The actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism.
By Andrew McGowan
Warden and President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, Australia
But wasn’t the selection of December 25 as the birthdate of Jesus an adaptation of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice called Saturnalia or the Sol Invictus festival to encourage pagans to convert to Christianity?
Andrew McGowan’s “How December 25 Became Christmas” in Biblical Archaeology Review offers an insightful debunking of this myth. He traces the history of the celebration of Jesus’ birth from the very first reference to it in ca. 200 A.D. According to Clement of Alexandria (Egypt), there were several different days proposed by various Christian groups as Jesus’ birth date, but none mentioned December 25 as a possible date.
The earliest mention of December 25 as the birth date of Jesus came from a Roman almanac published about 350 A.D., where the date is noted, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” About 400 A.D., Augustine of Hippo mentions that the schismatic Donatists already kept the December 25 commemoration.
How did they come up with December 25? According to McGowan, the possible connection to Saturnalia or Sol Invictus is problematic, because it is not found in any early church writings. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397), for example, wrote that Christ is the true sun who outshone pagan gods.
Church historians note that the connection between the December 25 date and pagan festivals was not intentionally set until the 12th century when Christianity spread to pagan northern and western Europe. Many of the Christmas trappings today come from these cultures, such as mistletoe, Yuletide, and Santa Claus and his reindeer.
But clearly, December 25 was already commemorated when Christians were widely persecuted before Constantine legalized Christianity in 312 A.D. This means that Christians who avoided participating in the pagan culture at the risk of life and limb were already observing the December 25 date.
If December 25 did not come from paganism, what was its origin? McGowan proposes a solution: a real connection between Christ’s Advent and Passion. As early as 200 A.D., Tertullian of Carthage wrote about how the ancient church arrived at December 25. Jesus was crucified on March 25 (Passover on the 14th day of Nisan) and nine months after that date is December 25. March 25 of course was already marked as the day of the Annunciation of Christ’s birth. The table below summarizes this idea. Thus, they believed that the date of Jesus’s conception and crucifixion were on the same days.
This connection between creation and redemption was very familiar to—and received approbation from—early church writers such as Augustine and the eastern Church, as well as ancient Jewish writers. McGowan concludes,
Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art… a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death … Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism.