Since the Christmas season spans from Christmas Day until epiphany on January 6, it is still Christmas, so with this, I wish you all a Merry Christmas.
You have probably heard, in the increasingly secular west, that Christmas is not actually Christian because it was originally a Roman Holiday celebrating—Sol Invicto—the unconquered sun. The claim is that after the Roman Emperor Constantine declared religious freedom in the year 313 A.D., which ended Christian persecution, the solar celebration on December 25 was stolen and turned into Jesus’ birthday in order to Christianize pagans. But is this true?
While some early church fathers denounced birthday celebrations and emphasized the date Christians were “crowned with martyrdom” i.e. their birthday into heaven, the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew mark the birth of Jesus as something exceptionally significant. The date is not present in the New Testament but that does not mean that early Christians did not know it or think it was important. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the most important events in Christianity and those dates are not recorded in the New Testament either. The Gospels only document that Jesus died during Passover because this overlap with the Jewish calendar had theological significance. Many early Christians saw his birth the same way.
The main reason people accuse Christians of robbing the Roman sun celebration is because it coincides with the winter solstice. The winter and summer solstice, as well as the equinox, have been observed by people around the world for millennia. The Romans were no different and celebrated Brumalia (referring to the shortest day) starting November 24 and ending on Saturnalia December 23. Ancient Israelites considered these seasonal events important as well, but it does not mean they had the same reasons.
The solstice, according to the Julian calendar, was December 25. Then in the 4th century with calendar corrections it was December 23. In the 16th century Gregorian calendar it was changed to December 21.
The Roman Emperor Varius Elagabalus reigned 218-222 A.D. and was known to be exceptionally cruel and immoral. He assumed the name Antoninus as emperor while the name Elagabalus was derived from the god El-Gabal. This was a sun-god with a temple in Emesa, Syria where Elagabalus Antoninus was born. He was a high priest of this god. As emperor he put El-Gabal into the Roman pantheon and called him Deus Sol Invictus – meaning “god of the unconquered sun.”
The Historia Augusta describes how Elagabalus Antonin built a temple for himself on Palatine Hill and declared that no one could worship anyone else but him. He also thought that “the religions of the Jews, and the Samaritans and the rites of the Christians must also be transferred to this place, in order that the priesthood of Elagabalus might include the mysteries of every form of worship” (Antoninus Elagabalus III, 5). Perhaps, “the rites of Christians” referred to the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth at the solstice.
In 274 A.D. Emperor Aurelian established the celebration of Sol Invicto to champion himself as the Ruler of the sun. Significantly, there is no evidence that he did so on December 25. Despite this lack of evidence many people, even scholars, write that he instituted Sol Invicto on this date.
The first suggestion that this celebration fell on December 25 comes nearly a century later from the Chronography of 354 A.D. in the Roman calendars of Philocalus. One entry for 25 December reads: N·INVICTI·CM·XXX meaning “birth of the unconquered thirty games ordered.” Although both Aurelian and Elagabalus Antoninus include the word “unconquered” in their sun-celebration, this calendar note does not say anything about the sun. Yet, in the same collection of calendars from 354 A.D., there is a record for birth of Jesus on the 25th of December. It says, “8 days [before] the calendar of January birth of Christ in Bethlehem Judea,” 8 days before January takes us to December 25 (they included January 1st).
Elagabalus celebrated Deus Sol Invictus, and Aurelian instituted Sol invicto sacr. meaning “holy unconquered Sun” (see nr 580 of Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, Herman Dessau). While both precede the calendar of 354 A.D. neither celebrations used the word Natalis and neither had connections to December 25, so it is worth asking if the entry of Natalis Invicti on December 25 in 354 A.D. refers to the sun. Could it refer to Jesus? At that time Christianity was growing in popularity unlike the old Roman pantheon and Christian martyrs like St. Stephen, for example, were recognized in the same calendar alongside the “birth of the unconquered.”
Adding to this conundrum in the calendar of 354 A.D. are two other dates celebrating the sun. One of those is a celebration for the sun and moon marked with 24 games (chariot races), which was the standard number for festivals. Another is for only the sun on October 19-22 and called for 36 games. The “birth of the unconquered” on December 25 ordered 30 games, which is less than the October celebration which was also longer. This indicates that the biggest holiday for the sun was in October, not December. These other two sun-festivals include the word solis (sun) in contrast to the December 25 event. Most of all, the fact that Roman calendars from 354 A.D. records the birth of Jesus, Christian martyrs, as well as solar festivals undercuts the notion that Roman Emperors officially replaced Roman paganism with Christianity and specifically put Jesus’ birthday on the biggest feast day for solar worship.
So, in short, there is no conclusive proof for Roman sun worship on December 25 but there is evidence for the birth of Jesus on December 25 in the calendar of 354 A.D. But, several church fathers had pondered and discussed Jesus’ birthday far earlier. It precedes official Roman sun worship and it was unrelated to pagan beliefs.
The first known source for the 25th of December comes from Hippolytus who was a bishop in Rome, born in the latter part of the second century and died as a martyr in the third century around 235-239 A.D. Hippolytus’ commentary on Daniel was written in around 202-211 A.D. and preceded Aurelian’s invocation of Sol Invicto, by over half a century. It also preceded Elagabalus’ worship of the sun.
