The early church didn’t pick the date to replace a Roman pagan holiday
By promulgation of an urban legend, many people in the 1980s believed that “Mikey,” the little kid from the Life cereal commercials, died from eating and mixing Pop-Rocks candy with a Pepsi, causing his stomach to explode. Many people, even today, believe that Elvis Presley is still alive and that Paul McCartney is really dead (replaced by a look-alike).
None of these claims are true (except maybe the Elvis one). And just like these nagging urban legends, there is a tale told about the origin of Christmas being on December 25, which is repeated so often that it has come to be taken as, dare I say, the Gospel truth. But it isn’t.
The tale is this: The reason that Christmas is on December 25 has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, rather it has to do with early Christianity’s desire to snuff out pagan religion by supplanting one of their “sacred days” with ours.
Thus, in the days of the Roman Empire, built on the premise of the Roman gods, there was a festival named after the god Saturn called Saturnalia. It ran from Dec. 17-23, featuring a party-hardy atmosphere with gift-giving, feasting and gamboling. The tale says that Christians chose Dec. 25 for Christmas in order to steal the thunder from Saturnalia, and ultimately replace the pagan feast with a Christian one.
To this I say, with the joy of the season in the lilt of my voice: balderdash.
I want to use this article to refute this oft-repeated theory, as well as to set the record straight as to why early Christianity celebrated Dec. 25 as the date of the birth of Christ.
Now, let me start with the best-case scenario for the probity of Christmas being built on Pagandom. At best,
this is a theory. What I can say, with certainty, is: there was a Roman Empire, it deigned there was a god called Saturn, and it had a festival called Saturnalia, which was party-hardy time in late December. But, that’s where the veracity of the tale ends.
So, why is there this assertion that the early church Christianized a pagan feast? Because those who like to take shots at Christianity want to say that Christmas’ foundations are pagan, and that we have no idea when Jesus Christ was born. It is an attempt sow seeds of doubt, amidst our fields of the faith.
The first considerations that something was amiss with Dec. 25 as the date of Christ’s birth, began with the Puritans of the 17th century. The Puritans, following their belief that if it isn’t in Scripture, it isn’t so, put forth the idea that since the Bible doesn’t indicate when Christ was born, it can therefore be concluded that Dec. 25th must be a date made up by the Catholic Church. This got the ball rolling, and others bought in.
Later on, some scholars began the assertion, without any basis, that the reason the church took this date (since it wasn’t scriptural) was because, back in the third century, it wanted to stomp down the Roman festival of Saturnalia, dedicated to the god Saturn and replace it with Christmas.
The problem with that theory is that Saturnalia always ended on Dec. 23. So, here’s a good question: why would Christians have put Christmas on Dec. 25, two days after Saturnalia, if they wanted to wipe it out? That would be like wanting to stamp out Independence Day by adding a holiday on July 6. Or saying that Lincoln’s Birthday on Feb. 12 was done to steal the thunder from Washington’s Birthday on Feb. 22. The answer is this: Saturnalia is not the “reason for the (date of the) season.” Christmas’ proximity to Saturnalia is coincidental, not purposeful.
Feast of the Sun
Similarly, a claim is made that Christmas steals from the Roman pagan celebration of “Sol Invicta” (the Feast of the Unconquered Sun). This feast was created, whole cloth, by Emperor Aurelius in 274 A.D, in an attempt to bolster the religion of the Roman Empire by honoring the sun god. This feast, which occurred around the same time as Saturnalia, was not steeped in Roman tradition. It was created on whim, not historical basis.
Far from Christmas trying to obscure or override this feast, scholar Thomas Talley in his work, “The Origins of the Liturgical Year” observes that “Sol Invicta” was a Roman response to the practice of upstart Christianity’s celebration of Christmas in late December.
Both Saturnalia and “Sol Invicta” proved to be fad-fests which passed as quickly into obscurity as mood rings and the Macarena.
Feast of the Son
Dec. 25 as Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, can be found universally on the church’s calendar as far back as 354 A.D. I know, that date is many years after the establishment of Saturnalia and “Sol Invicta,” leading some to make the assertion that Christmas was a response to those Roman feasts. However, we must remember that until 313 A.D., Christianity was not legal in the Roman Empire, and the celebration of Christmas was done primarily in private, often in secret. But, there is evidence of celebrations of Christmas in the form of writings and hymns which pre-date the formal celebration of the pagan Roman feasts that were mentioned.
So, if the pagan religion theory is out of the running, where did we get the date for Christmas? Well, to the chagrin of those who put forth that Christmas’s date cannot be found in scripture, the date of Dec. 25 as Christmas is in fact built upon Scripture.
From where in Scripture might this assertion be drawn? To answer this, we have to turn to St. John the Baptist and his father, Zechariah.
Stop, Luke, and listen
In Luke’s Gospel, 1:8-9, we are told, “Once when he [Zechariah] was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense.” It says that the Angel Gabriel appeared to him announcing (in Luke 1:13): “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.” In an early tradition from text called “De solstitia,” it is asserted that this priestly ceremonial duty Zechariah was performing was part of the festival of Tabernacles (at the autumnal equinox). This places the conception of St. John the Baptist at the autumnal equinox, which the Romans observed on Sept. 25.
In Luke 1:36, when the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is called by God to bear the Son of the Most High, he drops in this tidbit: “And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren.” Six months from the time of John’s conception in the womb of Elizabeth, would mark March 25 as the date of Jesus’ conception by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary.
This understanding is likewise asserted by the third century Roman and Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, who also dates Jesus’ conception to March 25.
From all of this we, and the early Christian Church, binding its faith in the Scripture, would date the birth of John the Baptist to the summer solstice, and the nativity of the Lord to the winter solstice — Dec. 25.
It’s a date!
And that is why Christmas is Dec. 25; that is the reason for the date of the season. While, from an empirical standpoint, I have to admit, that, yes, it is possible that this date could be wrong; nonetheless, this explanation shows that the early Christians and our early church arrived at the date of Christmas based on holy Scripture, not on pagan Roman practices.
And so, from this author, a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good Dec. 25: the birth of Jesus Christ!
Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.