Around this time of year, often trotted out are claims that Christians adopted December 25 as the celebration of Jesus’ birthday to counter the pagan celebrations of either Saturnalias, Sol Invictus, Mithra, or some other pagan god. The notion is that Christians adopted December 25 to compete with a pagan feast that was already popular, thus supposedly being more attractive to potential pagan converts. Or, something like that.
So, is Christmas a converted pagan holiday?
The short answer is no. Actually, the long answer is also no. There are a number of theories as to why the early Church chose December 25, but the theory that it was to counter a pagan holiday has little evidence to support it.
First of all, the earliest centuries of the Church had no celebration of Christ’s birth. Irenaeus (second century) and Tertullian (first half of third) make no mention of a celebration of Christ’s birth in their list of Church feasts. Hippolytus of Rome cites the tradition that Christ was born on December 25 in a writing of his dated in 204, but he doesn’t mention a feast. The first mention of celebrating the birth of Christ as a feast in the West was in the year 200, but the date proposed was May 20. In the early third centuries, a number of dates were proposed, all in the Spring.
It’s pretty well established that the birth of Christ was celebrated in the East on January 6 starting sometime in the later second to early third centuries, and that the celebration of December 25 in the West came later. Both January 6 in the East and December 25 in the West were firmly established by the end of the fourth century.
The reason for celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25 had nothing to do with pagan celebrations, however. In fact, evidence suggests that Christians had the date of December 25 down for the birth of Christ before pagans established their feasts for Sol Invictus or Mithra. For some reason, though Christianity and paganism lived for many centuries side by side, it is assumed that all things pagan pre-date all things Christian. This simply isn’t true, and there’s evidence to suggest that pagans stole some elements of their rituals and celebrations from Christians rather than the other way round. In fact, many Church Fathers wrote of their desire to avoid all things pagan rather than adopt them.
The most likely explanation for December 25 being chosen as the celebration of the birth of Christ is the much older tradition that the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary took place on March 25. The Christian writer and historian, Sexto Julio Africano, confirms that this date was long established as the celebration of the Annunciation by the year 221, well before the pagan feasts of Sol Invictus or Mithra were adopted. Given that, when Christians in the West began their interest in celebrating Christ’s birth, it was merely a matter of adding nine months to March 25.
But, though unlikely, what if incontrovertible evidence emerged that the origins of December 25 as the celebration of the birth of Christ is found in the “cultural appropriation” of a pagan celebration? The question remains: So what? The fact of the matter is, Christ is the Word by Whom all things were created. Every day belongs to Him. Just as the Church baptizes us and redeems us from our sinfulness, so the Church can baptize any particular day and redeem it for the celebration of Christ.
It is said that, when Pope St. Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize England, he recommended to him not to destroy the pagan temples and statues, but to convert the temples into Christian churches and the statues of the gods into statues of the saints. Christ redeems all!
So, while the evidence recommends against the theory that Christmas was transformed from a pagan holiday into a Christian holy day, even if it were, it only reinforces our faith that Christ redeems all — whether it be the date of December 25, or our own unworthy selves.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.