As a child, I always loved Christmas. I loved decorating our home. I loved watching the gifts pile up under the Christmas tree. I loved waking up on Christmas morning and opening gifts with my family.
But I can also remember the first time I read a little booklet that said Christmas was just a pagan holiday converted by early Christians into the date of Jesus’ birth. The implication was that everything about Christmas was pagan and that true Christians should, therefore, not celebrate it.
That sort of put a spoiler on things.
It even created some controversy and division in my own family.
So is Christmas just a pagan holiday dressed up in Christian clothes?
Should Christians avoid celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25?
Now I confess, there are many elements in our modern celebration of Christmas that are materialistic and perhaps even pagan in origin. Even the names of our days of the week have pagan origins…Sun-Day, Saturn-day, Moon-Day, Thors-Day, etc.
But the question I want to answer is “Did the early Christians just pick December 25 for the birth of Jesus to replace a popular pagan holiday? Did they select the day because of Saturnalia, which was celebrated around the winter solstice from December 17-23, or possibly the Roman worship of the sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25?”
The short answer is “no.”
That is what is commonly termed an “urban legend.”
This “urban legend” did not begin until the 12th century when a medieval writer made the claim that Christmas was shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it occurred on the same day as Sol Invictus.
This idea picked up steam, especially in the 18th century, when skeptics wanted to link everything about Christianity with paganism. The common thinking was, “There is nothing unique about Christianity. They just borrowed everything from paganism.”
However, there is no evidence that early Christians picked December 25 for Christ’s birth because it was a pagan holiday.
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. (Andrew McGowen, How December 25 Became Christmas)
So how did December 25th become associated with Christ’s birth?
There is no mention of the date of Jesus’ birth in the gospel accounts. It is not something that the biblical writers were necessarily concerned with. The focus was on the incomprehensible incarnation of the Son of God into human flesh not on the specific date on the calendar.
But as time went on, early Christians began to speculate on the day of Jesus’ birth. Early ideas included April 20, May 20, or November 18.
But eventually two dates emerged as primary options for Christ’s birth–December 25 and January 6.
How did the early church arrive at these dates?
A common mode of thought in those days was that Christ’s life had to be perfectly complete, that the day of His death and the day of His conception had to be the same. Thus, Christians who had a date for Christ’s death associated that same day with the date of His conception.
In the western church, Christ’s death was commonly dated on March 25. In the eastern church, Christ’s death was commonly dated on April 6. The variance depended on the year that Christ died and on the date that the Hebrew Nisan 14 (Passover) would have fallen.
Since the ancient world calculated exactly nine months from conception to birth, then naturally December 25 and January 6 became the common dates for Christ’s birth.
The difference in these two dates are the traditional “12 days of Christmas,” with Christians eventually coming to a compromise with December 25th being the date of Christ’s birth and January 6 being the date that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem.
What is important is that the date was chosen independently of any association with paganism.
As early as the 2nd century, Christians were celebrating Christ’s birth on one of these two dates. Around AD 200, an early church father, Hippolytus, wrote that December 25 was reckoned to be the date of Jesus’ birth based on the date of His death on March 25th. What is significant is that this is 75 years before the Roman emperor Aurelian made December 25th the date of Sol Invictus, the pagan holiday honoring the sun.
So instead of Christians picking December 25 based on a pagan holiday, it may have been the other way around. It is not too much unlike people today who take the Christian holiday of Christmas and try to turn it into some kind of secular celebration of winter or Santa Claus or just plain ol’ commercialism.
Augustine would write in the fourth century:
For Jesus is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before Him nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.
Bottom line, we are not sure of the exact date of Jesus’ birth. But we are sure that Jesus entered our world, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and that He died on a Roman cross and rose again three days later from the grave. The exact dates are not as important as the reality of their occurrence.
Jesus was born to demonstrate God’s incomprehensible love, He died to demonstrate God’s’ amazing grace, and He rose again to demonstrate God’s unconquerable power.
That is the message of Christmas.
It is not a pagan holiday.
It is a day that reminds us that there truly is hope in this world.