Leadership in History

25 December: The Arbitrary Date Of Christmas

FLI Christmas Gerard van Honthorst

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst depicts the nativity of Jesus.

The early Christians were not initially concerned with the Nativity of Christ, and even in the fourth century C.E. it was not a universally fixed observance among Christians. The choice of 25 December is considered arbitrary and not based on evidence provided in the New Testament, the Christian text dealing with the life of Christ. Many theories have been put forward for the choice of the 25 December as Christ’s Nativity, but that it fell during Roman Saturnalia is now largely dismissed. It appears to have been fixed in relation to Epiphany (6 January), counting backward twelve days (now the twelve days of Christmas) or thirteen nights by the lunar calendar. It also falls three days after the winter solstice, a date when a number of pagan gods underwent resurrection after the shortest day of the year. This includes Sol Invictus of the Roman state religion during pagan times, a cult associated with the deification of the emperor. Whatever the explanation, it is evident that the early Christian Fathers, in their struggle for political and psychological supremacy, turned the interpretatio romana (the process of romanizing foreign gods) on its ear by expropriating a number of pagan symbols and observances and providing them with new Christian meanings. For this reason, Christmas and especially the foods associated with it represent a fusion of diverse pagan strands varying widely in emphasis from one country to the next. The celebration of Yule in Scandinavia has become one of the most distinctive aspects of the holiday as observed in northern Europe. The tradition of St. Nicholas of Myra in Belgium and the Netherlands and the Franciscan cult of the Bambino Gesu in Italy are examples of the many forms these fusions have taken. All are expressed symbolically in food.

Sources: Encyclopedia of Food and Culture | Encyclopedia.com | Weaver, William Woys

Research: DATING CHRISTMAS – Andrew McGowan


Where did Christmas come from? Many have heard the explanation that Christians appropriated a pagan festival, date and customs and all, and simply renamed or reinterpreted it for their own purposes. While there are certainly connections between Christmas customs, ancient and modern, and various other winter holidays with their trappings, the truth seems likely to be more complex. Scholars are inclined to look beyond the links with the solstice or sun holidays for at least part of the explanation for this complex feast.(1)

Before Christmas

Christmas as such was probably not celebrated at all in the first couple of centuries after the birth of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel, apparently the earliest written, does not mention Jesus’ birth, nor does Paul, author of the oldest documents of the New Testament. Interest in Jesus’ human origins emerges in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which provide well-known but quite different accounts, and continues in second-century apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James, which claim to elaborate on much of the detail that might have occurred to the curious – everything from Jesus’ grandparents to his education. This “human interest” angle did not reflect or immediately spur a ritualized observance of the events, however. For the purposes of ordering worship and time, the last climactic events of Jesus’ ministry were far more interesting to the first Christian communities than the poignancy of his beginnings. Jesus’ death and resurrection had been the central issues for the canonical Gospels, and since Jesus’ last great conflict with the Roman authorities and their collaborators had taken place around Passover, his death was from a very early stage interpreted along lines suggested by the great Jewish festival, and his resurrection celebrated annually in relation to it. Most prominent among other early Christian festivals were the commemorations of martyrs – not attempts to map the rest of the life of Jesus onto the year in the now-familiar cyclical fashion, but echoes of the Easter motif, continued into the life of the persecuted Church. Celebrating the anniversaries of the deaths of heroes like Polycarpof Smyrna (d. 155?) or the young African convert Perpetua (d. 203), offered hope of resistance to the authority that had taken their lives but given them as effective imitators of Christ. These feasts were actually referred to as “birthdays,” but ironically. Origen of Alexandria (165?-264?) could write scornfully of the custom of celebrating the actual anniversaries of human birth (Hom in Lev. 8) as a heathen idea.

Christmas comes…

If the “human interest” aspect of curiosity about Jesus’ birth emerged relatively early, the actual observance of Christmas as a feast appeared only rather later, in the fourth century or perhaps at the end of the third. The proliferation of holidays that allowed Christians to go through the year in connection with the life of Jesus has often been seen as linked to the end of persecution, In the fourth century particularly, evidence about liturgical development such as that recorded by the pilgrim Egeria, who visited the Churches of newly-Christian Jerusalem, documents the emergence of a complex sanctification of times till reflected in the Christian calendar today. The fourth century also saw greater emphasis placed by Christians upon belief in God’s personal presence in Jesus throughout his life – the “incarnation” or enfleshment of God, as teachers such as Athanasius of Alexandria put it. While this was not a new doctrine, fierce debates about the specifics, reflected in documents such as the Nicene Creed (325 CE/380 CE) indicate how Jesus’ own conception and birth could become matters of even greater concern and curiosity in popular belief, and ritual also. Yet the choice of a specific date for this new feast, appearing centuries after the event it commemorated, is curious at least. The lack of specific information about the timing of Jesus’ birth has never kept the enthusiastic and the ingenious, ancient and modern alike, from speculating about the exact date of the first Christmas.

