Origins of Christmas

How did Christians begin to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December? Was Jesus Christ really born on that day? The answers to these questions are not all that perspicuous, and this leads to articles and social media posts proffering the pagan origins of Christmas proliferating the internet in the Advent season. Generally, the narrative being trumpeted is that Christians “stole” or appropriated the holiday from ancient pagan festivals. By such a reckoning, Christmas is pagan and has nothing to do with Jesus Christ—Christians are in fact participating in pagan practices by celebrating it. Case in point is this comment made by a historian on an American morning news show CBS This Morning: “Christmas is really about bringing out your inner pagan.”

One of the major claims is that the church simply relabeled and rebranded the popular ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a festival in December dedicated to the Roman god Saturn. Depending on the period, it was celebrated over three or seven days and was a time of hedonistic excesses. Everyone, including slaves, let their hair down, feasted, and got drunk. The claim is that this pagan festival was so popular and entrenched in Roman culture that Christians could not stamp it out, hence they decided to give it a Christian spin instead. As the popular saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Interestingly, this claim is not a recent invention. It was already put forth by some English Puritans in the 17th century who were concerned that the merry festivities of their fellow Christians during the Christmas season were an opportunity for debauchery. As one Massachusetts Puritan minister claimed, “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” It seems that the “war against Christmas” began as an internecine one.

Similarly, there are also claims that Christians appropriated the 3rd century Roman holiday dies natalis solis invicti (day of the birth of the unconquerable sun), which is also related to the celebration of the birth of the god Mithras in the Mithras cult. Other claims associate the holiday with an appropriation of the Germanic mid-winter pagan Yule festival when Christianity spread westward. While how Christmas is celebrated in the west may have some connection to pagan elements, the origin of the holiday is itself not found in any pagan festival. Rather, it stems from how the early Christian reckoned the date of Christ’s resurrection (Easter Sunday) and from traditional Jewish thought.

The problem for us is that we do not have explicit sources on how the birth of Jesus Christ came to be celebrated on the 25th of December. None of the Gospel accounts provide a date, nor did Christian writings of the first three centuries mention any celebration of Christmas. It seems that the practice of celebrating Christ’s birth came much later.

However, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection had already become commonplace in the 2nd century. The date of Christ’s crucifixion (and as a corollary his resurrection) is much more explicit in the Gospel accounts: according to St. John it is on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, while according to St. Mark, St. Matthew, and St. Luke, it is on the 15th of Nisan. Two divergent practices surrounding the 14th of Nisan soon emerged. The eastern Christians would celebrate Easter on the 14th of Nisan (which could fall on a weekday since it was based on the lunar calendar) while the western Christians would celebrate on the Sunday after the 14th of Nisan. This divergence in practice would spark the fierce Quartodeciman Controversy[1] in the church at the end of the 2nd century. The question was whether Easter should always fall on a Sunday (according to the West), or if it could fall on a weekday (according to the East). This was finally resolved at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325): Easter is to be celebrated on a Sunday after the 21st of March.

Due to the Quartodeciman Controversy, a Christian interest in dates was sparked, and soon there were Christians trying to figure out the exact dates of Christ’s life, including his conception and birth. It was believed that the day of Christ’s conception by the Holy Spirit should be the same day as his death. This was based on the Jewish idea that God would arrange for a righteous person to die on the same day as his birth. This idea is in turn founded on scriptural testimony that the great prophet Moses died on his 120th birthday “at the Lord’s command” (Deut. 31.1-2; 34.1-8). However, for some reason in later Christian thought, the concept of the birthday as the beginnings of a human person shifted to the day of conception. So, it is Christ’s conception that would coincide with his death instead of his birth.

Since Christians calculated Christ’s death on the 14th of Nisan to be the 25th of March, it means Christ’s conception would also fall on the 25th of March, which is the day of the archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to the Virgin Mary.[2] Adding nine months of gestation to that day would make his birth the 25th of December. St. Augustine of Hippo testifies to this computation when he writes, “For [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered… But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” Christ certainly may not have been born on 25th of December since the day is a computation based on a Jewish understanding of scripture. Rather, the day is symbolic of the perfect righteousness of Christ. Christmas began to be celebrated only in the 4th century, probably after the Council of Nicaea.

However, it turns out that the 25th of December is also around winter solstice. Winter solstice is a day of great significance for many ancient persons as it is the day with the shortest daylight and marked the middle of winter season. It is seen as symbolic of death and rebirth as daylight begins to lengthen after the solstice. Due to its significance, it is also the time for pagan celebrations like the Roman worship of the sun and Germanic celebration of mid-winter. It is true that elements of these pagan celebrations of winter solstice could have been absorbed and reinterpreted for the Christian celebration of Christmas wherever it spread, but that just demonstrates the how the Christian faith is able to express itself through elements of the indigenous culture. For example, one source attempts to reinterpret the Roman holiday of dies natalis solis invicti according to scripture:

But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December… the eighth before the calends of January [25 December]… But they also call it the ‘Birthday of the invincible one’ (invictus). But who then is as invincible as our lord who defeated the death he suffered? Or if they say that this is the birthday of the sun, well He Himself is the Sun of Justice of whom the prophet Malachi said (4:2), “But for you who fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health is in his wings.”

The Christian faith has always been able to take up cultural elements and transform them for the glory of God. Perhaps this follows the incarnational pattern: the Son of God himself took up humanity into himself the form of a Jewish carpenter and by that displayed the fullness of the glory of God. Closer to home, we can also witness such inculturation in our church when we integrate the celebration of Chinese Lunar New Year into our liturgy every year.

In conclusion, Christmas does not have its origin in any pagan festival and is completely unrelated to Saturnalia. Instead, it originated with the Quartodeciman Controversy and the dating of Christ’s death and resurrection. The claims of its pagan origins have little historical basis and should not distract or trouble faithful Christians from celebrating the birth of our Lord and the reason for his advent: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.” Glory to God.

[1] Quartodeciman means “the fourteenth” in Latin.

[2] The Feast of the Annunciation is therefore on the 25th of March.

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