The Search for Christmas Day

“You know Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th.” I had heard this objection to Christians celebrating Christmas countless times before. My reply was simple, “I agree.” But they went on, “The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is because of the pagan festival celebrating the winter solstice.” I had heard this objection as well; in fact, I had used this same argument against celebrating Christmas. But there was something on this particular day, at this particular time that led me to ask, “Is this really true?”  

As a young child I unquestionably accepted December 25 as Christmas day, the day when Jesus Christ was born. As a young adult I repeatedly heard Christmas was a pagan festival co-opted by Christians in the 4th century. Once again – perhaps due to my tendency toward rebellion against the traditional – I unquestionably accepted this account of the beginning of Christmas as true.

As my conversation ended, I found myself questioning everything I thought I knew about Christmas. Only this time I would not blindly accept what I thought I knew nor what others said was true. Instead, I would dive into the history of Christmas for myself.

My Search Begins

At first, I found what I expected to find: the Christian co-opting of a pagan festival associated with the winter solstice in the 4th century. While there are some variations, the pagan roots theory of Christmas is built upon four pillars. First, Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus prior to the 4th century when Constantine “Christianized” the Roman empire. Second, the newly “converted” Christians under Constantine attempted to rid the empire of pagan worship by changing all the pagan holidays to Christian holidays, specifically the winter festival of Saturnalia. Third, Christians established December 25 as the date for Christmas to replace the birth celebration of Sol Invictus (the sun god). Fourth, Christians assimilated their Christmas traditions – such as Christmas trees, holly, candles, gifts – from pagan celebrations surrounding the festivals of Saturnalia and the winter solstice.

It looked like the pagan roots theory of Christmas might be true after all, except for one thing: sources. Where were all the sources? Not one source directly linked the Christian Christmas to the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Each source drew conclusions about the history of Christmas based on correlations with these ancient pagan festivals, but correlation does not prove causation. I knew I had to keep digging.

My Search for Sources

Many of the sources I found pointed me to James Frazer. Frazer was a 19th century anthropologist who wrote the seminal work promoting the pagan roots theory, The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion. In the second edition published in 1922, retitled The Gold Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Frazer writes,

“An instructive relic of the long struggle is preserved in our festival of Christmas, which the Church seems to have borrowed directly from its heathen rival. . . . Thus it appears that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness.”

Apart from the correlations between the ancient pagan practices and Christian Christmas traditions, Frazer bases his conclusion on an editorial note written by a Syrian bishop named Dionysuis bar-Saliba. Dionysuis writes, “The reason why the fathers transferred the celebration of the sixth of January to the twenty-fifth of December was this. It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of December the birthday of the Sun…when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they too counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.”

Finally, I had an early source. But Frazer’s source was from the 12th century, eight hundred years after the so-called transition. If Dionysuis was not the first to make this connection, why were there no earlier references to this supposed transition? If Dionysuis was the first to make this connection, how trustworthy was his assertion? I still did not have any satisfactory answers.

My Search for Ancient Sources

Then I came across “How December 25 Became Christmas,” an article written by Dr. Andrew McGowan (Dean and President of Berkeley Divinity School and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology at the Yale Divinity School). The article was originally published in Bible Review in 2002, but can be found on the Biblical Archeology Society’s website (click HERE for the full text of the article).

To my great delight, the article addressed the claims of both Frazer and Dionysuis, “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…This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity.”

In the article, McGowan makes three arguments. First, he argues Christians sought to determine and acknowledge the birth date for Jesus as early as the second century. Around the turn of the 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria spoke of “those who have determined not only the year of the Lord’s birth, but also the day (The Stromata, Book 1).” While none of the dates Clement mentions correlate with December 25, his statement demonstrates an interest in a date of birth for Jesus prior to the 4th century.

Second, he argues Christians did not borrow or blend religious practices until after the time of Constantine. Prior to Constantine, Christians were persecuted, in part, because they refused to participate in the pagan religious festivals. It is difficult to imagine those same persecuted Christians using those same pagan practices to worship and celebrate the birth of their savior Jesus Christ.

Third, McGowan argues Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25 prior to the “Christianization” of the Roman empire under Constantine. During the reign of Diocletian, a new heretical sect of Christianity emerged known as the Donatists. The Donatists, as Augustine pointed out in the early 5th century, celebrated Christmas on December 25 as opposed to January 6 (when many of the Eastern churches celebrated the birth of Christ). The Donatist’s tradition stretched back into the third century, before Constantine even became emperor.

Therefore, (1) if Christians were interested in Jesus’ date of birth before Constantine, (2) did not adopt Roman religious practices until after Constantine, and (3) if Christmas was celebrated on December 25 by at least some Christians prior to Constantine; then the celebration of Christmas and its date could not have arisen solely as a result of the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.

My Search for an Alternative Theory

If the Christians did not co-opt the date from the Roman religious festivals, how did they arrive at December 25 as the date for Christmas? McGowan provides his own alternative theory based on the research of Louis Duchesne from the early 20th century. This theory rests on an ancient Jewish tradition of dating a person’s death with their date of conception. Around the turn of the third century, the ancient writer and theologian Tertullian calculated the crucifixion to the 14th of Nisan or March 25. Since Jesus was perfect in all ways, His birth must have been a perfect nine months after conception, which places the date of His birth on December 25. Likewise, the Eastern church used the same methodology, only they calculated the date of Jesus’ crucifixion to the 14th day of Artemisios (April 6), making His date of birth January 6 (which is the date when the Eastern church still celebrates the birth of Christ). While we may scoff at the idea of a person’s death and conception being linked, it does not change the fact ancient cultures did see a connection between these two events.

McGowan’s article gave me much to think about. While his arguments did not prove Christmas was derived from Roman religious practices, it did call into question the unquestioned modern narrative. Could the date for Christmas have “derived more from Judaism…than from paganism” as McGowan contends? In “Is Christmas a Pagan Rip-Off?”, a blog for The Gospel Coalition examining McGowan’s argument, pastor and professor Kevin DeYoung concludes, “While we can’t know for certain that this is where December 25 came from – and we certainly can’t be dogmatic about the historicity of the date – there is much better ancient evidence to suggest that our date for Christmas is tied to Christ’s death and conception than tied to the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.”

My Search Concludes

As I came to the end of my research, I was able to draw two conclusions. (1) Jesus most likely was not born on December 25. (2) The history of December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth is uncertain. The Christian celebration of Christmas may have been influenced by ancient pagan religious practices, but it goes beyond the evidence to say the celebration of Christmas (including the date) was simply an assimilation of the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.