate a fraud by declaring the date of Jesus' birth to blot out the holiday of another religion seems a bit odd.

Early Christmas References

The earliest reference to Christmas comes from the era of Constantine,  A Roman calendar from the year 354 AD references both the birth of Christ for the Christians and the Mithras celebration of the "unconquered sun" on that day. So the two were celebrated concurrently for at least some time.

There is no evidence that the Christian communities celebrated Jesus' birth for at least the first two centuries of Christian worship.  One early Church leader, Origen of Alexandria (165–264) writes mockingly about Roman practices celebrating birth anniversaries.  He dismisses them as "pagan" practices to be avoided. This indicates that Christians did not celebrate any birth anniversaries of their own.

Clement of Alexandria
The earliest reference we have to the birth of Jesus comes from Clement of Alexandria (150-215) who mentions a number of possible dates, none of which were in December:

“There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in the modern calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”

Augustine of Hippo
All of these dates fall in March or April, meaning no one contended Jesus was born in December or January.  Another clue comes from Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine notes around 400 AD that a mentions a local dissident Christian group known as the Donatists celebrated Christmas on December 25 but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6 because it was an innovation.  Apparently the Donatists would not accept a date without a historical basis.  Since the Donatists were founded just after 300 AD, it would seem that they believed Jesus' December 25 birth was established before that time.

It that is case, the December 25 date was probably established at some time around 200-300 AD. During this period, Christianity was generally an illegal cult within the Roman Empire.  Church leaders were not in a position to blot out pagan holidays by reclassifying them during this period.  However, they may have wanted a celebration of their own at a time when everyone else was celebrating.

One theory that I find intriguing is based on the belief by early Church leaders that Jesus came into this word and left it on the same date.  The Gospels indicate the Jesus died during the Jewish celebration of Passover, which some in the early Church calculated to be March 25.  So, if Jesus was also conceived on March 25, he would have been born nine months later on December 25.  When information was lacking, formulas like this were often employed to come up with a date.

No one knows for certain how December 25 came to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus.  It is, however, so deeply embedded now in western tradition that it would be impossible to change, even if conclusive proof of a different date was revealed.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

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