December 25: Christian Or Pagan Origin?



But who is, The Unconquered Sun, if not our Lord who suffered death and then conquered it? Christ is the Sun of Righteousness Malachi speaks of.


The Christmas Debate

The place of Christ in Christmas has been a long standing and sometimes acrimonious debate that stretches from the halls of academia to the cathedrals of Rome. The probability is high, that most of us know someone who is opposed to celebrating the nativity of Christ on December 25th. I, personally, have run into various reasons given, by those who oppose the Christmas celebration. Some believe that every day should be a holy day. Others desire to only observe those days the Bible emphasizes, such as Old Testament holy days and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some people even suggest that no birthday should be celebrated at all; Jesus’ birthday being no exception in their minds. There is even an idea among a few, that suggest that Christmas, if celebrated at all, should only be celebrated as a secular holiday and not have any religious significance to it.

The allegation by many, that the day we set aside to celebrate the Nativity of Christ was stolen from the Pagan Festival, Birth of The Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus), is well known. In turn, the questions are often raised... Should Christians celebrate Christmas? Should they have Christmas trees? Aren’t Christmas trees Pagan objects of worship? It is not always easy to know how to respond to such questions without appearing contradictory about the values we profess to hold on to. In this article, my focus will be less about the pagan symbolism in the Christmas holiday, (we will save that for the next article, Pagan Traditions: Where do we Draw the Line?) and more about exploring the larger debate surrounding this topic; “Was it the Pagans, or the Christians who got to December 25th first?” To do that, we will first start with investigating some of the earliest Christian writings, to see if there were any clues given, for how or when, the day, December 25th, may have first gotten attributed to the nativity of Christ. Despite our differences in thought, belief, and conviction, may this study broaden our perspective, and better equip us to exercise kindness and honor in the way the writer of Romans encourages when he penned the words, Be kindly affectionate one to another with brotherly Love; in honor preferring one another.

Honoring the Boundaries of Those who Oppose Christmas

In light of the convoluted backstory of the date December 25th, along with the pagan symbols connected to the modern Christmas celebration, maybe we should be careful if we find ourselves inclined to completely disregard the concerns some groups and individuals have with the date, history, and symbolism connected to the festival. In order to gain a better understanding of where these individuals or groups are coming from, maybe highlighting a few key scripture references, Deuteronomy 12:1-4 and Jeremiah 10:2-4, would be a good place to start. In the NKJV, Deuteronomy 12:1-4 reads:

These are the statutes and judgments which you shall be careful to observe in the land which the Lord God of your fathers is giving you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations which you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. And you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and burn their wooden images with fire; you shall cut down the carved images of their gods and destroy their names from that place. You shall not worship the Lord your God with such things.

In the NKJV, Jeremiah 10:2-4 reads:

Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, For the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; For one cuts a tree from the forest, The work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; They fasten it with nails and hammers, so that it will not topple.

Many who oppose the Christmas holiday, would see no need to look further than these two verses. For them, these verses are proof that the decorated evergreen tree was already something the pagans incorporated with their worship rituals in the Old Testament historical time frame, and thus a clear commandment from God to not participate in it. But is it really that easy to only think of it that way? Are we allowed to wrestle with it? Let's take a look at some of the earliest Christian writings and see if they have anything to say about when Christ was born and when the celebratory festival surrounding Christmas first began.

Christ's Birth - Taking a Look at History

According to William J Tighe, associate professor of history at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the pagan origin of Christmas is a myth. He makes an interesting argument in Touchstone magazine in an article titled, Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25th. If you want the full scope of his argument, I recommend reading his article, or even better, the source from which he gets most of his information. And that’s from Thomas J Talley’s book, The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Talley’s book is an in-depth academic presentation of what’s behind December 25th. In his book, specifically from page 91 on… you will find a case made, that the historical evidence of the attribution of the date, December 25th, for the Nativity of Christ was merely a by-product of an attempt to determine when to celebrate His death and resurrection.

For the early Church, the importance of establishing the liturgical time frame on which the Lord died is no secret. There is a large amount of conversation surrounding this topic, in early Christian literature. The struggle, however, that came with setting a specific date on which the Lord died was a result of the early church being forcibly separated from Judaism, and thus entering into a world with different calendars. This unfortunate circumstance caused the early Christians to have to devise their own time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. To make things a bit complicated, you had the Greek Christians in the eastern part of the empire, and the Roman Christians in the western part, both of which did not share the same calendars.

