[Note: This blog entry has been expanded into the article, Choosing the Date of Christmas: Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25?. This new article is more thorough and updated.]
Sure enough, this time of year a variety of Messianics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, non-denominational types, and others, are out to prove that Christmas is pagan and those who celebrate it are engaged in sinful activity. I have seen the paltalk rooms and the websites, filled with hefty doses of discredited 19th century historical treatises. I am not remotely convinced by these arguments, because I do not accept the basic logic that leads one to conclude Christian holidays are pagan. For example, I don’t really believe a day can be pagan. God created every day, and aside from a possible interest in pagan holidays for historical reasons, I don’t really care what a pagan did on any day thousands of years ago. Some pagan somewhere celebrated something every day of the year; it’s a fact! Also, I don’t believe a practice can be pagan either. I believe a practice can be wrong, and one reason it can be wrong is that it is fundamentally anti-Christian, but just because a pagan originally did something doesn’t necessarily mean it cannot be appropriated by Christians. When I put up a Christmas tree, I do so to honor Christ on his birthday. As far as I know, God doesn’t run a patent office whereby if a pagan did something (like take a tree inside his house), it can never be used in the future by Christians for good purposes.
At any rate, I am still convinced that Christians chose the date of December 25th for Christian reasons, not pagan reasons, although if the ancient Christians countered a few pagan celebrations along the way, even better. Sure Christmas is not celebrated in Scripture (although the nativity stories, forming the basis of the celebration of Christmas, are recorded in two gospels), but I have never found that to be a big deal. The Church was developing and determining its own separate way from Judaism during the first century AD, and as this happened, Christians began developing their own Church calendar apart from the Jewish feasts, feasts whose celebration was not required of Gentile converts to the Church.
I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Dr. Joseph F. Kelly of John Carroll University at the Ohio Catholic Education Association conference this year. According to his research, summarized in his book The Origins of Christmas, the main reason early Christians chose December 25th for the date of Christmas relates to the date of the creation of the world. Jewish thought had placed the date of creation on March 25th, and it was early Christian writer Sextus Julius Africanus who suggested that Christ became incarnate on that date (it makes great symbolic sense!). According to Sextus Julius, since Christ became incarnate from the moment of his conception, this means that, after 9 months in the Virgin Mary’s womb, Jesus was born on December 25. While the scope of Julius’ influence is unknown, nonetheless, we encounter a Jewish reason why the date of December 25th was chosen for the birth date of Jesus.
There are other good, Jewish reasons, why Christians chose the date of December 25th based on the estimated date of the death of Jesus, which some early Christians theorized happened on March 25th. Based on the Jewish idea that great people were conceived on the same date as their death, some early Christian writers thought that Jesus, who died on March 25th, was also conceived that date. Again, this means he was born on December 25th. Scholar William Tighe (common visitor to many Catholic and Anglican blogs) makes a strong case for his theory in his essay Calculating Christmas. This line of speculation was occurring about the same time other Christians were speculating about the date based on the date of creation. Perhaps this interest in December 25th is because Christians were already celebrating it on this date?
So there you have it, two excellent hypotheses explaining why ancient Christians chose December 25th as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. No pagan conspiracies, no evil work of the pagan emperor Constantine, just solid Christian symbolic reasoning.
You may be asking, “but wasn’t Christmas chosen to counter pagan festivals?” Well, yes, in a sense, but not in the same way that the anti-Christmas crowd claims. According to Kelly, Christians of the late third and early fourth centuries had been engaged in a propaganda war with pagans since the Emperor Aurelian established the Sol Invictus, the feast of the unconquered Sun, on December 25th. For Christians, Jesus was the true Sun, the Sun of Righteousness (a title derived from Malachi 4:2). In fact, Aurelian may have established the Sol Invictus because of the rising popularity of Christianity, and may have established the date of the Sol Invictus in response to Christian celebrations already occurring that day!
Ok, Kelly explained the issue of the Sol Invictus, but what about Saturnalia? Many armchair historians on the internet claim that Christmas is really just the Saturnalia festival dressed up. According to Kelly, since the festival of Saturnalia always ended at the latest on December 23, the claim that Christmas was chosen to coincide with Saturnalia is rather weak. However, since the celebration of Saturnalia occurred around Christmas time, it is very possible that this made December 25th even more of an ideal date, because it offered an alternative to the popular pagan festival in Rome. Is there anything wrong with Christians wanting to “steal the thunder” from a pagan festival? I sure hope not! Thus, December 25th was an ideal choice for Christ’s birth based on a variety of Jewish and Christian, and not pagan, reasons.