Extracting supposed hints from the Gospels about issues such as the time of year, however, (2) involves the risk of asking questions they were not attempting to answer -even the year of Jesus’ birth is unclear. (3) When interest in observing Christmas emerged, there were two dates, December 25 and January 6 (now generally known as the Feast of the Epiphany) kept in different parts of the world; the first was observed in the western provinces of the Roman Empire, and the second further East, in locales such as Egypt and Asia Minor. In time, each of these competing dates was transferred to the other areas too; December 25 prevailed as the primary commemoration of the birth of Jesus, and January 6 eventually became associated specifically with the story of the coming of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12)(4), and the period between – the twelve days of Christmas – became a holiday season, preceded by the fasting period known as Advent.

Solstices and Saturnalia

Where did these dates come from? Both were of course fairly close to the winter solstice – December 21 in our modified Gregorian calendar. Mid-winter festivals had already been common – the Romans had their Saturnalia, and peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. In 274 CE the Roman Emperor Aurelian had established a feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on December 25 itself. When one of his successors, Constantine, converted to Christianity just a few decades later, imagery and popular practice associated with these observances were easily and readily adaptable to the Christian holiday that took their place. Was this connection also the explanation for the actual date chosen to celebrate Jesus’ birth? Ancient Christian authors of the time had already noted this connection between solstice observances and Christmas – Church fathers such as Ambrose reveled in using the imagery of Christ as true “sun,” using the natural symbolism to its full potential while vaunting over fallen gods of the old order. For these, however, the coincidence was not a deliberate or recent piece of calendrical engineering, but a providential sign.

More recently, however, the parallel came to be treated as key to explaining the choice of an actual date. The idea first appears in a marginal note on a 12th century manuscript, to explain not the emergence of the incarnation feast but its transfer from January 6 (taken by the scribe to be the real date) to December 25, because of the sunholiday (5). Scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spurred on by new studies of comparative religion, seized upon this conjunction as a complete explanation for the Christian feast, or rather feasts (6). Since these dates were clearly not related to the birth date of the historical Jesus, which was unknown, were they not thinly-veiled pagan festivals, appropriated and Christianized only superficially? After all, it was no secret that later Christian leaders, such as Pope Gregory the Great, had encouraged the “baptism” of local religious observances for evangelistic purposes (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 1.30), and this connection could not have been ignoredor avoided in the expansion of the Christmas feast.


There are perhaps two key objections to the popular “solstice” theory for the actualdate or dates of the Christmas feasts: both the holiday itself and “knowledge” of the dates appear a little too early to fit neatly. Christian belief and practice were certainly not formed in isolation from their cultural setting, and often seem to have parallels with ancient Greek and Roman religion. The sacred meal of the Eucharist and the honors paid to martyrs on their festivals would have been quite comprehensible to contemporary observers. Yet in the first few centuries, the persecuted Christian minority had at least as great a concern to distance itself from the most important religious observances, such as sacrifices, the games, and holidays. It was in the fourth century and after, following the conversion of the first Christian Emperor Constantine and the resulting “peace of the Church,” that strategies shifted more clearly to accommodation and Christianization of such practices. Yet the first evidence for Christmas as a feast is slightly too early to make sense as one instance of newly-triumphant Christianity. It had already developed by 300 CE or so, at least; about a hundred years after that time, Augustine of Hippo reports on alocal Christian group, the Donatists, liturgical conservatives who had split from the wider Church in 312. and who celebrated Christmas (December 25), but not Epiphany (January 6)(7).
That is, Christmas had already been well-established in North Africa in 312. In the East on the other hand, efforts by theologians and preachers late in the fourth century to introduce the December 25 date clearly presume that the January 6 feast was already well-entrenched there, not an innovation in living memory (8).
The second and perhaps more telling problem is that although these actual liturgical feasts of the incarnation were indeed late in achieving recognition and widespread celebration, the actual dates – or one of them at least – might have been identified much earlier. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian teacher who wrote around 200 CE – long before the first evidence for celebration of Christmas as a holiday – knows of atradition dating Jesus’ birth to January 6 (Stromateis 1.21.145)(9).

So in some places at least, there was certainly an interest not just in birth stories, but in the date of Jesus’ birth, long before the Christmas feast emerged. There is no exact equivalent of this early evidence when it comes to December 25, which was to become the prevalent Christmas date in western provinces first. Yet there was speculation as far back as 200 CE by the Carthaginian Christian writer Tertullian about the date of Jesus’ death that landed on the surprising and suggestive date of March 25 (Adversus Iudaeos 8) – later to be kept as the Feast of the Annunciation, the point of Jesus’ conception (10).

