[A version of this essay, somewhat liberally edited, was published in 2001 in Bible Review, now rolled into Biblical Archaeology Review, where it has a startlingly large online exposure each Christmas. What follows is close to the copy actually submitted, less a few footnotes!]
Most have heard the explanation that Christians appropriated a pagan festival, date and customs and all, and simply renamed or reinterpreted it for their own purposes. The truth is rather different, and more complex.
Christmas as such was not celebrated in the first couple of centuries after the birth of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel, apparently the earliest written, does not narrate Jesus’ birth. Interest in Jesus’ human origins emerges in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which provide well-known but quite different accounts, and continues in second-century apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James, which claim to elaborate on the details that might have occurred to the curious - everything from Jesus’ grandparents to his education.
This “human interest” angle did not reflect or immediately spur a ritualized observance of the events, however. For the purposes of ordering worship and time, the last climactic events of Jesus’ ministry were far more interesting to the first Christian communities than the poignancy of his beginnings. Since Jesus’ last great conflict with the Roman authorities and their collaborators had taken place around Passover, his death was from a very early stage interpreted along lines suggested by the great Jewish festival, and his resurrection celebrated annually in some relation to it. As we shall see, however, this kind of observance may have had its own impact on the eventual emergence of the Christmas feast.
Most prominent among other early Christian festivals were the commemorations of martyrs, echoes of this Easter motif of noble death and eternal life, continued into the life of the persecuted Church. Celebrating the anniversaries of the deaths of heroes like Polycarp of Smyrna (d. 155?) or the young African convert Perpetua (d. 203), offered hope of resistance to the pagan authority that had taken their lives but made them effective imitators of Christ. These feasts were actually referred to as “birthdays,” but somewhat ironically. Origen of Alexandria (165?-264?) could write scornfully of the custom of celebrating the actual anniversaries of human birth (Hom in Lev. 8) as a pagan idea.
The observance of Christmas as a feast appeared only rather later, in the fourth century, or perhaps at the end of the third. The proliferation of holidays that allowed Christians to go through the year in connection with the life of Jesus has often been seen as linked to the end of persecution. In the fourth century particularly, evidence such as that of the pilgrim Egeria, who visited the Churches of newly-Christian Jerusalem, documents the emergence of a complex sanctification of time still reflected in the Christian calendar today.
The fourth century also saw greater emphasis placed by Christians on God’s personal presence in Jesus throughout his life - the “incarnation” or enfleshment of God, as teachers such as Athanasius of Alexandria put it. While this was not a new doctrine, fierce debates about the specifics, reflected in documents such as the Nicene Creed (325/380) indicate how Jesus’ own conception and birth could become matters of even greater concern and curiosity in popular belief, and ritual also.
Yet the choice of a specific date for this new feast, appearing centuries after the event it commemorated, is curious. The lack of specific information about the timing of Jesus’ birth has never kept the enthusiastic and the ingenious, ancient and modern alike, from speculating about the exact date of the first Christmas. Extracting supposed hints from the Gospels about issues such as the time of year, however, involves the risk of asking questions they were not attempting to answer - even the year of Jesus’ birth is somewhat unclear.
When the feast of Christmas emerged, there were two dates, December 25 and January 6 (now the Feast of the Epiphany) kept in different parts of the world; the first was mainly observed in the western provinces of the Roman Empire, and the second in places further East such as Egypt and Asia Minor. In time, each of these competing dates was transferred to the other areas too; December 25 prevailed as the primary commemoration of the birth of Jesus, and January 6 became associated with the story of the coming of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12). The period between – the twelve days of Christmas – became a holiday season, preceded by the fasting period known as Advent.
Both these dates were fairly close to the winter solstice - December 21 in our modified Gregorian calendar. Mid-winter festivals were common - the Romans had their Saturnalia, and peoples of northern and western Europe had similar holidays. In 274 CE the Roman Emperor Aurelian had established a feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on December 25 itself. When one of his successors, Constantine, converted to Christianity just a few decades later, imagery and popular practice associated with these pagan observances were easily and readily adaptable to the Christian holiday that took their place.
Ancient Christian authors of the time had already noted this connection between solstice observances and Christmas – Church fathers such as Ambrose reveled in using the imagery of Christ as true “sun,” using the natural symbolism to its full potential while vaunting over fallen gods of the old order. For these, however, the coincidence was not a deliberate or recent piece of calendrical engineering, but a providential sign.
In more recent times, however, the parallel came to be treated as key to explaining the choice of an actual date. The idea first appears in a gloss on a 12th century manuscript, explaining not the origin of Christmas but its transfer from January 6 (taken by the scribe to be the real date) to December 25, because of the solstice holiday.1 Scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spurred on by new studies of comparative religion, seized upon this conjunction as a complete explanation for the Christian feast. Since these dates were clearly not related to the birth date of the historical Jesus, which was unknown, were they not thinly-veiled pagan festivals, appropriated and Christianized only superficially?
Yet the holiday itself and “knowledge” of the dates appear a little too early to work with this theory.
