Why Is Christmas Celebrated on December 25? 

The Christian Bible is silent about any religious or secular celebration of Christ’s birth, called Christmas. History confirms that in the first century after Christ’s birth, such a celebration was unknown. During the first three centuries of the Christian era, there was considerable opposition within the Church to the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays, as it was considered that only pagans celebrated the birthdays of their gods, emperors, and kings. The Greek church father, Origen, voiced his opposition in 245 CE to any efforts of establishing a birthday for Christ as though the Lord was some earthly pharaoh. In modern times, historians have determined that Jesus’ birth occurred between 8 BCE and 4 BCE (not in CE 1 as most people presume). But the celebration’s specific date is traditional and believed to have been influenced by various pagan festivals. 

The celebration of Christmas was an invention of religious men, removed by many centuries from Jesus’ birth. Thus, the exact date of Jesus’ birth was unknown to these people and could not be determined with any accuracy from the scriptures. The Gospel of Luke suggests that it might have been some time in May as ‘…the shepherds were tending their flocks by night’.119 Shepherds tend their flocks at lambing time, which must have been in the spring, and not in the dead of winter when sheep are kept in pens and not tended by shepherds. 

There is evidence to suggest that Christ’s birth was observed on various dates. At the beginning of the fourth century, there was no consensus about when this date should come on the calendar, or even if it should be there. As it was impossible to determine the exact date of Christ’s birth, or any other tradition, from the Gospels, the early church fathers appointed January 6 for the celebration of Christ’s birth, even though the Church celebrated Epiphany on that day. Although this had nothing to do with Christ’s birth, the Church turned January 6 into Jesus’ birthday during the early fourth century.

Choosing January 6 as the date for such an important feast seems to have its antecedent in Alexandria in Egypt, where, during Roman times, there was a large temple called the Koreion. In Alexandria, possibly the most civilised city in the world in Jesus’ time, the birth of the god Aeon was celebrated yearly on January 6. The pagan feast of Aeon is recorded in the Christian writings of St. Epiphanius (circa 315–402 CE) and seems to have been still strictly observed in his day. He writes: ‘At Alexandria, in the Koreion, as it is called – an immense temple – after they have kept all-night vigil with songs and music, chanting to their idol, they descend with lights into an underground crypt and carry up a wooden image lying naked on a litter [...]. And they carry round the image, circumambulating seven times the innermost temple, to the accompaniment of pipes, tambors and hymns [...]. If they are asked the meaning of this mystery, they answer: “Today at this hour the Maiden Kore, that is the virgin, gave birth to the Aeon...”.’.120 This implies a startling connection between a virgin birth and the setting of the date for the festival of Christ’s birth. The Church’s decree to commemorate Christ’s birth on January 6 helped many pagan Alexandrians convert to Christianity, as they were accustomed to celebrating this day. They could accept Jesus as Aeon and Kore as the virgin, without having to change the date of their principal feast. 

‘It is well known that in the transition from pageantry to Christianity, the Christian clergy, finding it impossible to wean the people from old customs or to eradicate primitive beliefs, discreetly met the situation by diverting pagan festivals to the honour of Christ’.121 It became general practice by the Church to adopt and superimpose the introduction of Christian festivals onto existing periods of pagan festivities. Thus, by adopting the feasts of the Greeks and Romans and adapting them to the most striking events in the life of Christ and his disciples, the pagan worshippers’ prejudices were shaken and new converts easily obtained. In this way, the Christian Church, always anxious to meet the heathens halfway by allowing them to retain the feasts they were used to, grasped the opportunity to turn the people away from pagan observances held in Rome and throughout Europe at this time.

After Constantine’s triumph,122 Christianity became a state religion throughout the Roman world in 324 CE. However, strongly linked to the Christianisation of Rome was the ‘Romanisation’ of Christianity. Whereas the Eastern Orthodox Churches have kept January 6 as the date for their Christmas celebration, the Church in Rome under Pope Julius I changed the celebration for Christ’s birth from January 6 to December 25 in 353 CE.

The early Church in Rome was forced to legitimise December 25 because of a competing religion that had long captured the hearts and minds of Romans. It must be remembered, that the majority of Romans were still pagans by 300 CE, and during this period, countless religious cults still flourished side by side in the Roman Empire. One of these was the cult of Deus Sol Invictus, ‘God the Unconquerable Sun’. This cult reached extraordinary heights during the reign of Constantine the Great (306–337 CE), its followers commemorating Dies Natali Invicti, ‘the birth of the unconquered god’ festival on December 25. 

Another cult, very popular in the Roman Empire during the second and third century CE, was Mithraism. Not only was Mithra, the central figure of the Persian mystery cult, born on December 25, but he offered salvation to his adherents by being an intermediary between humans and the good god of light.123  

Around this time, Romans also celebrated the winter solstice festival and the festival of Saturnalia from December 17–23, in honour of Saturn. During the festival of Saturnalia, the reversal in nature marked by the solstice was celebrated with wild revelry, rejoicing, and festivities, when the usual restraints on law and morality were unfettered. Class distinctions were temporarily and playfully abolished, masters even accepting taunts from their slaves, which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been punished. The community selected a mock King of Saturnalia, who directed his subjects to drink, dance, and carouse. After the festival, the mock king pretended to expire on Saturn’s altar, and order was restored. During Saturnalia, it was customary among the Romans to suspend all public business and give presents to friends and loved ones. 

At this time, on December 25, the ancient Germanic races in northern Europe also celebrated a great festival – the festival of the winter solstice, known by the Druids as Yuletide and by the Scandinavians as Mother-Night. Yule comes into modern English from Anglo-Saxon geol, the feast of the midwinter solstice, one of the most important festivals on their calendar, when the gods were consulted about the future, agreements were renewed, and time was spent in jovial merrymaking. Many features of this festival, such as the burning of the Yule log and decorations of mistletoe and evergreens, survive.

By fixing the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25, which was already a longstanding date of many diverse festivities, the Christian Church gave meaning to existing pagan observances – not by eradicating them, but by simply adopting them. 

Many people believe that to put an ‘X’ in Xmas is disrespectful and an attempt to cross the Christ out of Christmas. In reality, however, the ‘X’ in Xmas is of Greek origin. ‘X’ is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. This term was popular in Europe by the sixteenth century and is still customarily used, although its origin has been lost in obscurity.


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