Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th? The historical origin of Christmas

On the 25th of December Christians all over the world celebrate Christmas. Even though it’s not theologically the most important holiday in a season (Eastern is), Christmas is more popular. Movies, dinners, family, Christmas tree, gifts – everything comes together and gives us that warm fuzzy feeling of happiness and joy. Needless to say, at the end of every year the same discussions begin: “Have we destroyed the original meaning and purpose of Christmas?” It’s a battle I observe every single day on social networks. Respectfully, I’m not immersing myself in that black hole. Since I’m a historian of early Christianity, and this blog is about the history of the first Christian communities, I’m going to focus on the good old historical question: Why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th?

We could start with the basic notion that you are probably familiar with: Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t born on December 25th. We have no serious historical information about his date of birth. The first written gospel (around 70 CE) doesn’t even mention his youth. Read the beginning of the Gospel of Mark yourselves. It starts with Jesus’ baptism and then moves on to his public preaching (in between is only the temptation of Christ in the desert)– absolutely no information about his earlier years. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew (written 10 to 20 years later) do contain the famous birth narratives. However, they don’t tell us anything specific about the date of that event. They only put Jesus’ birth somewhere at the end of Herod’s reign. That’s it! Furthermore, these infancy narratives present a serious problem for historians due to several incredible (and unlikely) details (such as the worldwide census reported by Luke) and contradictions (what was the hometown of Joseph and Mary?). But, that’s a topic for another day! Lastly, the Gospel of John (written at the end of the 1st century) contains no information about Jesus’ birth and earlier years – just like Mark. Therefore, the only solid biographies of Jesus we have don’t give us any serious clues about the date of his birth. Early Christian authors reflect the same paucity in sources. Authors such as Irenaeus or Tertullian don’t mention anything about the date of Jesus’ birth. Some of them even mock celebrations of birthdays emphasizing the pagan nature of that practice. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the first Christians even celebrated Jesus’ birth. It should be noted that we do have legendary accounts of Jesus’ childhood, but even there nothing is mentioned about the specific date of his birth. It seems that the early Christian world (first two hundred years) was marked with a clear focus on Jesus’ last days, death, and resurrection. We even have detailed information about the time of his death – contradictions notwithstanding! John informs us that Jesus was crucified on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan. Synoptics disagree claiming that the crucifixion happened the day after (the 15th of Nisan). Regardless of this interesting contradiction (that theologians tried to explain in certain ways), the fact remains: we do get at least some details about the exact date of Jesus’ death. When it comes to his birth, the silence in the gospels is overwhelming.

So, why do Christians celebrate his birth on December 25th? I remember posing this question a long time ago to my high school professor of religious education. She really was a nice person always ready to help, but the question I posed surprised her. After a few seconds of awkward silence, she tried to explain how Christians actually borrowed this date from the pagan celebration of the Solar deity insisting that something like that isn’t so bad and that we shouldn’t question our faith because of it. To be honest, at 16 my personal faith (or the lack of it) was the last thing on my mind. I was just curious about the origin of Christmas. But, is it true that Christians chose this date because of the pagan festival? To answer that we have to take a hard look at the historical evidence.

The first Christian author who refers to the date Jesus was born is Clement of Alexandria who, at the beginning of the 3rd century,(200 CE) writes the following:

  • “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 Pachon  (May 20 in our 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).”

Diversity in suggested dates of Jesus’ birth reflects a great deal of uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest that was developing since the late 2nd century. But, by the 4th century, we see two widely recognize dates: the 25th of December in the Western Roman Empire, and the 6th of January in the Eastern Roman Empire. One of the earliest mentions of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-4th  century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae. So, how did the Christians get this date? The most popular theory was the one that my high school professor told me about. Not only did the Roman emperor Aurelian establish in 274 CE a feast of the birth of SOL INVICTUS on December 25, but the Roman tradition was marked also with the Saturnalia festival that occurred in late December. According to this theory, Christians deliberately chose this date because it was quite familiar to the pagans they were trying to convert. In other words, choosing the 25th of December was a missionary strategy with a clear goal of converting as many pagans as it was possible. This theory is still widely accepted, not only among the laity but also among the scholars who are familiar with the topic itself.

