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Why Christmas is on December 25

December 22nd, 2012
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jesus_nativityThanks to Dr. Gene Edward Veith for this post.  Biblical Archaeology Review has a good scholarly discussion of why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. And it is evidently NOT because it was superimposed on a pagan holiday:

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly. . . .

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. . . . In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E. . . . .

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

The article goes on to document other ancient sources that associate the day of Jesus’s conception with the day of His death, going back to rabbinic Jewish texts that make similar connections.

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  1. Terry
    December 19th, 2009 at 12:47 | #1

    There is a fine article in Touchstone on the December date. See http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v

  2. Tony
    December 19th, 2009 at 23:52 | #2

    There is also this from Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms, Psalm CXXXIII:8 “The ministry of man grew less and less, as was signified in John; the ministry of God in our Lord Jesus Christ increased, as was shown at their birth. The former was born, as the tradition of the Church shows, on the 24th of June, when the days begin to shorten. The Lord was born on the 25th of December, when the days begin to lengthen.”

    The ancients couldn’t measure the difference in day-length from Dec. 21 to Dec. 22 (not quite a full minute). They DID recognize that Dec. 25 was longer than Dec. 24 and that June 25 was shorter than June 24.

    Remarkable feat of astronomy considering they didn’t have modern clocks!

  3. Gabriel Borlean
    December 20th, 2009 at 12:57 | #3

    Dr. McCain,

    How does one RECONCILE this explanation (for Dec. 25th as the birthdate) and what the writer of Luke tells us ??

    “The Shepherds and the Angels ] And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”
    Luke 2:8

    The winter-time in Palestine is TOO COLD for shepherds to keep watch AT NIGHT.

    • December 20th, 2009 at 13:01 | #4

      Hi Gabriel,

      Thanks for your comment. First, I’m not a “Dr.” Second, I don’t think you are correct. If you check this site: http://www.southtravels.com/middleeast/palestine/weather.html You will see the temperatures in Palestine in December. In fact, I just checked the weather in Bethlehem, and it is currently only 59 degrees (Celsius). You can read the temperature predictions for this week in Bethlehem at: http://www.timeanddate.com/weather/west-bank/bethlehem

      A large herd of sheep would have stayed warmed together, and there was no place to go with a large herd other than outside, and that’s where the shepherds would have been, with them, outside. Being a shepherd was a tough life.

  4. Norm Fisher
    December 20th, 2009 at 13:23 | #5

    59 degrees Celsius is 138 degrees Fahrenheit … me thinks the sheep would be cooking if that were the case.

    McCain response: Make that centigrade.

  5. Richard Strickert
    December 20th, 2009 at 19:30 | #6

    The temperature in Bethlehem was probably 59 degrees Fahrenheit (named after a Lutheran physicist, Daniel Fahrenheit, who got the idea for his temperature scale from a Danish Lutheran astronomer, Ole Roemer). That is 15 deg. Celsius.

    The old centigrade temperature scale was renamed the Celsius temperature scale, after a Swedish Lutheran astronomer, Anders Celsius, although Anders had the water freezing at 100 degrees and boiling at 0 degrees. A year after Celsius’ death, his temperature scale was reversed to what we use today, by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish Lutheran PK, who became known as “the father of modern taxonomy”.

    It is most definitely not 59 degrees Kelvin, which is the absolute tempreature scale developed by Lord Kelvin (British mathematical physicist William Thomson), who was not Lutheran.

  6. Brent
    December 21st, 2009 at 12:04 | #7

    Perhaps I’m being picky, but it bugs me that the quoted article use the abbreviation C.E. (for “Common Era”) rather than the traditional A.D. (for Anno Domini). This use (along with its counterpart B.C.E. instead of B.C.), which is growing in popularity, always strikes me as the epitome of anti-Christian political correctness. Sort of the equivalent of wishing everyone “Happy Holidays.” Rather disappointing to see that Biblical Archaeology Review has adopted it.

