It is commonly reported, and accurately, I might add, that in the fourth century the Western Church either replaced the pagan festivities surrounding the phenomenon known as the winter solstice, or the pagan Roman holiday called “The Birth of the Unconquered Sun.” Almost any resource you consult will yield this information. For example, Encarta reports that “most scholars believe that Christmas originated in the 4th century as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.” Wikipedia builds on this fact with, “December 25 is not thought to be Jesus’ actual date of birth, and the date may have been chosen to correspond with either a Roman festival, or with the winter solstice.” And even the Evangelical “The Theology Project” sponsored website “Theological Word of the Day” concurs in their current entry on “Christmas.”
But is this all there is to know about the origin of the Christian association of the date December 25 with the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ? The Roman Catholic Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania writes in the Touchstone Magazine article, “Calculating Christmas,” that . . .
“the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals. Rather, the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Son’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.”
Intrigued yet? How about this?
“It is true that the first evidence of Christians celebrating December 25th as the date of the Lord’s nativity comes from Rome some years after Aurelian, in A.D. 336, but there is evidence from both the Greek East and the Latin West that Christians attempted to figure out the date of Christ’s birth long before they began to celebrate it liturgically, even in the second and third centuries. The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to celebrate his death and resurrection.”
What does the date of Christ’s death have to do with that of his birth?
“At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.
“This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.
“It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.”
Very interesting, don’t you think? If you want to read more about it here.