"From before the advent of Christianity right into the nineteenth century, the winter festival now universally known as Christmas owed its existence to pagan festivals marking the arrival of the winter solstice -- the lengthening of days, the return of light and life." -- (Whyte, Kenneth, "Come mall ye faithful", Saturday Night; Dec96, Vol. 111 Issue 10, p15, 2p, 1c)
It is common knowledge that Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, isn't it? After all, what possible reason could there be for Christmas to fall on December 25 -- the date of the Winter Solstice on the old Roman calendars -- then for the reason that the early Christians wanted to ride the coattails of the old pagan holiday? Even the Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to celebrate Christmas because of those pagan ties, right? But the question remains, does the "common knowledge" about Christmas' pagan origins comport with reality?
It appears that the "common knowledge" may, once again, be a little less than accurate. Melinda Penner at the Stand to Reason blog (one of my personal favorites) recently pointed out that World Magazine has published an article entitled "Why December 25? -- The origin of Christmas had nothing to do with paganism" by Gene Edward Veith which argues that December 25 was not an adoption of the pagan winter solstice, but rather the pagan winter solstice was trying to ride the coattails of the western Christians celebration of the birth of Jesus.
"William J. Tighe, a history professor at Muhlenberg College, gives a different account in his article 'Calculating Christmas,' published in the December 2003 Touchstone Magazine. He points out that the ancient Roman religions had no winter solstice festival.
"True, the Emperor Aurelian, in the five short years of his reign, tried to start one, 'The Birth of the Unconquered Sun,' on Dec. 25, 274. This festival, marking the time of year when the length of daylight began to increase, was designed to breathe new life into a declining paganism. But Aurelian's new festival was instituted after Christians had already been associating that day with the birth of Christ. According to Mr. Tighe, the Birth of the Unconquered Sun 'was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.' Christians were not imitating the pagans. The pagans were imitating the Christians." (Emphasis added.)
Interesting, eh? This is a far cry from what Mr. Whyte, the author of "Come mall ye faithful", above, suggests in his article highlighting the pagan roots of Christmas. Mr. Whyte says:
"The birth of Jesus played almost no role in the old Christmas, not surprisingly given its pagan roots and the fact that there is no biblical or historical reason to place His birth on December 25. The Church (in the fourth century) chose that date simply because it approximated the solstice. 'In return,' writes [Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday], 'for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviors birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church . . . tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been. From the beginning, the Church's hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority.'"
Obviously, we have a difference of opinion here. If the pagan origins of Christmas are a myth, exactly how did the myth arise? Mr. Tighe has an answer in his "Calculating Christmas" article:
The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ's birth on December 25th was one of the many "paganizations" of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many "degenerations" that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.
In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian's time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.
But certainly the Bible does not say exactly when the birth of Jesus occurred, does it? If it is silent on the question, then exactly why was December 25 chosen if not because the date "approximated the solstice"? Interestingly, Mr. Tighe's article answers this question by looking into the debate in the early church over the date of Jesus' death. The Bible is not quite as silent on the date of Jesus' death since the Bible relates that he died on the eve of Passover. The date of Jesus' death was important to the date of Jesus' birth due to an "ancient Jewish belief (not supported in Scripture) that God appointed for the great prophets an 'integral age,' meaning that they died on the same day as either their birth or their conception." If the date of Jesus' death was determined, then, it was argued, using the concept of the "integral age", it was also possible to argue the date of Jesus' conception.
Unfortunately, the exact date of Jesus death cannot be pinpointed by reference to the Scriptures. Moreover, since there was no standard frame of reference of calendars for determining dates, calculating the exact date of death became a tricky business indeed. Moreover, the Christian church of the East and the Christian church of the West, using different calendars, arrived at two different dates.
Greek Christians seem to have wanted to find a date equivalent to 14 Nisan in their own solar calendar, and since Nisan was the month in which the spring equinox occurred, they chose the 14th day of Artemision, the month in which the spring equinox invariably fell in their own calendar. Around A.D. 300, the Greek calendar was superseded by the Roman calendar, and since the dates of the beginnings and endings of the months in these two systems did not coincide, 14 Artemision became April 6th.
In contrast, second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29. (As an aside, I will note that this is impossible: 25 March 29 was not a Friday, and Passover Eve in A.D. 29 did not fall on a Friday and was not on March 25th, or in March at all.)
So in the East we have April 6th, in the West, March 25th.
Starting with these two dates of April 6 and March 25 and adding nine months, the dates of birth for Jesus (assuming the "integral age" teaching as true) would be either January 6 or December 25. While December 25 is readily recognizable, January 6 is certainly recognizable to Christians who come from a more liturgical background -- it is Epiphany.
"Before there was December 25, there was January 6. As early as the second century, Christians celebrated Jesus' appearance at the Jordan and his baptism by John on January 6. Sometime later they expanded this festival to include Christ's appearance at birth. Christians called it Epiphany, or manifestation. So the meaning of the first Christmas was not pagan; it was a celebration of the Word manifest in flesh." -- Shelly, Bruce, "Is Christmas Pagan?", Christianity Today 12/06/99, Vol. 43 Issue 14, p85.
Even today, Epiphany remains a central part of the Christmas celebration in the West. Epiphany is celebrated as the date that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem. It is also considered the twelfth and final day of Christmas as referenced in the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Thus, while December 25 has been overwhelmingly adopted as the day to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus in the Western Christian churches, January 6 remains an important part of the Christmas celebration and its connection with Christmas arises from the same basic calculations that gave us December 25.
The best way to sum up this post is to quote, once again, from Mr. Tighe.
Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ's birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine's time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ's birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ's death.
Addendum (12/21/05): What about Saturnalia? Was the date of December 25 chosen because of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia? I discuss this possibility and why it can be rejected in "Saturnalia: A precursor to Christmas?"