Friday, December 10, 2010

The origins of Christmas

Jason Engwer has already posted some material on the origins of Christmas. I also touched on this issue in response to an allegation by Paul Tobin. I will repost that part of my reply, where I quoted Roger Beckwith on the topic:

Various opinions have been held about the way these dates were chosen. Occasionally it is suggested that December 25th is an adaptation of Jewish festival, but the 4C is too late for Jewish influence to be at all probable. In any case, the Jewish festival in question, the Rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabaeus (Hanukkah), has quite a different meaning, lasts for eight days, and, through it begins on the 25th day of Chislev, Chislev is a lunar month corresponding only roughly to November or December.

The explanation most widespread today is quite different, namely, that December 25th and January 6th are derived from pagan sun-festivals. December 25th is a well-known date for the winter solstice, and, although sun-worship was not originally part of Roman religion, by the 3C it had become such, and a festival for the worship of the sun was established on December 25th by the emperor Aurelian in AD 274. January 6th, however, is only a very hypothetical day for the winter solstice, and no pagan festival on that day is recorded, except a festival of the goddess Core (Persephone) held at Alexandria, to celebrate her annual return from Hades; so the explanation is incomplete. One of the Greek festivals of Dionysus was in January (Lenaea, the “festival of the raving women”), but it was later in the month, and an orgy of this kind would be more likely to have given rise to a Christian fast than a Christian feast. The Western church may perhaps have reinterpreted the festival on December 25th as referring to Christ, the Sun of righteousness, so as to give the pagan observance an edifying new meaning, but what about the Eastern Church and January 6th?

Since January 6th can hardly have been the Christianization of a pagan festival, and was not a turning point in the astronomical year, it prompts a question whether the corresponding western date can have been merely that and no more. After all, December 25th as a date for Christ’s nativity is quite possibly older than the Christian or even the pagan festival on that date, since it occurs in Hippolytus’s Commentary on Daniel 4:23. The text of this passage is somewhat uncertain, it is true, and may be due to an early redactor rather than to Hippolytus himself. The other date for Christ’s nativity, however, can be traced back with greater certainty behind Hippolytus, to Clement of Alexandria, who before the year 200 dates Christ’s nativity on January 6th. This is over a century before any festival of the nativity on January 6th is recorded. Could Clement’s dating, then, be due to a historical tradition that the nativity took place at that time?

Browne’s and Bainton’s articles ought to be much more widely read than they are, for there is still today a strong tendency to assume that a midwinter date for the nativity is not even one of the earliest surviving traditions, and that this date must be due either to the Christianization of a pagan festival at that time of year, or to the contemporary speculation about the “appropriate” length for Christ’s life and its “necessary” alignment with the seasons. If, however, the traditional eastern day of January 6th was known in the church of Alexandria in the last decade of the 2C, it is as old as any of these speculations, and older than any evidence linking the nativity with the pagan festival on the winter solstice. Moreover, if it was known in Alexandria in the last decade of the 2C, it was probably also known there half a century earlier. For in the same passage of Clement, after speaking of the dates for the Lord’s birth, he says, “And the followers of Basiledes hold the day of his baptism as a festival…”

Basiledes likewise belonged to Alexandria, where he taught in the second quarter of the 2C, and though he was a heretic, he would have known the traditions of the Alexandrian church…Tertullian’s knowledge of January 6th as the date of Christ’s birth is confirmed by his apparent knowledge of it as the day of Christ’s baptism, for we have seen that anciently the date commemorated both events.

R. Beckwith, 
Calendar & Chronology, Jewish and Christian (Brill, 1996), 71-75.


  1. December 25th is a well-known date for the winter solstice,

    Well-known by whom? The Greeks and Romans were quite the astronomers and December 25th is 4 days OFF the Winter solstice! It seems strange to me that a culture so vested in astronomy AND astrology would be "off" by so many days!

    Scott<<< Try this for a different and well-researched view of December 25th being chosen as the date for celebrating the Christ Mass.

  2. Scott,

    Before the Julian calendar, the Roman calendar only had 355 days, with an intercalary year of 377/8 days (depending on if they added 23 or 24 days in there) every four years or so, which they often forgot to do, and thus were nowhere near accurate.

    When they switched to the Julian calendar, they started by doing a leap year every 3 years instead of every 4 years; only fixing that little problem by somewhere around the birth of Christ, and they had to do that by skipping three leap days.

    Furthermore, since the Julian calendar wasn't 100% accurate either, it ended up being so far off that by the time Russia and Greece changed to the Gregorian calendar, they had to drop 13 days.

    So, yeah, these guys could *EASILY* be "'off' by so many days".

  3. Oh, one other thing for you to consider is that the calendar during Romans rule was often determined by whomever the emperor was. They would add or subtract days on a whim. For instance, if someone they liked was in power in some place, they might extend the year an extra month so the guys stays in office. If they didn't like the guy, they could cut the month from the year.

    So it was extremely political. If you doubt me, just research why February has 28 days.

  4. That crunchy sound you hear is what happens when Scott encounters the sole of Peter's boot.

    Think scene from Men in Black:

    "Oh I'm sorry, was that your auntie? Then that means this should be your uncle over here. They all look alike to me."

