EVERYONE KNOWS THAT DECEMBER 25 HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ACTUAL BIRTH OF JESUS, RIGHT? And that the Church Fathers simply baptised an already pagan festival celebrating the re-birth of the sun as symbolic of the birth of the Son.
At least. that’s what I understood – until recently. No intelligent person, I thought, believed that early Christians considered December 25th to have been the date of Jesus’ birth. Like Anton Wessels, author of Europe, was it ever really Christian?, I saw Christmas as among various pagan celebrations and customs converted to Christiain ends. Just yesterday, Christmas Day, I heard a Dutch pastor reiterate on television the ‘pagan origins theory’ as fact – as I would have done last Christmas.
However, a Norwegian journalist challenged my perspective during our Share the Heritage trip through Europe this summer. Ole-Christian seemed no dummy. Recently he sent me an article* which indicated that, like many things in life, the story was more complex than I had imagined.
This article argues that the anti-Christian Roman Emperor Aurelian initiated the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ on December 25, 274. The author, history professor William J. Tighe, of Muhlenberg College in America, in turns draws from Thomas J. Talley’s The Origins of the Liturgical Year (The Liturgical Press). The empire was caving in on all sides. So Aurelian wanted to unite the myriad pagan cults of the empire around a celebration of the sun’s ‘re-birth’. He needed a symbol of renewal based on the pagan worship which, he thought, had originally made Rome great. The winter solstice fitted the need exactly.
Although two Roman temples of the sun existed in the first century, their main festivals were in August, not at the equinox or solstice, argue Talley and Tighe Even when Mithraism, a sun-worshipping cult from the east, grew popular in the second century, the winter solstice was not observed in ancient Rome, prior to Aurelian’s initiative.
Meanwhile, Latin Christians in both Rome and North Africa had already, in the second or early third centuries, (mis?)calculated the date of Jesus’ death to be March 25, 29AD. Eastern (Greek) Christians, using a different calendar, had arrived at April 6 as the date of the crucifixion.
Applying the concept of “Integral Age” widely-held in first-century Judaism – that the prophets of Israel all died on the same date as their birth or conception – these early believers concluded that Jesus had been conceived on March 25 or April 6, and thus born nine months later on December 25 or January 6.
So, while actual liturgical celebration of these dates probably did not start until well after Aurelian, the choice of December 25 in the west, and January 6 in the east, to celebrate the birth of Jesus was not simply a takeover of an existing pagan feast. Neither of these was the likely date, but the traditional celebration, close to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, remains an appropriate reminder that the light of Christ did shine in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it (John 1:5).
Till next week,