How December 25 became Christmas

No, it wasn’t because of the winter solstice!

[The timing of the following post is my nod to an alternative date for Christmas, January 6. That is still the date on which Jesus’ birth is celebrated by the Armenian Church.]

It is commonly believed that the date of Christmas, December 25, was chosen to supplant a pagan celebration, Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun). But some scholars support an alternative explanation, one rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition. Here’s a short paraphrase of an article on the subject; a fuller excerpt follows below.

The earliest celebrations of Jesus’ birth that we know about (c. 250-300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. This would change later, some years after Constantine converted to Christianity (312 C.E.).

Surprisingly, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. Jesus was believed to have been conceived on the very date that he was later crucified, March 25. The birth was calculated by adding nine months: hence, December 25. Note that this is the explanation given by St. Augustine.

In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But the Eastern Church used a different (Greek) calendar, and thus came up with a different date. The crucifixion, and hence the conception, were reckoned to have taken place on April 6. Adding nine months brings us to January 6, the Eastern date for Christmas.

Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day.

If the above explanation is correct, the date chosen for Christmas had nothing to do with the winter solstice.

For supporting detail, see the following excerpt. The original article, which was published last year, is no longer available on the Bible Review Web site.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

How December 25 Became Christmas
Andrew McGowan

On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. But how did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus’ birthday? …

By the fourth century we find references to two dates that were widely recognized and celebrated as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6. For most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.

The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.

So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in midwinter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6? There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. Early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

syrian sun godIt’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea. They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.

But the earliest celebrations of Jesus’ birth that we know about (c. 250-300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.

This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals.

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year, March 25. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born — on Dec. 25.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation — the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.

The idea that Jesus was both conceived and crucified on March 25 appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled “On Solstices and Equinoxes”. The treatise appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. Based on the March 25 date for Jesus’ conception, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

St. AugustineAugustine, too, was familiar with this association. In “On the Trinity” (c. 399-419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] 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 the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar — April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6 — the eastern date for Christmas. Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.

Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is reflected in ancient Jewish tradition. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date. Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri. Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.

Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism — from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year — than from paganism.

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23 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. storbakken
    Dec 04, 2006 @ 13:26:32

    thanks for sharing. The second theory is very interesting. Merry Christmas (early)!

    Reply

  2. Stephen
    Dec 04, 2006 @ 19:58:23

    • Storbakken:
    You’re welcome. This is typical of New Testament scholarship: just when you think a theory (in this case, the solstice theory) is beyond refutation, someone presents new data that turns the discussion another way.

    I think the fact that it explains both of the dates for Christmas (Dec. 25 and Jan. 6) makes it plausible.

    Reply

  3. juggling mother
    Dec 17, 2006 @ 15:23:22

    Weren’t those shepherds wathcing their flocks of new born lambs though? (or is that a new idea because it makes for good nativity scenes in primary schools? My intimate knowledge of the bible isn’t very good I’m afraid). I do live in farming land though – and lambs are still not born by Dec 25th – not even in Israel/Palestine. Or ot while I was there certainly!

    It does seem a remarkable co-incidence that Jesus go himself born just as every major (northern Hemisphere) culture & religion is celebrating a festival of light!

    Reply

  4. storbakken
    Dec 17, 2006 @ 15:27:50

    The point of Christmas is not that Jesus was born on December 25 (it is clear that He probably wasn’t born on that date), but that He was born and that through Him all can be saved. Praise Him!

    Reply

  5. Stephen
    Dec 17, 2006 @ 21:10:12

    • Juggling Mother:
    You’re quite right, the best clue we have to the date of Jesus’ birth is the shepherds watching their flocks at night. Thus a date in March is more likely than one in December (if we assume that Luke’s prologue is historically accurate).

    We don’t have much to guide us, so we don’t really know when Jesus was born. If December 25 was chosen from the 364 alternatives, the question becomes Why that date? Mr. McGowan offers an explanation that seems plausible to me. But you’re right that the coincidence with the winter solstice is convenient.

    Reply

  6. Bridgett
    Sep 14, 2007 @ 13:05:52

    I think the point is when the Church decided, not when the factual event occurred. One of those truth is more important than fact kind of things.

    I heard this new theory only just recently when learning about the liturgical year. When I teach liturgical year for RCIA this year, this is going to come up. What a wonderful thread of reasoning. Thank you!

    Reply

  7. Stephen
    Sep 14, 2007 @ 13:12:09

    You’re welcome, Bridgett. I’m glad this post is still reaching people.

    Reply

  8. Bridgett
    Oct 17, 2007 @ 12:49:33

    This is how I found you–I was looking for other voices stating this theory, trying to find some direction in which to research, and found your blog in the process. I remember now.

    Reply

  9. Golden1618
    Oct 31, 2009 @ 02:50:49

    Poopycock….. Jesus is another one in a long line of solar deities…. Christmas marks the return of the soon from it’s months long decline in the sky which culminates at it’s lowest point on Dec 21-22… Three days later it move higher in the sky… All religions on Earth are somehow related to worship of the sun… check it out…. He’s a sun god….. He never even existed…. It’s a roman political creation… dothe research yourself… don’t believe me.

    Reply

  10. Stephen
    Oct 31, 2009 @ 09:22:01

    If you think Jesus never existed, you’re the one who needs to do some research. I know it’s trendy to say that — but really, people who say that are either ignorant or willfully setting out to be provocative.

    As for the interpretation of the traditional birth date, you’re entitled to your opinion. But there’s no proof either way, so it’s fatuous to insist that there’s only one possible explanation.