  7. Donald
    December 22nd, 2009 at 01:05 | #8

    @Brent

    Brent, in seminary we are told that because the actual year of Christ’s birth is not clear…it could have been from 7 BCE to 11 CE if I remember right, or something like that, that it is more accurate, even for Christians, to use CE and BCE using the absolute year Zero as the dividing line. If we use AD and BC, the dividing line is 18 years wide, give or take a couple of years. For the calendar to be accurate, we need the year Zero to be the one which creates the divide between BCE and CE. Hope that helps!

  8. Brent
    December 22nd, 2009 at 11:30 | #9

    Donald, I get it that the B.C./A.D. calendar system is not accurate. This has been widely known for a long time. Most scholars place Christ’s birth somewhere between 4 and 7 B.C. But I don’t believe the current trend toward replacing B.C. and A.D. with B.C.E. and C.E. is motivated by a desire for accuracy. Rather, I’m convinced that it is driven by those who are galled to have to acknowledge the birth of Christ every time they write the date out. The fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first to make widespread use of the B.C.E. and C.E. ought to tell you something about the reason behind the new abbreviations.

  9. Rev. Robert Fischer
    December 22nd, 2012 at 12:56 | #10

    Brent, you wrote, “it bugs me that the quoted article use the abbreviation C.E. (for “Common Era”) rather than the traditional A.D. (for Anno Domini)…. Rather disappointing to see that Biblical Archaeology Review has adopted it.”

    I’ve been a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) for almost 30 years and I can tell you that the C.E./B.C.E. usage is controversial among its readers as well. That’s why the policy of BAR is to use the terminology of the individual authors of their articles. If an author uses A.D./B.C., that’s what’s published; unfortunately, most articles submitted to BAR are currently using C.E./B.C.E..

  10. Allan
    December 22nd, 2012 at 13:09 | #11

    Has anyone seen the video, The Star of Bethlehem? He makes a case for the visit of the Magi being on Dec. 25th and has suggestions for birth date and crucifixion date also.

  11. James Kellerman
    December 22nd, 2012 at 15:58 | #12

    Tony #2, when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, December 25 (8 days before the Kalends of January or a[nte]d[iem] VIII Kal[endas] Ian[uarias] as the Romans called it) was the shortest day of the year, just as June 24 (8 days before the Kalends of July) was the longest day. By the same token, March 25 and September 24 were the equinoxes. By the time of the Council of Nicea, the calendar had had three to four too many leap years and was off by that number of days. Of course, by the time Pope Gregory got around to his reform of the calendar, the calendar was off by much more than that, but he decided to set back the clock to the time of the Council of Nicea, when the rules for celebrating Easter had been agreed upon, rather than going back to when the pagan Julius Caesar had promulgated his calendar. Thus, from a half century before Christ’s birth until roughly a half century following, Dec. 25 would have been the shortest day of the year.

    Donald #8: There is no year zero. We go from year 1 B.C. (= 753 A.U.C, from the founding of Rome) to the first year of our Lord (1 A.D. = 754 A.U.C.). (Do not confuse A.U.C. with U.A.C.)
    Also, if you consult Andrew Steinmann’s chronology, From Abraham to Paul (published by what publishing house was that again, Paul McCain?), you will see that there is a sound argument for Christ being born late in the year 3 B.C. or early 2 B.C, which would mean that Dionysius Exiguus was off by just a couple of years rather than the four to six that he is supposed to be off by.

  12. December 23rd, 2012 at 00:48 | #13

    This is very interesting because I hadn’t heard about the birth-crucifixion dates and thier relationship prior to this. Dr. Vieth mentions near the end about 200 CE, which is an early date for this to show up. I always was under the assumption that the date was replacing the pagan festivals. Learn something new all the time.

  13. Nils
    December 26th, 2012 at 11:54 | #14

    Brent :
    Rather, I’m convinced that it is driven by those who are galled to have to acknowledge the birth of Christ every time they write the date out.

    This is very true. Some non-Christians get very upset when BC/AD is used in writing, and even view it as a personal affront. I’m of the “live-and-let-live” mindset when it comes to chronological dating systems–you let me continue my use of Dionysius Exiguus’ system, I’ll let you use your CE. We both know what it means, let’s not get upset. It’s all relative anyway–we could still be using “ab urbe condita!”

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