The Problems With the Dating of Christmas
For Christians, the Christmas story is an imponderable miracle, which represents God’s entry into history on December 25th. However, what we generally don’t know is that for the first three centuries of Christianity, Jesus Christ’s birthday, Christmas, wasn’t in December—or on the Roman Julian calendar anywhere. In Rome, December 25th was the date of the Winter Solstice and thus the birthday of pagan sun-gods, notably “Sol Invictus” (“Unconquered Sun”) and Mithras.
The following are a list of little-known historical facts that expose the manufactured nature of December 25th as the official birthday of Jesus Christ. They also point to the pagan origin of the religious holiday of Christmas.
• In fact, no one was in the least certain of Jesus’ date of birth. If observed at all, the celebration of Christ’s birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the Church’s earliest established feasts.
• Those Church leaders who thought that Christ’s birthday should be celebrated began to speculate on the date. Some favored January 6, while others argued for a wide range of dates: January 2, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun.
• Some Church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration, since they were at pains to disassociate their real, historical god from the pagan mythic ones. (This controversy has always been waged within the Church, even after the date of Jesus’ birth was nailed down to the 25th. And during the Protestant period, Christmas was suspect and banned in some European countries because it smacked of “paganism.” Even today, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have come out and condemned the celebration of Christmas as “pagan in origin.”)
• In the ancient world, birthdays were reserved for pagan gods. (Jesus the Christ, by the way, was understood by many pagans as similar to their dying-and-reborn gods—such as Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, and Mithras, deities who were called: “Son of Man,” “Light of the World,” “Sun of Righteousness,” “Bridegroom,” and “Savior.”)
• The Gospel story of Mary and Joseph making the journey to Bethlehem where Jesus is born has no evidence in historical fact. According to some scholars, the Bethlehem birthplace is probably “theologically motivated.” Matthew and Luke go through contortions in order to get Jesus born there in order to conform to the Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5. 2.) that the Messiah would arise in Bethlehem.
• Once more, the facts surrounding the time of Jesus’ birth are also fictional. For instance, the shepherds watch their flocks at night only during the birthing season, which happens in spring. In December, the sheep are kept unwatched in corrals. Thus, Luke’s erroneous reference means that Christians have been celebrating Christmas about 8 months too late.
• The emphasis on the birth date of Jesus was actually a late concern for Christians, since from early on the defining moment of Jesus was not his birth but his death. There are about five main reasons for this shift in emphasis and, subsequently, the Church fathers opting for December 25th as the birthday of Jesus.
(1) The issue of Jesus’ actual date of birth did not arise until the second century, and this was because of another sect of Christians—a heretical one that called themselves Gnostics. They held that Jesus only appeared to have a body—the “Docetic Jesus,” who had not incarnated. Thus, the infancy narratives of the Gospels were written to counter this Gnostic heresy.
(2) In the second century, then, certain churchmen, like Clement of Alexandria became obsessed with the actual birth date of their savoir, which Clement figured was March 28th. These church fathers wanted a date that was appropriate to their god and not a pagan one. Yet they chose December 25, the two-week Winter Solstice festival of the sun-god Mithras, because the Church found itself in fierce competition with pagan religions and came upon a clever idea. As one theologian puts it: “What better way to challenge the pagans than to usurp their holidays.” This idea, in turn, had also a symbolic motivation, since the festival of the sun-god was the birth of the “light of the world.”
