Copyright by Bob Rogers
The Beginning of the Christmas Holiday
The answer to that question is submerged under a haze of mystery. An early father of the church, Cyprian, said in 243 that Christ was born on March 28, the spring equinox, for “on that day which the sun was made on the same day was Christ born.” However, Christ’s birthday was not celebrated until the fourth century, and when the tradition of Christmas began, the date of December 25 was preferred in the West, while January 6 was preferred in the East (a date that is still preferred by Eastern Orthodox Christians).
The earliest known reference to celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 was in the Philocalian Calendar, a list of martyrs of the Roman Church, written in 354 but reflecting practices in 336. In 376, the bishop of Rome first required churches to keep the nativity festival on December 25. In 386, John Chrysostom refers to the date of the December 25 festival by saying, “It is not yet the tenth year since this day has become clearly known to us.” Ironically, Christmas was celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6 until the sixth century (since Bethlehem was under the influence of the Eastern tradition). After the sixth century, Bethlehem celebrated Christmas on December 25, because Emperor Justin II (565-578) ordered the celebration of Christmas on December 25 throughout the Roman empire.
The Origin of the Date of Christmas
There are two major theories of the origin of these dates: one with pagan roots, and one with Christian roots.
The most commonly accepted theory is that the date was chosen, perhaps by Emperor Constantine, to divert the attention from pagan holidays. Emperor Aurelian had established a pegan winter solstice festival on December 25, 274, and he probably dedicated a temple to the sun god on that date. The birth of the Persian god Mithras, identified with the sun, was celebrated on December 25. Egyptians celebrated the birthday of the sun god Aion on January 6. Many people contend that Christmas should not be celebrated because of this possible connection to these pagan origins. Ironically, some of these same people will themselves seek to replace the pagan celebration of Halloween with a Harvest Festival at their churches, in much the same way as they claim the early Christians celebrated Jesus’ birth to replace a pagan holiday.
Thomas J. Talley, in his book, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, argues that the dates of both December 25 and January 6 can be explained from Christian origins. In rabbinic thought, it was common to remember the conception and death day of patriarchs on the same day. By putting Jesus’ conception on the Jewish day of 14 Nisan (March 25 on the Western calendar and April 6 on the Eastern calendar), His birth nine months later would be either December 25 (according to the Western calendar) or January 6 (according to the Eastern calendar). Thus the birth of Christ could have been set “without reference to pagan public celebrations,” says Talley.
Since Luke 2:8 says the shepherds were outdoors with their flocks when the angel announced Christ’s birth to them, Cyprian’s date of March 28 is probably closer to the actual birthday of Jesus than the colder times of December 25 of January 6. Some would argue that since there is no historical evidence for Jesus’ birth on these dates, that we should not celebrate Christmas. However, there is another piece of the puzzle from history that would argue otherwise. In the fourth century, when the Christmas holiday became popular, Christians were in the midst of a raging controversy of what they believed about Jesus Christ. By celebrating Christmas, orthodox Christians were able to affirm the important doctrine of the Incarnation, that Jesus was God in the flesh. For example, Chrysostom, who himself stated that the festival of December 25 was a relatively new celebration in his time, went on to say this about its importance:
“This day He who is, is born; and He who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man… being the Word, He became flesh…”
People often ask me why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25. Actually, some Christians celebrate it on January 6, which I personally like because it’s my birthday. But I digress.
Nobody knows for certain how December 25 (and January 6) came to be the dates to celebrate Christmas. The most commonly accepted theory is that the dates were chosen, perhaps by Emperor Constantine, to divert attention from pagan holidays on the same days. Emperor Aurelian had established a winter solstice festival on December 25, A.D. 274, apparently dedicating a temple to the sun god on that date. The birthday of the Persian god Mithras, associated with light and truth, was on December 25. Egyptians celebrated the birthday of the god Aion on January 6.
Some writers believe the day was chosen because it was nine months after the month and day of Jesus’ death, and Christians wanted to celebrate his conception on the same date as his death. Why the difference in December 25 and January 6? In the East, the Jewish date of 14 Nisan, the date of Christ’s crucifixion, was thought to be on April 6, but in the West, it was thought to be on March 25. If this theory is correct, then the date may have been chosen without any connection to pagan celebrations.
One thing that is certain is that the earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas as we know it today. The Gospels say nothing about the date of Christ’s birth. It seems unlikely the shepherds would be outdoors watching the flocks at night in the winter (Luke 2:8). In the year A.D. 243, the church father Cyprian theorized that Christ’s birth should be celebrated on March 28, the spring equinox, for “on that day on which the sun was made on the same day was Christ born.” The oldest reference to Christmas occurs in a Roman church calendar in A.D. 354. By A.D. 376, the Roman bishop was requiring churches to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, but eventually Eastern Christians celebrated Christ’s birth on January 6, as many still do to this day.