While traveling on the subway the other day, I overheard an interesting conversation between two strangers.
“Actually,” one person began grumbling, “They don’t know when he was born. I mean, if Christ was so important, you’d think we’d at least know his birthday!” A second person responded with similar cynicism: “And plus, Christmas came from a pagan holiday.”
One hears these types of statements so often in the Christmas season. Part of me wanted to respond with an arsenal of reasons why this whole pop-historical conflation of Christmas with pagan winter solstice festivals is just… Inaccurate. The other part of me wanted to turn around and ask, simply, “So what?” What if Christmas did come from a pagan holiday–would it make our celebration of Christ’s birth any less meaningful? In my opinion, such a historical development would actually affirm rather than undermine the celebration of the Incarnation.
Before I explain what I mean by that, let’s start with some historical facts: Christmas was not celebrated in the first centuries of Christianity. This was partly because the date of Christ’s birth was unknown. Moreover, birthdays simply weren’t as meaningful in the Jewish society of late antiquity, the culture into which God saw fit to send Jesus as His incarnate son.
Unlike first-century Romans (who sometimes celebrated birthdays with lewd festivities and pagan sacrifices), Jews and early Christians honored a person’s death more than one’s birth. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “the day of death is better than the day of birth” (7:1).
A New Feast
For the earliest centuries of Christianity, Easter (and all other Sundays) was the principal feast of the Christian year and had been observed since the beginnings of the Church. Additional holidays came to fill the Christian calendar, especially in the fourth century. Most likely, this was a response to the legalization of Christianity in AD 325, after which Christians had more freedom to hold public festivals, holidays and processions. For an abbreviated history of the Christian calendar, check out my handy-dandy infographic.)
In some territories of Christianity, Christmas was originally observed as part of Theophany (January 6). By the late fourth century, though, Christmas was increasingly celebrated as its own holiday on December 25.
And, by the way, the Church Fathers were not under any grand delusions about the novelty of this holiday. They knew they were doing something new–and that was not an issue for them.
For example, on Christmas Day, 386, St. John Chrysostom preached:
“It is scarcely ten years […] since this day has been made manifest and known to us” (Comings, 62; see below for references).
That’s right–St. John Chrysostom did not grow up opening presents on Christmas morning or attending a festal Divine Liturgy on Christmas Eve. He didn’t celebrate the Feast of the Nativity for the first time until the last third of his earthly life–and he didn’t find adopting a new feast one bit scandalous.
Probably, he and his contemporaries were aware that devoting time to Christmas was a way to help communicate the incomprehensible reality of the Incarnation. And so, they started something new. They took a risk in faith. Maybe it wouldn’t catch on. Maybe their congregants would stare at them like, “You expect us to celebrate what?”
Turning towards God in a new way is not easy or comfortable–think of how many times you’ve tried to turn over a new leaf in your own life. But I’m so glad they took the risk, aren’t you?
Why December 25th?
Although there is no clear explanation for why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th, it was likely a combination of several factors.
One possibility was that December 25th was exactly nine months after the date of the spring equinox, which in those days was March 25th. According to a popular Talmudic tradition, God had created Adam and Eve at the time of the first Spring equinox. The Annunciation (i.e. the conception of Christ) is celebrated on this day in part to reflect that Christ is the new Adam. Christmas, then, comes exactly nine months later—at the very least, the Church is biologically correct! It should be noted, though, that these dates were not necessarily selected for their “historical accuracy” in the modern sense, but for typological or symbolic reasons.
Since the Christ came to redeem the human race, it was only fitting His conception and birth echo the creation.
A second theory, popular on Facebook feeds and (evidently) in idle subway conversation, is that Christmas “replaced” pagan winter festivals (in the first century, the winter solstice occurred on or near December 25). In its most extreme form, this theory depicts Christmas as a sham holiday Christians deployed so they could have their pagan cake and eat their Christian one, too. Interestingly, however, this argument has little historical basis. It wasn’t even articulated until the 19th century or thereabouts.
But let’s say it’s all true—let’s say Christmas was an effort to bring winter solstice observances into the realm of Christianity. Why would that undermine the Christian message or the integrity of our celebration of Christmas?
Are we not called by St. Paul to “redeem time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16)?
I’ve already pointed out that pagan winter solstice celebrations were not the direct historical antecedent to Christmas. Nonetheless, early Christians lived in close relationship with agricultural and solar seasons. They couldn’t help but perceive in the winter solstice a type of Christ—the light of the world, who came in the flesh in humanity’s darkest hour. As the celebration of Christmas took hold, the Church fathers hoped people would come to worship not the sun, but the God who sent his Son as the light of the world. In the winter solstice for Christ, Christians of the fourth century and beyond modeled the Incarnation itself, the entrance of Christ into this world of flesh and time, seasons and years, life and decay.
Their efforts to bring Christ more and more into the fold of earthly experience have had some success. More than a millennium later, Christmas marks a season during which more money and resources are given to the poor than any other time. December 25 is now a date that silently reminds even our post-consumerist, secular society that the naked should be clothed, the hungry should be fed, and strangers should be visited. At the same time, though, our current society follows a new kind of paganism: the worship of consumer goods and luxury. We can and must continue the endeavour to “redeem time,” inasmuch as we allow the joy of Christ’s birth to fill us, to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbor as ourselves.
At the heart of this is the incarnation—the radical reality that the Son of God entered our world at a particular juncture and place. Some of the historical facts may have been lost with time. But thanks be to God, Christ’s birth is more than just a fact, it is the beginning of our salvation.
A version of this essay was originally published in the December 2015 issue of The Orthodox Way, a publication of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto (Canada). Special thanks to the ladies of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, TN, where I recently gave a talk on this topic, for their encouragement and enthusiasm!
Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011).
Jill Burnett Comings, “Aspects of the Liturgical Year in Cappadocia (325-430),” (Peter Lang Publishing, 2005).
James Grout, “Sol Invictus and Christmas,” in Encyclopaedia Romana (2008).
Andrew McGowan, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Bible History Daily from the Biblical Archeology Society (December 2, 2015).
William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity (December 2003).