Was Jesus Born on December 25?
In recent years, many bloggers have complained that the church under Rome adopted the holidays and customs of pagans as their own holidays. While often true, the context of these decisions explains the rationale and can remove some of the negative connotations associated with these decisions.
Although Rome had made it illegal to worship pagan gods, the practical task of converting people’s faith was not as easy as commanding it. By redefining known holidays, the church redeemed them for their own purposes. This replacement approach made it easier for new Christians to adapt to their new religion.
The celebration of Christmas (the Christ-mass or mass of Christ) provides the greatest example of this. Many ancient religions celebrated the midwinter solstice in one manner or another. Some cultures even declared that the sun would disappear if their worship didn’t turn the path of the sun on that exact date.
While Roman paganism wasn’t quite that extreme, it did celebrate the victory of the sun god and light over darkness at the winter solstice. The ancient pagans believed that the Unconquerable Sun (Sol Invictus) was born on that date. Choosing this day for the celebration of Christ’s birth allowed the church to usurp the pagan festival of the Unconquerable Sun held on the winter solstice.
To that end, the church did indeed commandeer the pagan Roman holiday to institute Christmas. Its action allowed an easier transition for pagans who converted to Christianity, and it provided the church with an opportunity to teach about the birth of Christ—the One who overcame darkness and lives within us.
So, was Jesus born on December 25? Likely not. Because the church didn’t know what day Christ was really born, they selected this day to become the time we commemorate His birth. They took a day people were used to celebrating and gave it a new meaning.
The early church similarly replaced New Year’s Day. Before Christ, the pagans celebrated the New Year with a drunken celebration that indulged physical passions. The church replaced this debauchery with the Feast of the Circumcision—a day to remember the circumcision of Christ when He was eight days old. By modern logic and counting, eight days after Christmas would occur on January 2, but the people used the same method of counting as the earliest church did. In the case of Easter, the Gospel writers claimed Jesus was buried for three days, even though He was dead only part of Friday night and Sunday morning. By similar counting techniques, January 1 lands eight days after December 25.
In addition, the church likely redeemed symbols used as part of these various pagan celebrations. While we’ll never know the actual origin of the Christmas tree, many legendary stories reference how the Christmas tree replaced a similar pagan symbol. One traditional story recounts that Saint Boniface (c. AD 675–754) chopped down an oak tree used by pagans. After his defiant act, he found a fir tree growing at the base of the oak tree and used its triangular shape to exalt the Trinity.
Does the church’s conscription of pagan holidays and rituals undermine their meaning? Not at all. Just as Christ takes unholy people and makes them holy (2 Cor 5:17-21), the church took pagan, unholy holidays and brought them new life and meaning.