In the east, the Greek Christians decided they wanted their day of remembrance to be that of the Lord’s last supper, Passover. They tried to come up with a day that best matched 14 Nisan in their own solar calendar, and since that was the month in which the spring equinox occurred, they chose the 14th day of Artemision. In the west, the Roman Christians wanted to establish the day on which Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian (155-220), they had concluded that Jesus died on March 25th, 29 AD. In his work, “Answer to the Jews” (Taken from Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume III) Tertullian writes:

And the suffering of this “extermination” was perfected within the times of the lxx hebdomads, under Tiberius Cæsar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the Passover, on the eighth day before the Kalends of April, on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses.

Tertullian was the first Christian author to produce an extensive Corpus of Latin Christian literature. In Latin the reckoning of dates is inclusive rather than the exclusive calculations used in our English-speaking world. To us a week is seven days, while to them it is eight days including the day from which you start and the day on which you end. The first day of the month was always considered a special day, and was referred to as the kalends of… The Latin form of calculating days was to count back from any special day to the day referenced. Here Tertullian’s Latin date “8 days before the kalends of April” is our 25th March.

Even though most Christians seemed to have chosen March 25th for the passion of Christ, there was a lot of disagreement by the different Christian leaders on specifically what year or actual day things occurred. The many different calendars circulating at the time, had a lot to do with the confusion and disputes, and the hopeless discrepancies of the historical timeline becomes evident when we begin to compare the early Christian writer’s textual inscriptions of chronological dates. A good example of this can be found in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (150-215). In his Stromateis; book one, chapter twenty-one, section one hundred and forty-six, he writes:

There are some people who are more meticulous about the Savior’s nativity and adduce the day as well as the year, the twenty-fifth of Pachon in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. The followers of Basilides also celebrate the day of his baptism, spending the previous night in readings. They place it in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar on the fifteenth (or according to others the eleventh) of the month of Tubi. Making a precise calculation, there are some who place his Passion in the sixteenth year of Tiberius Caesar on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth; others say the twenty-fifth of Pharmouthi, and others still place the Savior’s Passion on the nineteenth of Pharmouthi. Further, some of them place his nativity on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmouthi.

Egyptian Dates Given by Clement

NATIVITY

BAPTISM

PASSION

Pachon 25
or
Pharmuthi 24 or 25

Tubi 15 or 11

Phamenoth 25 or 19
Pharmuthi 24 or 25

Egyptian to
Julian/Gregorian Calendar
Conversion 

Thot 1-30

August 29 - September 27

Paophi 1-30

September 28 - October 27

Athyr 1-30

October 28 - November 26

Choiack 1- 30

November 27 - December 26

Tubi 1-30

December 27 - January 25

Meshie 1-30

January 26 - February 24

Phamenoth 1-30

February 25 - March 26

Pharmuthi 1-30

March 27 - April 25

Pachon 1-30

April 26 - May 25

Payni 1-30

May 26 - June 24

Epiphi 1-30

June 25 - July 24

Mesori 1-30

July 25 - August 23

Epagomental days

August 24 - August 28

For more information on the earliest writings referencing the dates and chronology surrounding the birth and Passion of Christ, click here to see the excerpts that I add in chronological order as I find them.

So, Where Does December 25th Come in? - The Notion of 'Integral Age'

If you have read the excerpt from Clement’s Stromateis above, or clicked onto the link, where I have compiled the writings referencing the earliest mentions of dates attributed to the birth and Passion of Christ, you may have noticed that the earliest writers seemed to have largely set Christ’s birth on the same day as his Passion. And nowhere is the day December 25th, in any calendar dates, mentioned. You might have a few questions floating in your head by now; What made the early church conclude that Christ was born around the same time of His death… And how did we ever get to December 25th from there?

To find a possible solution to those questions, we must get back to Tallys’ book, or the touchstone article. In his article (and in my own paraphrase of his messaging) William explains 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. According to William, this notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that March 25th (for western Christians) and April 6th (for eastern Christians) was the day of Christ’s birth.

The earliest writings available to us could imply that Christians applied this idea to Jesus so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s passion, but of his birth or conception as well. By the time of the 4th and 5th century, however, (years after Aurelian chose December 25th, in 274 to dedicate the new temple of Sol in an effort to elevate the sun-god among the divinities of Rome) the Christian writings seem to suggest that there was a switch for the timing of Christs birth from March 25th and April 6th, to to December 25th and January 6th. In William's article, he seems to think that the earliest Christians decided to choose March 25th and April 6th for Christs birth, but then later most Christians used those dates for the timing of His conception, instead.