(3) The eventual choice of December 25th, made perhaps as early as 273 CE, reflects a convergence of Origen’s concern about pagan gods and the church’s identification of God’s son with the celestial sun. December 25th already hosted two other related Roman festivals: Natalis Solis Invicti (“Nativity of the Unconquered Sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness.” Deus Sol Invictus (“the unconquered sun god”) was a religious title applied to at least three distinct divinities during the later Roman Empire; El Gabal, Mithras, and Sol.) The Babylonians also celebrated their “Victory of the Sun-God” festival on December 25th. Preceding Christianity by many centuries, the pagan worship of Mithras, the Persian savior, became common throughout the Roman Empire, particularly among the Roman civil service and military. Mithraism is now recognized as a syncretic Hellenistic mystery religion that developed in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE and was practiced in the Roman Empire beginning in the 1st century BCE. Mithraism was the prime competitor religious cult to Christianity until the 4th century. Mithras had many parallels with the Christian god: followers believed that he was born of a virgin on December 25th, circa 500 BCE, his birth in a cave was witnessed by shepherds and by gift-carrying Magi. This was celebrated as the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” Mithras was known to his followers as “The Light of the World,” or “The Good Shepherd,” and exhorted his followers to share ritual communion meals of bread and wine. During his life, he performed many miracles, cured many illnesses, and cast out devils. He celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples. He ascended to heaven at the time of the spring equinox, about March 21st.
(4) Seeing that pagans were already exalting sun-god deities with some parallels to the so-called “true” deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival at the same time as Winter Solstice, another pagan celebration of the sun, which fell just a few days earlier. Some historians theorize that Christian leaders in the fourth century assigned December 25th (the Winter Solstice—“the Unconquered Sun”—on the Julian calendar) as Christ’s birthday because pagans already observed this day as a holiday; thus co-opting an ancient seasonal energy that served their purposes. The pagan festival of the Invincible Sun at the Winter Solstice is a European tribal tradition celebrated for the last 25,000 years at the shortest day and longest night of the year. European native peoples since ancient times have held ceremonies for the recovery of the sun god at this time, a time which later became known as “Christmas.” (When Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 45 BCE, December 25 was approximately the date of the Winter Solstice. In modern times, after the advent of the Georgian calendar, the solstice falls on December 21 or 22.) There is also the Yule festival, a Celtic holiday celebrating the birth of the Sun God, who is the Sun King, celebrated on the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21 or 22). During this time, according to Celtic Lore, The Mother Goddess (Mother Nature) mates with The “Dark Lord” and conceives the child that will bring warmth and sunlight back to Earth after the dark coldness of Winter. This divine child is “Light of the World.” And from this point onward, the days get longer and longer until the Summer Solstice. This myth is comparable with the birth of Jesus (Dec. 25th) to the virgin mother (Mary), whose name means Earth (Maia, the Mother of God). The birth of the Christ is synonymous with a “Lord of Light who has come to rid the world of Darkness”. This Celtic Solar Deity’s powers are resurrected at Springtime (the Christian Easter). It should also be mentioned here, in speaking of Celtic lore, that another Savior King, King Arthur (consort of the Mother Goddess), had a birthday on the Winter Solstice.
(5) In Rome, there was a two week-long celebration called the “Saturnalia” (the Festival of Saturn) held in reverence to Saturn (the god of time and of agriculture), during which feasts were held and gifts were given. The Winter Solstice in Rome fell within the Saturnalia and was referred to as the Natalis Solis Invicti (“Nativity of the Unconquered Sun”). Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17th to the 23rd in the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Aurelian blended the wild Saturnalia festival with a number of birth celebrations of savior Gods from other religions, into a single holy day: December 25th. In Roman mythology, the sun represents male divinity, and the Natalis Solis Invicti was the “return of the sun god” born of the Mother Goddess. This day represented the hope and faith that from within the darkest and coldest night (the Winter Solstice) there would be born a “Lord of Light” (the Unconquered Sun). This sun god would die at the summer solstice at the height of his power (the longest and warmest day), from which point the days would get colder and colder until he was reborn again the following winter. This yearly cycle of a “dying-and-resurrected” sun deity could be found in many of the world’s ancient religions. Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals, which is, again, most probably why the early Church leaders co-opted it for their Christmas. After much argument, the developing Christian Church adopted this date as the birthday of their savior, Jesus, since the people of the Roman Empire were accustomed to celebrating the birth of their savior sun-god on that day. In order to make it easier for the Romans to convert to Christianity without missing out on their festivities, Pope Julius I ordered that the birth of Christ be celebrated on December 25th. The date of Christmas was based on the date of Good Friday, the day Jesus died. Since the date of Jesus’ death was believed to be March 25, the date of his birth would have been nine months after the date of Good Friday: December 25 (a rebirth after his death in March). Since the exact date of God Friday is never given in the Gospels, there were differing opinions on what day it should be celebrated. Some early Christians believed Good Friday should have been celebrated on April 6th. Nine months later is January 6th (when Christmas is celebrated in many Eastern-orthodox churches). It is the twelve days between these two dates (Dec. 25 and Jan. 6) that are referred to as “the twelve days of Christmas.”
