Merry Christmas, Saturnalia or festival of Sol Invictus?
In a matter of days, millions of families will gather to celebrate Christ’s birthday—a birth that we have been taught supposedly occurred specifically on December 25, but did it really? The answer—while not necessarily central to the Christian faith—isn’t quite so simple.
For one, the gospels fail to disclose when Jesus was born, although the Gospel of Luke mentions shepherds and sheep at the time of the nativity, which intimates a springtime birth. The fact that the gospels’ authors chose not to include a date shouldn’t be viewed as a glaring oversight. Contrary to Roman practices, Jews and early Christians at the time didn’t place much importance on birthdates. Rather, celebrating gods’ birthdays seemed like a distinctly pagan activity to many early church leaders.
Nevertheless, following many years, Christians began debating when Christ was born, and they produced a slew of dates, including some in January, March, April, May, November, and of course, December. While to this day the Armenian church celebrates Christmas on January 6, the bulk of Christians have settled on December 25, but why? There are a few schools of thought.
For some faithful, they certainly believe that December 25 was, in fact, the date of Christ’s birth—end of story. While it is possible that this date is accurate, academics have proffered other theories, including that December 25 was chosen to coincide with pagan celebrations or because of a kind of metaphysical math.
According to one popular theory, early Christians had no idea when Christ was born. So, “they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly,” according to Biblical Archaeology. They may have done this to co-opt some of the pagan’s festivities to either attract new adherents or supplant the pagan religions altogether. Alternatively, Christians may have done so to help them blend in as they celebrated their savior, while also avoiding detection during times of persecution.
Whatever their reasoning, some believed the Christians placed Christmas on the joyous December Roman holiday known as the Saturnalia, which the Roman poet Catullus called “the best of times.” The Saturnalia celebrated the god Saturn, and during the festival, Romans ate and drank to excess; slaves sat at the masters’ tables and were served by their owners; and the Romans exchanged small gifts—some of which were probably a little inappropriate to modern eyes. After all, many of the ancient Romans were so perverted that they would have landed on Santa’s naughty list. Aside from this, the problem with the theory of Christians placing Christmas on the Saturnalia is that the ancient festival lasted from December 17-23, not December 25.
If the Christians didn’t choose the Saturnalia, then the festival of Sol Invictus is a tempting alternative. Around 274 AD, Emperor Aurelian set December 25—the winter solstice at the time—for the celebration of Sol Invictus who was the “Unconquered Sun” god. “A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday,” reads an excerpt from Biblical Archaeology.
Could early Christians have chosen December 25 to coincide with this holiday? “The first celebration of Christmas observed by the Roman church in the West is presumed to date to [336 AD],” per the Encyclopedia Romana, long after Aurelian established Sol Invictus’ festival. However, there’s evidence that some Christians recognized December 25 as Christmas in the 200s AD. So, it is possible that a December 25 Christmas may have pre-dated Aurelian’s Sol Invictus holiday, although the worship of some form of sun god in Rome was far more ancient than Christianity.
A third theory is based on Christ’s death, which, after scouring the Bible for clues, many ancient Biblical scholars believed happened around March 25. Some ancients believed that prophets were conceived and died on the same date. Given this, some have theorized that the early Christians whipped out their abaci and conducted a little arithmetic. If the Romans crucified Jesus on March 25, then he was also conceived on that date years earlier, per this line of thinking. Add roughly nine months for gestation, and then, presto, you have a birthdate of December 25.
It’s important to remember that this is just a theory, like many others that academics have tossed around. The reality is that nobody knows for certain whether December 25 coincided with Christ’s birth and/or why Christians ultimately established Christmas on that date. Perhaps it is in fact the real date, but even if it isn’t, for Christians, the specific date of Christ’s birth should have no bearing on their faith.
Image credit: JenkoAtaman