  5. CathApol,

    You've linked that article more than once. We know about it. I've been citing it for years, including here.

  6. Steve,

    That crunchy sound you hear is what happens when Scott encounters the sole of Peter's boot.

    You bring new meaning to my mental ability to think about sound when I think about the fruit of your words as is understood better this way:

    Pro 18:20 From the fruit of a man's mouth his stomach is satisfied; he is satisfied by the yield of his lips.
    Pro 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.

    I am assuming that old saying applies here with Peter and Scott:::>

    "Like Father, like son":::::>

    Rom 16:17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
    Rom 16:18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
    Rom 16:19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
    Rom 16:20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

  7. Peter said: So, yeah, these guys could *EASILY* be "'off' by so many days".

    That was interesting and can even be a logical response - it was not conclusive, but a decent answer. I thank you for your input. Now, were they REALLY "off" by 4 days - or was December 25th selected for OTHER reasons?

  8. The winter solstice is the 21st but days don't start getting longer til the 25th, when the Sun is 'reborn.'

    It's easy to miss the main point though, whilst arguing about the details. Many of the civilizations that viewed our local star as divine set its birthday at the 25th. Whilst debating the date we overlook that they saw it as a divine entity. Science never disproved this; the Church simply banned it.

    To an open mind which sounds more plausible, some indefinable character outside the system who plans and directs its every detail - or an energetic living being beaming us the actual light of life, our local star? Bear in mind that our life force is energy, not flesh.

    It might sound crazy to us but made sense throughout the ancient world. Google 'sunofgod' to shed more light.

  9. Scott,

    I think it's a bit anachronistic to try to merge our specific days onto an old calendar that doesn't even have the same system of days per year that we do now. I think we can get generally close, but it's not really worthwhile to bicker about specifics. I mean, take the following information from the Wikipedia article on the Julian Calendar regarding leaps years:

    The historic sequence of leap years in this period is not given explicitly by any ancient source, although the existence of the triennial leap year cycle is confirmed by an inscription that dates from 9 or 8 BC.[19] The chronologist Joseph Scaliger established in 1583 that the Augustan reform was instituted in 8 BC, and inferred that the sequence of leap years was 42, 39, 36, 33, 30, 27, 24, 21, 18, 15, 12, 9 BC, AD 8, 12 etc. This proposal is still the most widely accepted solution, although Ideler and Mommsen, among others, argued that there was an additional bissextile day in the first year of the Julian reform, i.e. that 45 BC was also a leap year.

    Around the time Scaliger's proposal was published, several other solutions were suggested on the same data. In 1590, Bunting proposed the sequence 45, 42, 39, 36, 33, 30, 27, 24, 21, 18, 15, 12 BC, AD 4, 8, 12 etc. This solution assumed the same phase for the triennial cycle as Scaliger, but differed on the date of its start (45 vs 42 BC) and end (12 vs 9 BC) and on the date at which the correct cycle was resumed (AD 4 vs 8). Other scholars proposed a different phase. Also in 1590, Christmann published an influential translation of Alfraganus, which argued that Caesar had intended leap years to fall in every fourth reformed year, i.e. in 42, 38..., suggesting a triennial cycle of 43, 40, 37, 34, 31, 28, 25, 22, 19, 16, 13, 10 BC. Through an arithmetical error in interpreting years of the Julian reform, he supposed that the correct cycle had resumed in AD 7, but other scholars followed the same line of argument while correcting for this. Harriot considered the sequence 43, 40, 37, 34, 31, 28, 25, 22, 19, 16, 13, 10 BC, AD 4, 8, 12 etc., while in 1614 Kepler discussed 43, 40, 37, 34, 31, 28, 25, 22, 19, 16, 13, 10 BC, AD 8, 12 etc.[20] However Scaliger's solution became generally adopted.

    Other solutions have occasionally been proposed since the 17th century. In 1883 the German chronologist Matzat proposed 44, 41, 38, 35, 32, 29, 26, 23, 20, 17, 14, 11 BC, AD 4, 8, 12 etc., based on a passage in Dio Cassius that mentions a leap day in 41 BC that was said to be contrary to (Caesar's) rule. In 1889, Soltau suggested a modified version of this: 45, 41, 38, 35, 32, 29, 26, 23, 20, 17, 14, 11 BC, AD 8, 12 etc. In the 1960s Radke argued the reform was actually instituted when Augustus became pontifex maximus in 12 BC, suggesting the sequence 45, 42, 39, 36, 33, 30, 27, 24, 21, 18, 15, 12 BC, AD 4, 8, 12 etc., the same solution which Bunting had proposed in 1590.

    Do you really expect to get it mapped to certain dates on today's calendar given the above?

    1. I guess my point is that IF they were REALLY trying to match the solstice, then WHEN they selected the date, why did they not go with the REAL solstice of December 21st? Apples to apples, December 25th comes 4 days AFTER the solstice.

      Do I really expect it to get mapped to certain dates? Well, yes. Those who developed the Gregorian Calendar were quite aware of when the solstice was.