• Thus, the Church fathers, by insinuating their holy festival around the already long-established pagan festivals (Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, Mithras), made it easy for the Church to divert the attention of the pagans to Jesus’ birth. Finally, in 349 CE, Pope Julius formally designated December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth—Christmas. This was a masterstroke of the Church’s PR campaign. As Isaac Asimov has observed: “[C]onverts could join Christianity without giving up their Saturnalian happiness. It was only necessary for them to joyfully greet the birth of the Son rather than the Sun.”
• The Church needed a new calendar to go with this birthday. Thus, one monk, Dionyius, was given the job of inventing a new calendar that had Jesus’ birth as the beginning of the new calendar—December 25th, 1 BC (with 1 AD a week later). However, Matthew, Luke, and Dionysius all got it wrong. The Gospel dates Jesus’ birth date during the time of Herod, which was actually in 4 BCE. Since the failure of these early Church attempts to accurately date the birth of Jesus, no one has fared any better. Unless, that is, we turn to astronomical dating.
• Recently a few astronomers (after Kepler, who also got it wrong) have tried to fix the date of Jesus with the occurrence of the so-called star of Bethlehem. According to the Gospels, the Magi from the East followed a great star that forecast that a great king would be born. These Magi were astrologers from Babylon, now Iraq. One astronomer now posits that this star was actually something only these trained Magi could see, a conjunction of Jupiter (the king planet) and Venus in Aries the Ram (representing Judea). This would have appeared on the horizon as the morning star close to the moon—a star in the east—in 6 BCE.
• Thus, when was the first Christmas celebrated in the ancient world? We have seen that The New Testament does not give a specific date. It was only much later that the 3rd-century Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, popularized the idea that Jesus was born on December 25th in his history of the world from Creation to 221 AD. The earliest reference to the celebration of Christmas is in the so-called “Calendar of Filocalus,” an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome in 354 AD. As far as historians can tell, Western Christians first celebrated Christmas sometime after December 25 in 336 CE, when Emperor Constantine converted and had declared Christianity the empire’s state religion. Yet this date was only recognized by the Western churches. In the east, meanwhile, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus as part of Epiphany (January 6), although this festival focused on the baptism of Jesus. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25th, celebrating Christ’s birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6. Around 350 AD, December 25th was adopted in Rome and gradually almost the entire Christian Church agreed to that date, which coincided with Winter Solstice, the Yule, and the Saturnalia. The merry side of Saturnalia was adopted to the observance of Christmas. By 1100, Christmas was the peak celebration of the year for all of Europe.
• However, another glitch in this attempt to nail down date for Jesus Christ’s birthday was added in the 16th century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, the Gregorian, which was unevenly adopted. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most, but not all, of the Christian world now agrees on the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date. During the 16th century, under the influence of the Reformation, many of the old customs were suppressed and the Church forbade processions, colorful ceremonies, and plays (probably because its pagan survivals made the Church fathers nervous). In 1647 in England, Parliament passed a law abolishing Christmas altogether. When Charles II came to the throne, many of the customs were revived, but the feasting and merrymaking were now more worldly than religious.
My point here is that no matter what Christians have come to believe about Christmas, it is actually pagan in origin.