Was Jesus Born On December 25th?
Written by Young Adult Staff Minister Brandon Steenbock
It happens every year at Christmas time. Amid the joy and laughter, the quiet moments of reflection, the cheerful music and the eating of too many sweets, someone always says, “You know that Christmas is just a pagan celebration the Christians stole for their own use.”
Ah yes, the annual tradition of attacking Christmas spirit with pedantic historical revisionism. Wait, Christians didn’t co-opt the festival of Saturnalia and its high point, Sol Invictus? The Church didn’t choose December 25th to replace a pagan holiday and win converts? If you’ve been disturbed by these claims before, be at peace; they have no merit. Then again, if you’ve repeated these claims, you also should read on.
Here are some facts:
- No Church Father or historian in the first 1,000 years of Christianity ever mentions that the date was chosen to replace a pagan festival.
- The first mention that Christians might have been co-opting Saturnalia is speculation by a 12th century church historian.
- Early Christians didn’t adopt overtly pagan customs as an evangelism tool.
- Sol Invictus – the feast of the Undying Sun – was established in 274 A.D. by Emperor Aurelian, years after Christians starting celebrating Christmas on December 25th.
Christians didn’t borrow the date from pagans, but it looks like maybe the pagan Emperor Aurelian borrowed the date from Christians!
So why did the Church start celebrating Christmas on December 25th? It may surprise you that the Early Church didn’t care about the day he was born; celebrating birthdays was not part of Jewish and early Christian culture. They were more interested in determining the day Jesus died, the day salvation was won. But around the year 200 A.D. Christians started asking.
There was a lot of debate. Clement of Alexandria proposed a dozen dates across March, April, May, and August, while Hippolytus mentioned December 25th. People at that time believed that great prophets died the same calendar day their life began, but there was debate if that meant conception or birth. And then there was debate as to what day Jesus actually died, because trying to sync up the Roman and Jewish calendars to pin a date on the Gospels is not an easy task. Eventually they figured out that Jesus died either on March 25th or April 6th, so if his life began at conception, they figured he was born either December 25th or January 6th.
A Roman almanac dating 336 A.D. lists the deaths of certain church fathers and martyrs. It starts with the date of December 25th as natus Christus in Betleem Judeae, which means “Christ was born in Bethlehem in Judea.” Was this based on solid evidence, or just tradition? No one knows. But by that time, the Western Church celebrated Christmas on December 25th, and the Eastern Orthodox Church on January 6th.
Over the centuries, Christians have continued to use December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth, not because we know for sure that he was born on that day, but for the sake of tradition and stability. In the end, it is not his birthdate that matters, it is the reason for his coming. Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us,” the Savior of the world who came to take our sins and bring us peace with God. We can celebrate his birth at Christmas time, but let’s also celebrate his life, death, and resurrection every day of the year, and on into the eternal life he has in store for us.We