Questions of Faith
Every December 25, family and friends come together to relax, exchange gifts and celebrate the year that has just passed. For Christians, this moment in the calendar year is more that just a party, but a time for rejoicing in the birth of Jesus Christ over 2000 years ago.
The Church teaches that Jesus “was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Simple shepherds were the first witnesses to this event. In this poverty heaven’s glory was made manifest” (CCC 525).
There’s no question that Catholics believe in the birth narratives described in Scripture – but nowhere in the Gospels does it say that Jesus was born on December 25. So where did this idea come from and more importantly, is it true?
To solve this conundrum, it seems that historians simply have to trace Christmas back to its origins and find out the date it was celebrated. The problem, however, is that differing sources record various birth dates for Jesus.
For example, Clement of Alexandria wrote that Christians in Egypt believed Jesus was born on May 20, whereas De paschae computus (243) records Christians celebrated the feast of Jesus’ birth on March 28 and others on April 19/20. Other sources, too, mention December 25 as Jesus’ birthday. Given the multiple, contradictory claims about the dating of this event, it’s hard to really pinpoint what one, if any, is correct.
There is a very popular claim that the Church specifically chose December 25 to compete with pagan celebrations marked around this date. The Roman Festival of Saturnalia took place from December 17-23 and honoured the Roman god Saturn. Likewise, Sol Invictus, which means “birthday of the unconquered sun”, was held on December 25.
The similarities between these dates and Christmas has led some scholars to conclude that December 25 was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus in order to supplant these pagan festivities and influence more people to join Christianity.
Others, however, have argued that this theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There are numerous sources dating from the early 2nd Century attesting that Christians were celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25, whereas the earliest evidence dating Sol Invictus to this particular day is found much later in 274AD.
To solve this conundrum, it seems that historians simply have to trace Christmas back to its origins and find out the date it was celebrated…”
According to this view, it was actually pagans who copied the December 25 dating.
It has also been suggested that regardless of when Christmas was dated, it was always going to be accused of appropriating pagan festivities given that there were so many throughout the year. It would be impossible to pick a day which didn’t have a connection with some other holiday.
Like most questions in life, we simply don’t know the answer. By the end of the 4th Century, however, December 25 came to be the accepted date for celebrating the birth of Jesus.