As we approach Christmas day, I thought it would be useful to consider again why we celebrate the birth of our savior on December 25th. Why this day and not some other day? And was Jesus really born on this day in December?
A Christianized Pagan Festival?
If you’ve ever looked into this topic at all, you’ve probably encountered the claim that the Christmas Dec. 25 celebration has pagan origins; early Christians simply took a pagan festival on Dec. 25 and Christianized it.
It is true that there were two ancient Roman holidays that took place around our Christmas time. One was the Saturnalia celebration from Dec. 17 to Dec. 23, a very popular festival dedicated to the god Saturn that included feasting, gambling, role reversal, gift giving, and general revelry. Our festivities obviously include some of that today. But Saturnalia is a little too early in the calendar to be the direct origin of our Dec. 25 celebration.
The other holiday was the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, observed on Dec. 25. Sol was the sun god of the Roman pantheon, and Sol Invictus was a popular aspect of that god in the fourth century AD. It’s unclear in history what commemoration looked like on Dec. 25 for the Romans, but certainly it would have been a day for making offering and honoring the sun.
So now, did early Christians simply take the birthday of Sol Invictus and dress it Christian? Many people assume so. Some have pointed to a letter from the bishop of Rome in the fourth century AD in which he declared Dec. 25 to be the day for celebrating Christ’s birth. People speculate that this bishop or pope did so to create a Christian alternative to the pagan holiday either to attract new converts to Christianity or to help prevent old converts from slipping back into paganism.
However, the letter has turned out to be fake; there’s actually no hard evidence from the early centuries that Christians consciously tried to Christianize any Roman holiday on Dec. 25.
A Paganized Christian Festival?
Actually, some argue that the reverse of the above was taking place: Roman emperors were consciously trying to paganize a Christian Dec. 25 celebration!
You see, already in the early 200s AD, certain Christian theologians had published their conclusions regarding the date of Christ’s birth. Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus, and Cyprian of Carthage all made the same argument: since God must have made the world at the beginning of spring, Mar. 25 to be exact, Jesus must have been conceived on that date as well and then born nine months later, which would be Dec. 25. There are, perhaps, some questionable assumptions in this argument, but we must understand that many early theologians were really into symbolism and believed that God was, too.
Whatever their reasoning, their published conclusion of Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 is important because it comes long before the Birthday of Sol Invictus was celebrated. Emperor Aurelian made Sol Invictus an official cult of Rome in AD 274, but the first hard evidence we have of a festival to the sun being celebrated on Dec. 25 isn’t until AD 354, long after Christianity had spread through the empire and even become officially tolerated!
So was the inauguration of the Birthday of Sol Invictus in fact a move by Roman emperors to stifle and coopt the early celebration of Jesus’ birth by an increasingly prevalent Christian population? It’s a possibility worth considering.
A Special Day for the World’s Light
There is a third and more likely possibility than both of the above: Christians and pagans both chose Dec. 25 as a celebration date independently from one another but for the same reason.
What is that reason? Well, in the Roman or Julian calendar (we today in the West use the Gregorian tweak of the Julian calendar) Dec. 25 is the winter solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is the day in which the darkness reaches its peak and from which time the amount of daylight gradually increases each day.
We can understand why the pagans would celebrate the birthday of the sun on such a day; it’s a day all about the sun coming and beginning to grow in power. But we can also understand why Christians would celebrate the birthday of a different son on such a day.
For what do the Scriptures declare again and again about this son’s arrival? That with him is the coming of light, true light—light more powerful and life-giving than the light of our star.
Isaiah 9:2, The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great light;
Those who live in a dark land,
The light will shine on them.
Malachi 4:2, But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.
John 1:9, There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.
John 8:12, Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”
So then, whether Jesus really was born on Dec. 25 or not, Christians have long considered the date a symbolically appropriate one for celebrating the arrival of our savior. Of course, there is nothing in the Bible that says that we have to celebrate Christ’s birth on this day, but Christmas nonetheless represents a useful tradition available to us for worshipping our Savior and testifying to the world about the arrival of its true light.
Questions to Consider:
1. Has the true light shined on you in a saving way this Christmas?
2. How might you incorporate knowledge of Christmas’ origin in your family’s celebrations this year?
3. How might you strategically use this Christmas season to testify to others about Christ?