Every year at Christmas time we hear arguments that our Christmas celebrations are little more than warmed over paganism. We hear that the date was selected to compete with pagan holidays, or worse, to absorb pagan holidays into the church, and that our Christmas practices originate in paganism. What are we to make of these arguments? Are we buying into paganism in our Christmas celebrations?
The answer is no. The arguments for the supposed pagan origins of Christmas are overblown, and even where our celebrations include practices with pre-Christian roots, that doesn’t mean we are practicing paganism. In this article, we will look at just one aspect of this: arguments over the date of Christmas.
December 25 a Pagan Holiday?
When talking about the date of Christmas, people routinely tell you that we do not know when Jesus was born, but we celebrate Christmas in December because the church wanted to compete with the popular pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia.
The “Jesus Myth” theory, which says that Jesus never actually lived but that his story was stolen from paganism, takes this argument one step further: it argues that December 25 was picked as the date for Christmas because it was the birthday of Horus, Mithras, Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), and a host of other dying and rising deities; Jesus mythicists also claim that all of these gods were born of a virgin, that three wise men showed up at the birth, that each of these incarnate deities had twelve followers, etc. The Jesus mythicists thus conclude that the church stole these stories as it invented Jesus.
This is all nonsense.
Myth and History
First, there is the question of the nature of the stories associated with the gods’ births. In all cases, the myths surrounding the births of the gods take place outside of historic time. They are in a mythical past, and though legendary kings may be associated with some of these births, those kings cannot be placed in history either. In contrast, Jesus’ birth occurred at a specific point in history, and there are known historical figures (Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, etc.) that are connected with his life. In other words, unlike the allegedly parallel myths, Jesus’ life occurs in the context of verifiable history.
Dismantling the Jesus Myth
In terms of the specific date of Christmas, neither the Saturnalia theory nor the Jesus Myth makes sense of the existing evidence. Saturnalia ran from December 17-23. If December 25 was selected to compete with or replace Saturnalia, it was an odd choice: why pick a date after the festival was completed? Wouldn’t you want it before or during the festival if you were trying to replace it?
The case is even worse for the claims of the Jesus mythicists. Contrary to what is commonly claimed, Horus’s birth was celebrated in late August, not December; further, his mother Isis was married to Osiris and was not a virgin. Similarly, there is no evidence that December 25 was Mithras’s birthday, and he likewise was not born of a virgin; he was born of a rock (though I suppose we could assume the rock was a virgin). In neither case were there wise men, nor twelve disciples, nor any of the other alleged parallels.
The birthday of Sol Invictus seems to have been celebrated on December 25, but the earliest source for this date comes from a calendar from the year 354, and even here the evidence is ambiguous. This means that the first evidence we have of the feast of Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25 comes from decades after that date had been adopted by the church in Rome for the celebration of Christmas. If anything, this suggests that the feast of Sol Invictus was set on that date to compete with a Christian holiday rather than the other way around. (The same is true for our sources for Mithras worship: they all post-date Constantine’s conversion and the dating of Christmas, so whatever influence there was most likely flowed from Christianity to Mithras worship rather than from Mithras worship to Christianity.)
Although a few early Christian writers noted a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth, none make any connection to pagan myths, which is surprising if that was the point of the date. In fact, the idea that our date for Christmas was influenced by pagan festivals first appears in the twelfth century, eight centuries after the date was set. No contemporary evidence suggests that Saturnalia or the birth of sun gods had anything to do with the date of Christmas.
None of these alleged sources for Christmas bear any scholarly weight. So where does the date of our Christmas celebration come from?
Setting the Date
The early church didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth, and until the late third century there was no real interest in the date. (This by itself should put the lie to the idea that Jesus is nothing more than a borrowed sun deity—if he was, you’d expect the date to be established very early.) In the third century, some church leaders began trying to figure out the date of his birth, with May 20 being a popular choice. In the mid-fourth century, either December 25 in the West or January 6 in the East emerged as the consensus dates for celebrating Jesus’ nativity.
So how did they come up with those dates?
The date of Christmas is connected to the date of Good Friday. Jesus died on 14 Nisan in the Jewish lunar calendar; the second-century church father Tertullian converted this to March 25 in the Roman solar calendar. An anonymous fourth century treatise argues that Jesus entered the world (i.e. was conceived) on the same day that he died; the feast of the Annunciation was thus set to March 25, which made the date of his birth nine months later, on December 25.
In the East, 14 Nisan was converted to 14 Artemisios, the first month of Spring in the local Calendar. In the Roman calendar, this is April 6, which then became the date of the feast of the Annunciation in the East. This led to Christmas being celebrated nine months later on January 6.
The idea that there is a connection between Jesus’ conception and death probably came not from paganism, but from Judaism. In the second century, at least some Jewish rabbis believed that important events occurred in the same month. Thus Rabbi Eliezar argued, “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan [our ancestors] will be redeemed in the world to come.” This thinking seems to have informed early Christian theologians as they pondered the relationship between Jesus’ birth and death.
The closeness of the date of Christmas to the solstice is thus a red herring: Passover is celebrated shortly after the vernal equinox, and so Jesus’ crucifixion must also be near the equinox. The identification of the Annunciation, when Jesus was conceived, with the Crucifixion means that Christmas must be close to the winter solstice. The connection with pagan solstice festivals is thus entirely coincidental. The Jewish background to Christianity is a much better explanation for both of the dates for Christmas than any supposed connection to paganism.
So was Jesus born on Christmas? We don’t know. We are frequently told that he must have been born in Spring since that’s the only time when the shepherds would have been out with their sheep at night. But that reflects shepherding practices from farther north and from a later time period. We do not actually know enough about sheep herding in the time and place of Jesus’ birth to know when shepherds might have been watching their flocks at night. In the end, the important thing is that we take time to recognize the wonder of the Incarnation and remember the birth of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.