In Hippolytus’ commentary on Daniel he wrote that “For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was reigning in his forty-second year, but in the five thousand and five hundredth year from Adam. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.” Some scholars do not think this was the original reading because the oldest manuscript contain two dates. It reads “four days before [the Kalends, Nones, or Ides?] of April, eight days before the Kalends of January” (see “Hippolytus of Rome, Commentary on Daniel” by T.C. Schmidt Gorgias Press, 2017, p. 152, fn 513). This is not evidence to dismiss December 25. Additionally, the wording of the date “eight days before the Kalends of January” is the same wording as the one in the 354 A.D. Roman calendar which could indicate that this date was passed down exactly this way.
Julius Sextus Africanus lived c. 160-240 A.D. He was born in Jerusalem, highly educated and well-travelled. He completed an elaborate chronology of the creation of the world, based on the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, up until 221 A.D. In these calculations he concluded that the first day of creation happened March 22 and both Jesus’ annunciation and resurrection happened on March 25. Nine months from Jesus’ conception takes us to December 25.
Another of the early church fathers writing about the date of Jesus’ birth was Clement of Alexandria who lived c. 150-215 A.D. He wrote that some thought Jesus was born on “the twenty-fifth day of Pachon” while others thought it was on “the twenty-fourth or the twenty-fifth day of Pharmuthi” (The Stromata, book I, chapter XXI). These two months were between early April and early June, not December. But it tells us, yet again, that the early church discussed Jesus’ birthday and the 25th was a possible date.
One anonymous document, from 243 A.D., “De Pasha Computus” describe the spring equinox as symbolizing the separation of the first day and the first night into two equal parts in Genesis. This became the starting point of the calendar. According to these calculations the conclusion was drawn that Jesus was born on March 28. The prophecy in Malachi 4:2 was used to support the Messiah as “the sun of righteousness” because he was created on the same day as the sun (see Roll, “Towards the origin of Christmas, Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1995, p. 81-83). So, Jesus was also related to the sun via prophecy which is another link to his birthday on December 25.
There was also a belief that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date and St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), was one of those who wrote about this and he also confirmed the date of Jesus’ birth to be December 25. Tertullian (160-225 A.D.) considered Jesus’ passion to have taken place March 25. Then we have John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, 349-407 A.D., who stated in his sermon Natalem in Christi Diem (dated 386-388) that they had just learned, via information coming from the west a decade earlier, that Jesus’ birth was December 25th. He also claimed that the Romans still had the census records from Caesar Augustus from Jesus’ birth when Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to register (Luke 2:1-3).
Epiphanius who was the Bishop of Salamis and lived c. 310-407 A.D. wrote about the birth of Jesus (The Panarion, II 22:5-6) and confirmed that it was on “the eighth before the Kalends of January” and relayed that other nations celebrated this day because of the solstice. He also discussed the epiphany as a birthdate which the eastern church has since ancient times celebrated as the correct date.
The solstice was for Christians tied to what John the Baptist said in John’s Gospel 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This symbolized Jesus’ birth on the winter solstice when the sun begins to increase and John’s birth on the summer solstice when it starts to decrease. These early Christian discussions about the date of Jesus conception, birth and passion led to December 25 (sometimes January 6 or other dates) and were based on a host of Jewish beliefs, not Roman. Epiphanius even acknowledged that Jesus’ birthdate coincided with other, non-Roman, celebrations. Coinciding dates does not mean that Christians stole the date. They all had different reasons for placing events at a major earthly event such as the solstice or equinox because those dates were important to most cultures.
Additionally, there is The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis) which is a chronology of short biographies of the first ninety Roman Popes starting with the Apostle Peter all the way to 715 A.D. These records were passed down through the centuries, compiled in the 7th century and well known in the middle ages. Dante’s information about the Popes was derived from it, for example. The book tells us that the 9th Pope, Telesphorus, who was “bishop” (as they were called then) 126 A.D. until he died 137 A.D., decided that “mass should be celebrated at the night before the Lord’s birthday.” This book also reveals that nearly all early bishops performed “December ordinations” of priests signaling that December was a particularly important month.
Lastly, many deny a December date for Jesus’ birth saying it is too cold for sheep to be out on pasture in Bethlehem (Luke chapter 2). The average temperature is above freezing, so it is not too cold even if there can be occasional snow. Also, the shepherds around Bethlehem were raising the sheep for the Jerusalem Temple sacrifices, as Bethlehem is only 10 km south of there. The sacrifice had to be a one-year old male sheep that had to live outside for a year, and because of that, the shepherds did too, meaning they were out at night as described in Luke. In this way, Jesus as the sacrificed unblemished lamb adds an extra symbolism here because he was born in Bethlehem and led to slaughter in Jerusalem.
Proclaiming that Christmas is not Christian because the date was stolen from the Romans, unrelated to Jesus’ birth and instituted to proselytize, is not historically accurate. We may not know if December 25 was the actual date of Jesus’ birth, but we know that his birth was profoundly important from the beginning. Discussions in the early church regarding the exact date, including December 25, were based on Holy Scripture, not Roman sun worship. In essence: Christmas is thoroughly Christian.