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Christmas Day 25 December ­ why?

 (part 1)

By Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz

Historically Christmas Day was probably not December 25. In fact the chances
are 364/365 against!

Some people are shocked when they realise that 25 December has only one
chance in 365 of being the date that Jesus was born. This shock generally
deepens when they find out Jesus wasn’t born 0 AD. In fact there was no 0 AD.
The concept of zero is surprisingly late. And the year before 1 AD is 1 BC.
Jesus probably was born some time in 7-4 BC (but that’s another story).

How did 25 December come to be the feast of Christ’s birth?

Attempts at guestimating a date often turn on the shepherds being in the


Bethlehem fields in Luke’s gospel and what time of year that might have been.
This misunderstands the role that Bethlehem and the shepherds play in Luke’s
masterpiece. Bethlehem is there to fulfil an expectation amongst some that the
messiah would be born in David’s city. And we have so sweetened the infancy
stories and lost their nature as prelude and overture that we often forget that
shepherds in that culture were despised as law-breaking, irreligious, un-
trustable rogues. In Luke’s story the shepherds are amongst the first to hear the
good news to set the scene for Luke’s story in which God has special care for
the downtrodden and despised amongst which were Samaritans, women - and
shepherds.

The pagan origin of a 25 December Christmas

The most common explanation that one hears for December 25 being
Christmas day is that in the Roman Empire December 25 (the date of the
winter solstice in the Julian Calendar introduced in 45 BC) the Romans
celebrated the festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the
unconquered sun." This celebration grew to its greatest popularity under
Aurelian, who in 274 encouraged it as an empire-wide holiday.

Early Christianity conflated iconography and symbolism from the Sol Invictus
cult into its own traditions. The haloed Christ is an obvious example.
Constantine on March 7, 321 made dies Solis, the day of the sun, "Sunday" the
Roman day of rest.

In the twelfth century Jacob Bar-Salibi wrote: "It was a custom of the Pagans to
celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they
kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the
Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church
perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel
and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day." (cited in
"Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries", Ramsay
MacMullen. Yale:1997, p155)

25 December, Christmas Day, does not, hence, celebrate Jesus’ historical


birthday as we do not know the date of his birth. It is an annual
commemoration of Christ’s birth.

December 25 is not the only date for Christmas (that too is another story). That
this date originates as a Christianised pagan festival is not the only theory. In
part 2 I will describe a fascinating Judaeo-Christian theory of the origin of a 25
December Christmas Day.

Further reading:
http://www.liturgy.co.nz/worship/matters_files/christmasday2.html
http://www.liturgy.co.nz/