WAS JESUS BORN ON DECEMBER 25th?
See also: Was Christ born in a stable? http://www.celticorthodoxchurch.com/stable.html
William J. Tighe on the Story Behind December 25
Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on
December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a
pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the
fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this
makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps
interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result
of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of
Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to
do with pagan festivals.
Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son”
instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was
almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date
that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the
“pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.
The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two
scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the
celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many
“paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth
century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed
pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a
Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted
pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the
Gospel. In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the
winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed
obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan
significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date
had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar
before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent
role in Rome before him.
There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained
by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its
dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its
dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell
into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun,
such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any
case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with
solstices or equinoxes.
As things actually happened, Aurelian, who ruled from 270 until his
assassination in 275, was hostile to Christianity and appears to
have promoted the establishment of the festival of the “Birth of the
Unconquered Sun” as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the
Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual “rebirth” of the
sun. He led an empire that appeared to be collapsing in the face of
internal unrest, rebellions in the provinces, economic decay, and
repeated attacks from German tribes to the north and the Persian
Empire to the east.
In creating the new feast, he intended the beginning of the
lengthening of the daylight, and the arresting of the lengthening of
darkness, on December 25th to be a symbol of the hoped-for
“rebirth,” or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire, resulting
from the maintenance of the worship of the gods whose tutelage (the
Romans thought) had brought Rome to greatness and world-rule. If it
co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.
It is true that the first evidence of Christians celebrating
December 25th as the date of the Lord’s nativity comes from Rome
some years after Aurelian, in A.D. 336, but there is evidence from
both the Greek East and the Latin West that Christians attempted to
figure out the date of Christ’s birth long before they began to
celebrate it liturgically, even in the second and third centuries.
The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of
December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to
celebrate his death and resurrection.
How did this happen? There is a seeming contradiction between the
date of the Lord’s death as given in the synoptic Gospels and in
John’s Gospel. The synoptics would appear to place it on Passover
Day (after the Lord had celebrated the Passover Meal on the
preceding evening), and John on the Eve of Passover, just when the
Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Jerusalem Temple for
the feast that was to ensue after sunset on that day.
Solving this problem involves answering the question of whether the
Lord’s Last Supper was a Passover Meal, or a meal celebrated a day
earlier, which we cannot enter into here. Suffice it to say that the
early Church followed John rather than the synoptics, and thus
believed that Christ’s death would have taken place on 14 Nisan,
according to the Jewish lunar calendar. (Modern scholars agree, by
the way, that the death of Christ could have taken place only in
A.D. 30 or 33, as those two are the only years of that time when the
eve of Passover could have fallen on a Friday, the possibilities
being either 7 April 30 or 3 April 33.)
However, as the early Church was forcibly separated from Judaism, it
entered into a world with different calendars, and had to devise its
own time to celebrate the Lord’s Passion, not least so as to be
independent of the rabbinic calculations of the date of Passover.
Also, since the Jewish calendar was a lunar calendar consisting of
twelve months of thirty days each, every few years a thirteenth
month had to be added by a decree of the Sanhedrin to keep the
calendar in synchronization with the equinoxes and solstices, as
well as to prevent the seasons from “straying” into inappropriate
Apart from the difficulty Christians would have had in following—or
perhaps even being accurately informed about—the dating of Passover
in any given year, to follow a lunar calendar of their own devising
would have set them at odds with both Jews and pagans, and very
likely embroiled them in endless disputes among themselves. (The
second century saw severe disputes about whether Pascha had always
to fall on a Sunday or on whatever weekday followed two days after
14 Artemision/Nisan, but to have followed a lunar calendar would
have made such problems much worse.)
These difficulties played out in different ways among the Greek
Christians in the eastern part of the empire and the Latin
Christians in the western part of it. Greek Christians seem to have
wanted to find a date equivalent to 14 Nisan in their own solar
calendar, and since Nisan was the month in which the spring equinox
occurred, they chose the 14th day of Artemision, the month in which
the spring equinox invariably fell in their own calendar. Around
A.D. 300, the Greek calendar was superseded by the Roman calendar,
and since the dates of the beginnings and endings of the months in
these two systems did not coincide, 14 Artemision became April 6th.
In contrast, second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North
Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on
which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had
concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29. (As an aside, I will
note that this is impossible: 25 March 29 was not a Friday, and
Passover Eve in A.D. 29 did not fall on a Friday and was not on
March 25th, or in March at all.)
So in the East we have April 6th, in the West, March 25th. At this
point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been
widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is
nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the
awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of
the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died
on the same dates as their birth or conception.
This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early
Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of
Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so
that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of
Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is
some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century
Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of
Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as
the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.
It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians
as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought
the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose
acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of
True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became
incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months.
Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to
April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and
January 6th is Epiphany.
Christmas (December 25th) is a feast of Western Christian origin. In
Constantinople it appears to have been introduced in 379 or 380.
From a sermon of St. John Chrysostom, at the time a renowned ascetic
and preacher in his native Antioch, it appears that the feast was
first celebrated there on 25 December 386. From these centers it
spread throughout the Christian East, being adopted in Alexandria
around 432 and in Jerusalem a century or more later. The Armenians,
alone among ancient Christian churches, have never adopted it, and
to this day celebrate Christ’s birth, manifestation to the magi, and
baptism on January 6th.
Western churches, in turn, gradually adopted the January 6th
Epiphany feast from the East, Rome doing so sometime between 366 and
394. But in the West, the feast was generally presented as the
commemoration of the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, and as
such, it was an important feast, but not one of the most important
ones—a striking contrast to its position in the East, where it
remains the second most important festival of the church year,
second only to Pascha (Easter).
In the East, Epiphany far outstrips Christmas. The reason is that
the feast celebrates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and the occasion
on which the Voice of the Father and the Descent of the Spirit both
manifested for the first time to mortal men the divinity of the
Incarnate Christ and the Trinity of the Persons in the One Godhead.
A Christian Feast
Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe
nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the
Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to
have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely
from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the
historical date of Christ’s death.
And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that
date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter
solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an
attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance
to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date
re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on
the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of
William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg
College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the
Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian
Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing
editor for Touchstone.
The decision to celebrate Christmas on December 25 was made at Ephesus (Third Ecumenical) Church Council in the year 431.
A key role in implementing a separate Christmas celebration in the East was played by three Eastern Church Fathers: St. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. Under the influence of St. Gregory the Theologian this feast was introduced in Constantinople. In Jerusalem, Christmas was celebrated with Epiphany up to 634. In the fourth century Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built a church in Bethlehem.
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