Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Origins Of The December 25 Date For Christmas

Several factors to keep in mind:

- It seems that the December 25 date was being used by Christians to mark Jesus' birth during the ante-Nicene era. Some of the sources, Hippolytus and Julius Africanus, were born around the middle of the second century and made apparent references to the December 25 date in the early third century. (For more details, see the two articles linked to their names above.) There's some evidence that the Donatists accepted the December 25 date prior to the year 312. Susan Roll refers to "the implication underlying Augustine's reproach to the Donatists that they fail to celebrate the (apparently newly-imported) feast of the Epiphany with the mainline Church, but with no mention of any Donatist failure to celebrate Christmas, which would date the latter feast before the split [between the Donatists and mainstream Christianity] in 311." (Toward The Origins Of Christmas [The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1996], 102) So, it looks like Jesus' birth was associated with December 25 in Italy and North Africa, at a minimum, during the ante-Nicene era.

- We don't know the reasoning behind the apparent acceptance of the date by the Donatists, but the reasons Hippolytus and Julius Africanus give have nothing to do with borrowing from paganism. They make a Christian argument for December 25, similar to the Christian arguments for dates to commemorate other events in Jesus' life (his conception, his death, etc.). December 25 resulted from the same sort of reasoning that Christians were applying to other aspects of Jesus' life.

- December 25 seems to have been adopted largely because of its relationship to March 25 and the significance of the winter solstice. There was a widespread belief that the world was created in late March, sometimes specifically March 25. Significant events in Jesus' life would often be dated to late March, under the premise that it seemed appropriate for such an event to occur on a date paralleling some aspect of the creation of the world. For those Christians who placed Jesus' conception on March 25, his birth would be estimated at nine months later, December 25. And December 25 seemed appropriate as Jesus' birth date for another reason. The winter solstice is the time of year when there's the least daylight. It would be fitting for Jesus to be born into the world at the time of the most darkness, followed by increasing daylight after his birth. To sum up, a conception in late March seemed like an appropriate parallel to the creation of the world, and a birth in late December would be implied by the March conception and would be fitting in that Jesus' role as light of the world aligns well with the winter solstice. (See Susan Roll's book cited above for many examples of the prominence of March 25, the changing of seasons, and other such themes in early Christian thought: e.g., 73-74, 80, 82, 88-89.) Associating the Messiah with light and the sun is a common theme in scripture, including the infancy narratives (Isaiah 9:2, Malachi 4:2, Luke 1:78-79, John 8:12), as well as in early Christian sources after the Biblical era. (For early patristic examples, see the following in Roll's book mentioned above: 137, 158-159, 201.) These concepts weren't exclusive to ancient paganism, but instead were prominent among ancient Jews and Christians as well, including during the Old Testament era.

- Paganism could have a secondary or distant relationship to Christmas without having the sort of prominent influence that critics of the holiday often suggest. It's not as though heavy pagan influence, on the one hand, and no influence at all, on the other hand, are the only options. There's a large spectrum of possibilities between the two. The less significant the relationship between paganism and Christmas, the less significant the objection to Christmas based on such a relationship. Meat sacrificed to idols had a relationship to paganism, but Paul considered it acceptable to eat such meat (1 Corinthians 8, 10). The relationship was distant enough to not be significant. If somebody is going to avoid Christmas because of distant pagan associations, then does he also avoid food, kitchen utensils, furniture, clothing, calendars, etc. that have been associated with paganism in some way? If competing with paganism was part of the motivation for the initiating or popularizing of Christmas, or some Christmas traditions were derived in part or in whole from paganism, for example, how would it follow that the modern holiday in its entirety should be rejected? How would it even follow that we should reject any aspect of the holiday?

- The December 25 date for Jesus' birth was established in different regions at different times, under a wide variety of circumstances. The arguments used by Hippolytus in Rome in the early third century were different than the arguments used by John Chrysostom in Antioch in the late fourth century, for example. There's some overlap, but also some differences. Contrary to what critics of the holiday sometimes suggest, there wasn't a single Roman emperor, Pope, worldwide denomination, or ecumenical council that instituted the December 25 date across the Christian world. Susan Roll mentions some of the problems with attributing the date to Constantine's influence, for example:

Two points raise serious doubts concerning the feasibility of his [Constantine's] direct influence: first, the fact that Constantine began construction on the new Eastern capital city of Constantinople at Byzantium beginning in 324, and remained headquartered there until his death, returning to Rome [where Christmas was established no later than 336] only during the period of 18 July 326 to the end of September of that year….

The second related point concerns the evidence that Christmas was not established at Constantinople until considerably later, approximately 380….More conclusively, Gregory Nazianzen in his sermon preached at Constantinople on Epiphany 381 refers to himself as the 'exarchos,' or originator, of the feast just twelve days previously, a time-line consistent with that of John Chrysostom's abovementioned 386 sermon at Antioch. Therefore Christmas would have taken at a minimum 54 years after its 336 attestation at Rome to reach Constantinople, again clearly ruling out any definitive role for Constantine in its institution. (116-117)

The idea that Constantine established Christmas in Rome, but didn't do so in Constantinople, where his efforts were so much more focused, is dubious. Most likely, Constantine didn't establish the holiday in either city.

- The variety of groups that accepted the December 25 date suggests that the date wasn't established by some later authority, like a Pope or ecumenical council. I've already mentioned the acceptance of the date by the Donatists, who separated from mainstream Christianity in the early fourth century. Susan Roll discusses another example:

"Around 383 Filastrius of Brescia for example, in a curious foreshadowing of Augustine's criticism of the Donatists in Sermon 202, criticizes unidentified 'heretics' who celebrate Christmas but fail to celebrate Epiphany." (203)

Groups like the Donatists and the heretics described by Filastrius wouldn't have accepted the December 25 date on the basis of an authority they didn't follow or an authority that postdated their acceptance of December 25. Christmas isn't just accepted across a wide geographical spectrum in the fourth century. It's also accepted by a wide diversity of groups. It's doubtful that an authority or movement that didn't arise until the fourth century would have accomplished such a diverse establishment of the holiday so early.

- If Christmas was borrowed from paganism in the fourth century, as is often suggested, it's unlikely that the Christians of that era would reflect so little knowledge of that borrowing. Susan Roll comments, "Augustine and Chrysostom [testify] that the feast [of Christmas] already represented a longtime tradition….the patristic authors of the fourth century such as Chrysostom already had lost any memory of such a substitution [of Christmas in place of a pagan festival], but believed instead that 25 December really was the historical birthdate of Christ." (130, 151)


  1. If one could establish the one-week period of service of Zechariah (division of Abijah) as a priest in the temple, it wouldn't be that difficult to establish the time of year of Jesus' birth based on that of John the baptist, since they were only a few (about 6) months apart.

    Based on the large number of people at the temple (according to Luke 1:10), it is likely the conception of John was during one of the important Jewish feasts (Passover, Pentecost, or Tabernacles). The most likely appears to be the Feast of Tabernacles, which fell between September 29 and October 5 in 6 BC. This date would have overlapped the Division of Abijah's service, which ran from October 3-10, 6 BC, according to one author, citing Jewish and Roman histories.

    Jesus was conceived during the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy (Lk 1:26). After the conception of Jesus, Mary then came to Elizabeth, stayed three months and left before John was born. Jesus was thus conceived about five and a half months after John.

    The sixth inclusive month of Elizabeth's pregnancy began about March 10, 5 BC, and the middle of that lunar month was about March 25. This is the traditional day for the Annunciation, or conception of Jesus.

    Nine months later was December 25, 5 BC.

  2. Great posting... I was blessed. Thank you.