Despite its popularity, this theory is flawed. First of all, there isn’t any shred of evidence in the primary sources about the connection between the celebration of Christmas and pagan festivals in honor of the Solar deity. In other words, we don’t know of any author (pagan or Christian) who made that connection, not until the 12th century! One could argue that the Christians deliberately “forgot” to mention this, but this kind of argument isn’t solid at all. We know that Christians were accustomed to using (and admitting it!) different motifs and themes from a pagan world – and giving it their own meaning and purpose. One can recall the early Christian art and iconography that was filled with pagan elements. Of course, those elements were understood in a specific Christian way! Furthermore, even if the Christians were hiding this connection between Christmas and pagan festivals, the problem remains the same: why didn’t any of the pagan authors who criticized Christianity mention this important notion. It would serve them as an adequate tool for attacking the religion they despised so much.  Furthermore, I’ve mentioned that Aurelian in 274 CE established a feast of the birth of SOL INVICTUS (a Roman form of an eastern solar deity) on December 25. But the problem in connecting this pagan feast with Christmas is obviously in the sources themselves. Namely, several decades earlier (around 203 CE), a Church author from Rome named Hippolytus wrote: “For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, a Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year”. This is the earliest Christian reference to the 25th as the date of the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It comes well before Aurelian established the worship of the SOL INVICTUS. Also, one has to bear in mind that the heavy borrowing from paganism wasn’t that common in the 1st and 2nd centuries. It became a thing after the emperor Constantine converted in 312 CE and the Church became a sort of a privileged class in Roman society. Before that, borrowing was a marginal phenomenon related almost only to the early Christian iconography. It is hard to imagine that the Christians living in the 2nd century without any state support would choose the 25th of December because of some pagan festival in honor of their God.

The answer to this conundrum lies in the peculiar way of symbolic connection that early Christians made between Jesus’ conception and his death. Following the Jewish tradition according to which the great prophets were conceived the same day they died, early Christians stated the same thing about Jesus. How does this help us with our question? Well, the answer is quite simple. We know that early on Christians believed that Jesus died on March 25th. For example, around 200 CE Tertullian reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to John) was equivalent to March 25th. March 25th is nine months before December 25. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, ergo: December 25h. Unlike the idea that Jesus’ birth was chosen on the basis of some pagan festival that appears for the first time in the 12th century, this theory is indeed mentioned in earlier sources. A treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which comes from the 4th-century states:

  • Therefore, our Lord was conceived on the eight of the kalends of April in the month of March, which is the day of the passion of the Lord and his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.

Augustin, one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time, was also familiar with this association. So, in one of his writings that dates at the beginning of the 5th century he states:

  • For he 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.

In conclusion, one has to take into account all the factors and evidence. They all point away from the popular idea of Christmas historical origin towards a different theory that has serious support in the primary sources. To a modern reader, the connection between a person’s conception and death may seem strange. But we have to remember that the past, as one famous writer pointed out, is a foreign country, where people do things differently. Indeed, this connection reflects an ancient and medieval understanding of salvation as a process bound up together. In this kind of symbolism, one can find a true origin of the Christmas date that has nothing to do with pagan tradition. Certainly, there are a lot of other elements in the way we celebrate Christmas today that are of pagan origin (e.g. Christmas tree), but the date itself is much closer to the Jewish than the pagan background.

In the end, I guess, history isn’t the most important thing about Christmas. It’s the meaning of Christmas itself! For Christians, it is a celebration of the unimaginable news: God is no longer far away, he is no longer just an abstract conception, he doesn’t leave the created world, but descends into it – he becomes a part of the world, a part of the history itself. He becomes a person and by his life, death, and resurrection he brings salvation. He denied death and opened the possibility of a life beyond the gates of Hades. Therefore, for a Christian, Christmas is indeed a celebration of life, but a liturgical and ritual celebration with a clear focus on Jesus. For non-believers, Christmas is mostly a holiday of family reunion with a lot of delicious food and super gifts. Even the non-believers would go the Mass with their families on Christmas, but the holiday itself remains for them primarily an opportunity to spend a nice time with loved ones. Good movies, nice food, reminisce about childhood memories, and a lot of joy and smile. It’s more of Xmas than CHRISTmas.  

But, no matter “which Christmas” you celebrate, I wish you to spend these days full of happiness and joy in the circle of people you love. Merry Christmas!

1 thought on “Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th? The historical origin of Christmas”

  1. Ecclesiastical 7:1 A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death is better than the day of birth. It was great that he was born but if he did not die we would not have salvation. Excellent article. Very informative.

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