From Death to Birth

Is there a connection? The key to understanding the emergence both of January 6 and December 25 as specific dates for Jesus’ birth seems – strange as it may seem initially – possibly to lie in the dating of Passover and of Jesus’ death. Tertullian had calculated that in the year Jesus died, March 25 was, according to the Roman calendar, the day the lambs for the Passover Seder were slaughtered (Nisan 14). Following the chronology implied by the Gospel of John, Tertullian took this also to be the date of Jesus’ death. But how could this be connected with the rather different question of Jesus’ birthday? Tertullian does not help us much here, but if we travel back to the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, we may find the link. In provinces further to the East, efforts to establish the date of Easter each year (and not just the first Easter) had led Christians to seek a firmer place in the solar Julian calendar for their Christian celebration. Instead of using the Jewish lunar calendar to find Nisan 14, they chose the fourteenth day of the first Spring month (‘Artemisios’) in the local Greek calendar – April 6 to us. The loyalty of these eastern Christians to their custom of keeping Easter on the actual fourteenth day rather than on the Sunday following (as others then held, and eventually all Christians came to practice) became a major debate within the Church – they themselves were sometimes referred to as “Quartodecimans,” or “Fourteenthers.” So in the eastern provinces we have evidence not only for a birth date for Jesus on January 6, as Clement indicates, but for Easter exactly nine months before. This may shed light on the December 25 date as well. These two dates for the Passover when Jesus died, March 25 and April 6, are of course nine months before the original eastern and western dates for Christmas. The implication is fairly clear, if distinctly odd: second-century Christians in different areas had apparently calculated the birth of Jesus on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day – and had come up with two close, but different, results. These calculations preceded anyclear evidence for the actual liturgical celebration of Christmas – but may have been there, already “known,” when the interest in Jesus’ birth led to establishment of a festival (11).

Aside from the wildly complicated calculations involved, the connection between Jesus’ conception and death seems odd to modern readers, of course. Yet it was not so odd in ancient terms. Rabbinic writings contemporary with the emergence of Christian liturgical practice reflect a similar belief that the great events of creation and salvation had taken, and would take, place on the same dates. The Babylonian Talmudrecords the view that the world was created, the Patriarchs born, and the world would be redeemed, all in the month of Nisan (b. Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). This sort of speculation could go back as early as the second or third centuries. Thus the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on chronology, continuing such Jewish models; Jesus would have been conceived onthe same date he was to die, and born nine months later (12). This account of the origins of Christmas as computed from the presumed date of his death was first proposed in modern times by Louis Duchesne, (13) and has fairly recently been restated with nuances by Thomas Talley. While questions remain, and gaps in the evidence still allow different scholarly interpretations on this question as on so many others, specialists worth reading no longer trot out the explanation of Christmas as a borrowed pagan festival in an unqualified way.

Computations and Coincidences

Hundreds of popular works slavishly repeating the idea that Christmas as a Christianized midwinter festival do have to be taken with salt. Yet the connection drawn with the winter solstice is not irrelevant. First, it was more than a coincidence, since Passover itself was a Spring festival or sorts, and the connection with the passing of seasons in the year still has its place in the view that computes Christmas from this rather different earlier holiday. Second, the connection between the date of Christmas and the solstice made the expansion of the feast of the nativity more strategically important and possible. In the new world of a Christian empire, the fourth-century Church was not backward in appropriating symbols already known. The various forms of Christmas observance across time and space have always and obviously owed much to local traditions and lore that preceded or grew alongside Christian faith. Although the traditional date(s) of Jesus’ birth may have come from elsewhere, the actual feast of Christmas emerged in a way not entirely removed from the now-traditional account of borrowing earlier traditions. Finally, if the date of Christmas came about via rather surprising means, it still reflects traditions older than itself. The actual date, however, could really derive more from Judaism than Greco-Roman sources, both in the relation between dates in Jesus’ life and death and the time of Passover, and in the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of year. In this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption again and again, we may perhaps be touching upon something that the Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own too (14).


FLI Andrew Mcgowan

by Andrew McGowan
Yale University, Berkeley Divinity School, Faculty Member


Scholars of liturgical history in the English-speaking world are particularly sceptical of the “solstice”connection; see Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question,” Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000), 273-290, especially 289-290.
According to Luke 2:8, shepherds were tending their flocks at night when they heard news of Jesus’ birth. If this detail were regarded as historical, it would suggest the warmer months in the middle of the year.
Both Matthew and Luke connect Jesus’ birth with the time of Herod the Great (d. 4 BCE). Luke, however, identifies the Roman Governor of Syria at the time of the birth as Quirinius, whose only certain tenure of that office was in 6 CE. Few have been inclined to date Jesus’ birth as late as this.
The Armenian Church, less influenced by western Christianity during the period in question, retains the January 6th date.
A gloss on an MS of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (2nd ed.; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991), 101-102.
Prominent among these was Paul Ernst Jablonski; on the history of scholarship see especially Roll, “The Origins of Christmas,” 277-283
Sermon 202.
E.g., Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem.
In addition, Christians in Clement’s native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism – sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate“incarnation” story – on the same date (Strom. 1.21.146). See further on this point Talley, Origins, 118-20, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923) 81-134, and now especially Gabriele Winkler, “The Appearance of the Light at the Baptism of Jesus and the Origins of the Feast of the Epiphany,” in Johnson, Between Memory and Hope, 291-347.
There are other relevant texts for this element of argument, including Hippolytus and the (pseudo-Cyprianic) De pascha computus; see Talley, Origins, 86 and 90-91.
Talley, Origins, 79-155.
Talley, Origins, 81-82.
Origines du culte chrétien (5th ed.; Paris:Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), 275-279.
On the two theories as false alternatives, see Roll, “Origins of Christmas.”

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