— By April Holloway.
Why Christmas is held on 25th December
According to popular tradition, Christmas is celebrated on 25th December to honour the birth of Jesus. However, no records exist in the Bible or elsewhere to suggest that Jesus was actually born on this date, which raises the important question – why is Christmas celebrated on 25th December? In fact, the selection of this date has its root in both Persian and pagan traditions.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia admits “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth” (Catholic Encyclopaedia). There are, however, a number of reasons to suggest that Jesus was probably not born in December. Firstly, Luke 2:8 states that on the night of Jesus’ birth “there were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.” Many scholars agree that this would have been unlikely in December, as shepherds would have been keeping their flock under cover during the cold winter months.
Some scholars have stated that shepherds would not watch their flock overnight in December, but would keep them under cover. ‘The Good Shepherd’ from the early Christian catacomb of Domitilla/Domatilla (Crypt of Lucina, 200-300 CE). (Wikimedia Commons)
Secondly, it is written in the Bible that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). However, such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition.
Since it appears unlikely that Jesus was born on 25th December, it raises the logical question of why Christmas is celebrated on this date. The answer points back to the Romans’ pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Two celebrations in particular took place around December 25 – the Saturnalia, and the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra (Catholic Encyclopedia). The Saturnalia festival began on 17th December and later expanded with festivities through to the 25th December. It paid tribute to Saturn, the agricultural God of Sowing and Husbandry, and was associated with the renewal of light and the coming of the new year. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn, a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere
The pagan celebration of Saturnalia
The birth of Mithra
Followers of the cult of Mithras, which became popular among the military in the Roman Empire from the 1st to 4th centuries AD, are believed to have celebrated his birthday on 25th December, which was the most holy day of the year for many Romans. The worship of the Sun God, Mithra (proto-Indo-Iranian ‘Mitra’), has its origin in Persia, from around the 6th century BC, and was later adapted into Greek as ‘Mithras’. The most popular hypothesis is that Roman soldiers encountered this religion during military excursions to Persia.
While it is widely accepted that the Mithraic New Year and the birthday of Mithras was on 25 December and was celebrated on this day as part of the Roman Natalis Invicti festival, others have argued that the Natalis Invicti was a general festival of the sun, and was not specific to the Mysteries of Mithras. Nevertheless, it is clear that 25 December was an important day for the Romans and revolved around a celebration of the sun.
Mithra divinity statue in Vatican library, old illustration. By unidentified author, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1840. Source: BigStockPhoto
When King Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century, he had quite a challenge ahead of him with regard to converting an empire full of pagans. It was therefore decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on a date that was already sacred according to pagan traditions. So as a compromise with paganism and in an attempt to give the pagan holidays Christian significance, it was simply decided that the birthday of the Sun God would also be the birthday of the Son of God. The Catholic Encyclopaedia quotes an early Christian with saying, “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…. Christ should be born”.
Featured image: Saturnalia by Antoine Callet (Wikimedia Commons)