In the first few centuries, the persecuted Christian minority had at least as great a concern to distance itself from the most important and public of pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, the games, and holidays. It was in the fourth century and after, following the conversion of the first Christian Emperor Constantine and the resulting “peace of the Church,” that strategies shifted more clearly to accommodation and Christianization of pagan practices.
Yet the first evidence for Christmas as a feast seems to be slightly too early to make sense as one instance of newly-triumphant fourth-century Christianity. It had already developed by 300 or so at least; about a hundred years after that time, bishop Augustine of Hippo refers to the Christmas observance of a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who celebrated Christmas (December 25), but not Epiphany (January 6). The Donatists had split from the wider Church in 312. In the East meanwhile, theologians and preachers of the late fourth century were working hard to introduce the December 25 date on top of the well-established January 6 feast (Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem).
The second and more telling problem for the idea that the actual date of Christmas is taken from pagan solstice festivals is that while actual liturgical feasts of the incarnation were indeed late, the dates might have been identified much earlier. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian teacher who wrote around 200 – long before anyone suggests celebration of Christmas as a holiday – knows of a tradition dating Jesus’ birth to January 6 (Strom. 1.21.145).2 So in some places at least, there was certainly an interest not just in birth stories, but in the date of Jesus’ birth, long before the Christmas feast emerged.
There is no exact equivalent of this early evidence when it comes to December 25, which was to become the prevalent Christmas date in western provinces first. Yet there was speculation as far back as 200 by the Carthaginian Christian writer Tertullian about the date of Jesus’ death that landed on the surprising and suggestive date of March 25 (Adv. Iudaeos 8) – later to be kept as the Feast of the Annunciation, the point of Jesus’ conception.3
Is there a connection? The key to understanding the emergence both of January 6 and December 25 as specific dates for Jesus’ birth seems – strange as it may seem initially – possibly to lie in the dating of Passover and of Jesus’ death. Tertullian had calculated that in the year Jesus died, March 25 was, according to the Roman calendar, the day the lambs for the Passover Seder were slaughtered (Nisan 14). Following the chronology implied by the Gospel of John, Tertullian took this also to be the date of Jesus’ death.
In provinces further to the East, efforts to establish the date of Easter each year (and not just the first Easter) had led Christians to seek a firmer place in the solar Julian calendar for their Christian celebration. Instead of using the Jewish lunar calendar to find Nisan 14, they chose the fourteenth day of the first Spring month (‘Artemisios’) in the local Greek calendar – April 6 to us. The loyalty of these eastern Christians to their custom of keeping Easter on the actual fourteenth day rather than on the Sunday following (as others then held, and eventually all Christians came to practice) became a major debate within the Church - they themselves were sometimes referred to as “Quartodecimans,” “Fourteenthers.”
So in the eastern provinces we have evidence not only for a birth date for Jesus on January 6, as Clement indicates, but for Easter exactly nine months before. This may shed light on the December 25 date as well. These two dates for the Passover when Jesus died, March 25 and April 6, are of course nine months before the original eastern and western dates for Christmas. The implication is fairly clear, if odd: second-century Christians in different areas had apparently calculated the birth of Jesus on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day – and had come up with two close, but different, results. These calculations preceded any clear evidence for the actual liturgical celebration of Christmas – but may have been there, already “known,” when the interest in Jesus’ birth led to establishment of a festival.
Aside from the wildly complicated calculations involved, the connection between Jesus’ conception and death seems strange to modern readers, at least as history. Yet it was not so odd in ancient terms. Rabbinic writings reflect a similar belief that the great events of creation and salvation had taken, and would take, place on the same dates. The Babylonian Talmud preserves the view that the world was created, the Patriarchs born, and the world would be redeemed, all in the month of Nisan (b. Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). This sort of speculation could go back as early as the second or third centuries. Thus the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on chronology, continuing such Jewish models; Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he was to die, and born nine months later.
This account of the origins of Christmas as computed from the presumed date of his death was first proposed in modern times by Louis Duchesne, and has fairly recently been restated with nuances by Thomas Talley.4 While questions remain, and gaps in the evidence still allow different scholarly interpretations on this question as on so many others, historians no longer wheel out the explanation of Christmas as a borrowed pagan festival in an unqualified way.
The connection between the date of Christmas and the solstice did make the feast of the nativity more strategically important and possible. In the new world of a Christian empire, the fourth-century Church was not backward in appropriating symbols already known to pagans. The various forms of Christmas observance across time and space have always and obviously owed much to local traditions and lore that preceded or grew alongside Christian faith.
The actual date of Christmas could really derive more from Judaism than paganism, both in the relation between dates in Jesus’ life and death and the time of Passover, and in the notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of year. In this notion of God’s recurring redemption, we may perhaps be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood too.
1. A gloss on an MS of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (2nd ed.; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991), 101-102.
2. In addition, Christians in Clement’s native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism – sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate “incarnation” story – on the same date (Strom. 1.21.146). See further on this point Talley, Origins, 118-20, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923) 81-134.
3. There are other relevant texts for this element of argument, including Hippolytus and the (pseudo-Cyprianic) De pascha computus; see Talley, Origins, 86 and 90-91.
4. Origines du culte chrétien (5th ed.; Paris:Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), 275-279.