    Reply

  11. billarends
    Nov 02, 2009 @ 15:56:24

    It is remarkable how the least informed are the most vocal 🙂 There is a lot of doubt around the nature of Jesus who he was were he lived when he was born. Scholars don’t agree but not one person I have talked to besides the most ilinformed doubts his existance. Like Golden1618 says “don’t believe me.” which is good advice as what he said was nonsense. Stephen this might be a good thing to run by our mutual aquaintance Richard R @ U of O. Richard and I had a discussion on the birthplace of Christ the other day that was rather interesting. the location of Christs birth has posed some interesting problems for historians.

    Reply

    • Stephen
      Nov 02, 2009 @ 17:41:10

      I’m aware of the problems surrounding Christ’s birthplace.

      Luke’s narrative has dominated public perception: Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, and travelled to Bethlehem just long enough for Jesus to be born there. But a close reading reveals that Matthew’s account is the other way around: Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, and that’s why Jesus was born in that town.

      The evidence: (1) Mary and Joseph had a house in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:11). (2) Matthew explains why the family relocated, when they returned to Israel after their sojourn in Egypt: “When [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee” (2:22). Thus the family abandoned Bethlehem (in Judea) and relocated to Nazareth (in Galilee). (3) Accordingly, the first reference to Nazareth in Matthew’s gospel occurs at 2:23 — some while after Jesus’ birth.

      As I see it, both Matthew and Luke were trying to reconcile two conflicting pieces of information. Jesus hailed from Nazareth, but he was (supposedly) born in Bethlehem. Luke reconciles these two pieces of information by agreeing that Jesus’ family hailed from Nazareth, and presenting the trip to Bethlehem as an abberation. Whereas Matthew reconciles the data by assuming that Jesus’ family resided in Bethlehem until Herod’s persecution drove them out, initially to Egypt and ultimately to Nazareth.

      Two accounts, fundamentally different, although they agree on the basic facts (born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth). Mark and Paul say nothing of Jesus’ birthplace. John alludes to the problem (see 7:42, in context) but makes no attempt to clarify the record.

      You’re the one who majored in history: what’s a historian likely to conclude from that data?

      Reply

    • Stephen
      Nov 02, 2009 @ 18:21:57

      One other discrepancy I forgot to mention. Matthew says that Herod ascertained the time of Jesus’ birth, from the Magi; then Herod proceeded to kill all the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, up to the age of two. The obvious implication is that Jesus is approximately two years old but Mary and Joseph are still in Bethlehem. This, too, indicates that Mary and Joseph resided in Bethlehem, according to Matthew’s account.

      Whereas Luke’s account says that the family travelled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, where Jesus was presented at the Temple, shortly after his birth (I believe the law prescribed a sacrifice forty days after the birth). Luke’s account says, pretty explicitly, that the family then returned from Jerusalem immediately to Nazareth.

      So Matthew indicates two years in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth; Luke, forty days.

      Reply

  12. billarends
    Nov 02, 2009 @ 22:01:21

    I wasn’t disagreeing and this discrepancy in scripture wasn’t what I was referring to but that the Roman evidence as Richard was pointing out is not (pardon the pun) Kosher with the timing of Christ’s birth. Basically in order for Christ’s birth to be as described in prophesy then the scriptures had to have been altered to a degree. Basically he was saying that in order for Christ to be a fulfillment of prophesy he had to be born in Bethlehem and the census was the only way that the family could be drawn there but the dates don’t match I will have to ask him to clarify it again but that is the gist of it.

    Reply

  13. Robin
    Dec 02, 2009 @ 13:21:56

    I am tryign to research on this very topic you wrote, I am looking for books with information regarding the dates as to chirst’s birth ( I very much like your answer to thsi subject) My husband believes (like others) that Dec. 25th was created to change the Pagan holiday. He told me to research it myself, it is another reason that Jesus doesn’t exsist the church made him up. Me I am a beilever. So I am on my way to find information regardless of the outcome.. I just don’t want him to be right! Any help to where to find the Facts surrounding this topic please send my way via e-maiil. thank you!!! PS this was very well written

    Reply

  14. Robin
    Dec 02, 2009 @ 13:23:08

    opppssss….. my e-mail is inspiredheart2@gmail.com

    Reply

  15. Jonathan Laden
    Dec 10, 2009 @ 15:32:27

    The article is out on the Biblical Archaeology Society website once again. We’re glad it is of interest.

    Reply

  16. Jonathan Laden
    Dec 10, 2009 @ 15:33:26

    Yep. Click on my name to get to the full article from here.

    Reply

  17. ishant
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 16:27:07

    its some confusing why was December 25 chosen as christmas day? a>Thats when it was celebrated in the bible b> its belived to be christ birthday c> No particular reason

    Reply

  18. NTWrong
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 07:33:25

    Hi, ishant —
    I’m not trying to undermine anyone’s faith here but, no, the date of Jesus’ birth is not identified anywhere in the Bible. You’re correct that people believe that Dec. 25 is Christ’s birthday, but scholars think it’s unlikely to be correct.

    Reply

  19. luigifun
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 09:26:13

    I don’t find the second argument – the one the author clearly favours – terribly convincing. He writes that the earliest celebrations of Jesus’s birth occurred between 250 and 300. I’ve not found any clear evidence of that, and no evidence whatsoever that the celebrations took place on December 25. The first writing we have connecting Jesus’s birth and December 25 comes after Constantine, when, as the writer admits, Christians were deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals.
    I would appreciate it if anyone could provide primary source evidence of these early celebrations.

    Reply

  20. Trackback: sceptical christmas killjoy stuff « the new ussr illustrated
  21. NTWrong
    Dec 30, 2011 @ 16:50:02

    Hi, Luigifun:

    The strongest evidence offered in the original article is this (thanks to Jonathan Laden for the link):

    In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.

    Reply

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