Now, with that in mind… Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th (the day western Christianity as a whole, still use to celebrate the birth of Christ). Add nine months to April 6th and you get January 6th (still used by some to celebrate the birth).

'Integral Age' - Let's not Overreach the Data

The notion of ‘integral age’ is an interesting theory, and it most certainly would explain a lot as to how the early Christians chose the dates that they did, but I have found very little actual proof that this would have been a widespread thought pattern in Judaism. In the Jewish encyclopedia, an article titled, Death, Views, and Customs concerning, there is a phrase I came across that states:

It is a good omen to die with a smile on the face or to die on one's birthday.

Ok…so maybe this sheds a vague light on the “birthday and death” connection, but it is a very weak example to base the notion of why the early Christians would have very early on, chosen March 25th or April 6th for the nativity of Christ, and then later changed it to December 25th and January 6th.

Another source I’ve come across that may vaguely affirm that such a notion may have been a part of Jewish thinking can be found in the Talmud, but everything I came across seemed to only refer to the great prophet, Moses dying on the same day he was born. You will find the most detailed Talmud reference under Kiddushin 38a (read the whole chapter). Since the Talmud, only has Moses in its scope when speaking of the issue and says nothing about prophets in general, I find that it, in itself, is yet another weak argument, that this notion of Jewish prophets dying on their birthday, was a widespread belief at the time of Christ.

Some Closing Thoughts

As I bring this article to a close, we must almost certainly conclude that December 25th, is nowhere proven to be connected to the birth of Christ in the earliest Christian writings available to us. It was March 25th that was originally thought to be the day for the nativity of Christ for western Christianity, and April 6th for those who still preserved the old Jerusalem calendar. There is no way of knowing for sure if December 25th is a feast of western Christian origin before Aurelian.

The earliest written dated record that we have, of a Christmas celebration, can be found in the Chronograph of 354, which recorded that a feast celebrating the Nativity was held on December 25th of 336. The same day was also used to celebrate the birth of the Roman god, Sol Invictus, the patron deity of the Roman sun cult, known as “The Unconquered Sun”. It is true, that there is no evidence that Christians actually celebrated December 25th for the nativity of Christ, until after Aurelian chose December 25th, in 274, to dedicate the new temple of Sol in an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement. Clement’s writing, however, on the nativity of Christ is evidence that at least January 6th (the 11th of Tubi in the Egypian calendar. See chart), was already a day of significance for those who preserved the old Jerusalem Calendar and had held April 6th in remembrance of the Lord's last supper. It is good to note that Clement was before Aurelian. To this day, those who preserve the Old Jerusalem calendar, have never adopted December 25th, and still celebrate Christ’s birth, manifestation to the Magi, and baptism on January 6th.

Lastly, another resource that I came across, and believe is worth mentioning when it comes to this conversation, is an ancient Latin work titled, De Solstitiis Et Aequinoctiis (On the Solstices and Equinoxes). The author, and date written, is unknown, but most scholars have placed this work in the 4th century. If you are willing to read it, or listen to the audio I've made available, you will soon find that the discussion endeavored to defend the timing of Christs birth on December 25th in spite of the pagan festival, has no doubt been longstanding. The author sums up His case so well, near the closing of his work where he writes:

But the Lord was born on 25th December in the winter. They also call it 'Birthday of the Invictus'. But who is Invictus (unconquered) if not our Lord who suffered death and then conquered it? Or when they call it 'Birthday of the Sun'... Well, Christ is the Sun of Righteousness that the prophet Malachi spoke of: "The Sun of Righteousness shall arise for all you who fear His name; Salvation is in His wings.

This author of, De Solstitiis Et Aequinoctiis, makes the case that the conception, and nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ and of John the Baptist happened at the two equinoxes and two solstices of the year, and was already foretold to happen in that way, through the Old Testament scriptures. Thomas J Talley references this work in his book (mentioned above). If you want to further explore his train of thought, click here.

This article had mostly to do with the timing of the birth of Christ through the lens of the earliest Christian writers, but what about the pagan traditions that have been so readily accepted and interwoven with a day that we as Christians set aside to remember the nativity of Christ? That will have to be an article all on its own. Stay tuned for, “Pagan Traditions: Where Do We Draw the Line?


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