Did You Know?
… that the traditional date for Christmas (December 25th) can be traced back as far as 273 AD and was chosen precisely because it corresponded with several pagan celebrations?
In fact, prior to 273 AD Christ’s birth was not celebrated as a major festival at all. Some, like Origen in the 200s AD, argued that it would have been wrong to celebrate Christ’s birth as this was something that pagans did with “human deities” such as Pharaoh and the Roman Emperor. Either way, the records of Christ’s actual birthday (assuming there were any in the first place) were long lost.
“Perhaps the Pagans do celebrate birthdays,” other early church theologians argued, “but just because they do something does not make it automatically wrong. Pagans pray too, but to false gods – but that does not mean that prayer is wrong.” Speculation of the actual date went back as far as Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c 215 – we don’t know his birthday either) who reasoned that it was some time in May (probably the 20th he argued) and noted that others had theories that placed the date from January 2 (Hippolytus) to November 20th.
So how did it end up on December 25th – a day that no one was arguing for in the first place? In order to understand that, you need to be aware of the context in which the early church was growing.
The situation that the church found itself in was that it was rapidly growing in a very pluralistic religious scene. Most Romans and Greeks were polytheists, believing in a universe that had many deities. Most of these deities had a specific portfolio (like childbearing, weather, prophecy etc) so when the need arose you went to the appropriate god who dispensed the service you were looking for. Thus it was quite possible to be involved in the placation of several deities in any given week. In the larger cities each of these deities would have their own temple, and celebrations to go along with them. In some cities in the Roman Empire, such as Corinth, a person could be involved in some feast or celebration several times a week for the entire year. (The discussion about eating meat consecrated to idols Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians Chapter 8 is a direct outgrowth of the fact that there was so much meat left over from these celebrations that it had to be sold on the open market or it would rot).
Given the ancient propensity to collect deities the same way that people in the previous generation collected bubble gum cards – or we collect aps – , the church was faced with a dilemma. How do you say that it was unacceptable to go to both a Christian celebration and then a pagan one?
Simple – you chose the same date as the pagan festival and challenge people to make a choice – “us or them – but you cannot do both.”
Thus December 25th was chosen precisely because it was the date of natalis solis invicti (the Roman celebration of the “birth of the unconquered sun”) and the birthday of Mithras (an Iranian deity which was popular among legionnaires).
It is extremely unlikely that anyone at the time would have said that the Christians were mixing or taking over traditions from the competition because it was a tactic which was definitely exclusionary. “You cannot choose the unconquered sun or Mithras as well as Christ,” the early church reasoned. “Either Christ is “the way the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by Him” or he’s not – so make up your mind who you will follow.”
Was Christ born on December 25th? – most probably not. But what is important is following Him, as regardless of what the date of His birth is, when the little child of Bethlehem entered into the world, the redemption of humankind began.
And that’s worth celebrating.