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About Christmas

Why and when the Christian Church
selected DEC-25 for Jesus' birthday

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Summary:

The actual birthday of Jesus was forgotten by the early Christian movement. Various groups at the time celebrated his birth on JAN-6, APR-21, MAY-1 etc. By the 4th century, the church selected the approximate time of the winter solstice as the date to recognize Jesus' birth. They picked up this date from Pagan sources. As luck would have it, the autumn equinox about SEP-21 might have been a more accurate choice.

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About the reason for the season: the winter solstice:

The winter solstice occurs about DEC-21 each year. It is the day of the year when the night is longest and the daytime shortest. It was a time of high anxiety throughout the Northern Hemisphere. For the previous six months, the daylight hours had been progressively shortening and the noonday Sun had been lower in the sky each day. There was a fear that the Sun would continue this trend, that the cold season might continue forever, and warmth might never return to Earth.

Using the crude instruments available, ancient astronomers were able to detect by DEC-25 of each year that the daytime had become noticeably longer and the noonday Sun was once more higher in the sky.  This date was chosen, and remains, the traditional date for followers of many different Pagan an Neopagan religions to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun. Following the solstice, each succeeding day has slightly more sunlight than the previous day. It was interpreted as a promise that warmth would return once more to the Earth. Numerous pre-Christian Pagan religions honored a birth or rebirth of one of their gods or goddesses on or about that day. Their deities were typically called: Son of Man, Light of the World, Sun of Righteousness, Bridegroom, and Savior. Some examples are:

bullet

Roman Pagan Religion: Attis was a son of the virgin Nana. His birth was celebrated on DEC-25. He was sacrificed as an adult in order to bring salvation to mankind. He died about MAR-25, after being crucified on a tree, and descended for three days into the underworld. On Sunday, he arose, as the solar deity for the new season. His followers tied an image of Attis to a tree on "Black Friday," and carried him in a procession to the temple. ["Black Friday" has a very different meaning today.] His body was symbolically eaten by his followers in the form of bread. Worship of Attis began in Rome circa 200 BCE. 1

Saturnalia was a Roman seven-day celebration starting each DEC-17. It was "... marked by unrestrained revelry and often licentiousness; an orgy." 2

During his reign of 270 to 275 CE, the Roman Emperor Aurelian attempted to increase unity within the Roman Empire by establishing Sol Invictis (the Unconqured Sun) as the supreme god of the Empire. He proclaimed DEC-25 as Natalis Solis Invicti (The Birth of the Unconquered Sun) circa 274. 3 This celebration continues today among followers of the reconstructed Roman neopagan religion, Nova Roma.


bullet Greek Pagan Religion: Dionysus is another savior-god whose birth was observed on DEC-25. He was worshipped throughout much of the Middle East as well as in Greece. He had a center of worship in Jerusalem in the 1st century BCE. Some ancient coins were found in Gaza with Dionysus on one side and JHWH (Jehovah) on the other. In later years, his flesh and blood were symbolically eaten in the form of bread and wine. He was viewed as the son of Zeus, the Father God. This religion has been reconstructed in recent decades by Hellenic Neopagans.

bullet Egyptian Pagan Religion: Osiris is a savior-god who had been worshipped as far back as Neolithic times. "He was called Lord of Lords, King of Kings, God of Gods...the Resurrection and the Life, the Good shepherd...the god who 'made men and women be born again'" 4 Three wise men announced his birth. His followers ate cakes of wheat which symbolized his body. Many sayings associated with Osiris were taken over into the Bible. These include:
bullet 23rd Psalm: an appeal to Osiris as the good Shepherd to lead believers through the valley of the shadow of death and to green pastures and still waters.

bullet Lord's Prayer: "O amen, who art in heaven..."

bullet Many parables that are attributed to Jesus.

Worship of Osiris, and celebration of his DEC-25 birth, spread to many places in the Roman Empire by the end of the 1st century BCE. This worship continues today among followers of Kemetism -- a neopagan revival of ancient Egyptian religions.


bullet Persian Pagan Religion: Mithra was a Persian god-man and savior. Worship of Mithra became common throughout the Roman Empire, particularly among the civil service and military. Mithraism was a competitor of Christianity until the 4th century when Christianity became the state religion and Mithraism was suppressed, and its priests exiled or executed. Mithra was believed to have been born on DEC-25, circa 500 BCE. His birth was witnessed by shepherds and by gift-carrying Magi. His birthday was celebrated as the "Dies Natalis Solic Invite," The "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun." Some followers believed that he was born of a virgin. During his life, he performed many miracles, cured many illnesses, and cast out devils. He celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples. He was believed to have ascended to Heaven at the time of the spring equinox, about March 21. 1 His birth as the "Sun of Righteousness" was celebrated on DEC-25.

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December 25 transitioned from a Pagan celebration to Jesus' birthday:

The actual date of Jesus' birthday had long been forgotten when some of the early Church leaders advocated that his birth be celebrated:

  • Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) noted that others had suggested APR-18, APR-19 and MAY-28. He preferred MAY-20.

  • Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) suggested JAN-02.

  • About 220 CE, Turtullian declared that Jesus died on MAR-25 of the year 29 CE. This led to the widespread belief that Jesus was born on or about that date, because of the Jewish belief at the time that prophets died at an "integral age" -- either an anniversary of their birth or of their conception. 4

  • In 221 CE, Sextus Julius Africanus' book Chronographiai suggested that DEC-25 was Jesus' birthday. He based the estimate on the nominal length of human pregnancy of nine months, starting with conception on the Festival of the Annunciation.

  • Others preferred NOV-17, NOV-20, or MAR-25. Even the nominal date of the Spring Equinox, MAR-21, was suggested because that was believed to be the date when God created the Sun. Jesus was often identified with the Sun by the early Christian church.

However, Origen (c.185-c.254) taught that the religious celebration of birthdays belonged to the worship of Pagan gods, and should be rejected by Christians. He believed that only sinners, not saints, celebrated their birthdays. 4

Elesha Coffman, the Christian History editor for Christianity Today, suggests that the decision of DEC-25 for Jesus' birthday was made as early as 273 CE. This was two generations before Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as a legal religion by Edict of Milan. At the time, various religions in the Roman Empire had celebrations at this time as noted above, while other religions observed the Winter Solstice itself.

Saturnalia (the Festival of Saturn) was celebrated from DEC-17 to 23 throughout the Roman Empire. In late 274, the Roman Emperor Aurelian blended Saturnalia with a number of birth celebrations of savior Gods from other religions, into a single holy day: DEC-25. 5

The people of the Roman Empire were accustomed to celebrating the birth of a God on that day. So, it was relatively easy for the church to later alter its meaning to a celebration of Jesus' birth.

The first known celebration of Christmas was in Rome during 336 CE. 6 Well established celebrations of Christmas occurred there by the year 360 CE. It spread to Constantinople in 379, to Antioch about 380, and to Alexandria about 430 CE. 4

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Related essay:

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983) Review/order the book
  2. "Saturnalia," The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (1992), Page 1605. Excerpted at: http://www.the-goldenrule.name/
  3. Christian Korner, "Aurelian and rebellions during his reign (A.D. 270-275), at: http://www.roman-emperors.org/
  4. "Christmas - History," Wikipedia, as on 2008-JUN-14, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  5. Elesha Coffman, "Why Why December 25? For the church's first three centuries, Christmas wasn't in December—or on the calendar at all," Christianity Today, 2008-AUG-08, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/
  6. "Christmas," The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture, (1996), Page 104. Excerpted at: http://www.the-goldenrule.name/

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Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last updated 2011-DEC-24
Author: B.A. Robinson
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