Why Was December 25th Chosen for the Birthday of Christ?
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Note: The goal of this article is simply to provide historical research.
There are 364 days in the current calendar used in much of the world (365 on leap years). Of all the days available, why was December 25th chosen as the day to remember the birth of Christ? This is not an illogical question, especially as we consider that the New Testament does not provide any references to an ongoing celebration of His birth (or anyone’s birthday for that matter). References for the birth of Christ are also scarce outside of the initial event when it occurred.
To understand how December 25th became an important day in mainstream Christianity, one must consider that Christianity initially spread within the Greco-Roman world. About 100 years after Christ’s ascension to Heaven, the community of believers were flooded with Greek philosophies and other religions. There were a number of heretical leaders during this time that tried to mix these beliefs with Christianity, including Cerdon, Marcion, Valentinus, Saturninus, Basilides, and so forth. These infamous teachers were so dangerous that volumes of literature were written in the late second century onward to refute their ideas.
Valentinus in particular was known for spreading the belief that true Christians were free to openly participate in Roman celebrations (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:6:3). As time passed this only grew worse. Tertullian, a very influential writer in the early third century, recorded that the majority of Christians he knew engaged in this behavior.
“But, however, the majority (of Christians) have by this time induced the belief in their mind that it is pardonable if at any time they do what the heathen do, for fear ‘that the name be blasphemed’… the Saturnalia and New Year’s and Midwinter’s festivals [Latin: brumae] and Matronalia are frequented – presents come and go – New year’s gifts – games join their noise – banquets join their din! Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the Christians for itself!” (On Idolatry, ch. 10, 14).
There were certain celebrations mentioned by Tertullian: “Saturnalia, New Year’s and Midwinter’s festivals [Latin: brumae] …” These three celebrations/dates were very important to Romans for centuries. Each of them occurred in the winter. Saturnalia was the time when the god Saturn was celebrated with parties; it was a time to remember when the god dwelt among mankind. The New Year’s celebration was January 1st (at that time). Midwinter festivals, or Brumae in Latin, was a special reference to a specific day in December.
Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian who lived in the first century wrote more about this day: “The year is divided into four periods or seasons, the recurrence of which is indicated by the increase or diminution of the daylight. Immediately after the winter solstice [bruma] the days begin to increase, and by the time of the vernal equinox, or in other words, in ninety days and three hours, the day is equal in length to the night….All these seasons, too, commence at the eighth degree of the signs of the Zodiac. The winter solstice [bruma] begins at the eighth degree of Capricorn, the eighth day before the calends of January…” (Natural History, 18:57, 59).
The bruma or winter solstice was specifically listed as the eighth day before the calends of January. After the Calendar reform of Julius Caesar (which is a greater context of Pliny’s words), this became December 25th. While this is certainly not the astronomical solstice (which is Dec. 21/22), it was the day that the Romans recognized it as the solstice; it was considered the day in which a visible difference in the length of days could be observed from earth. Even as late as the fourth/fifth century the 8th Kalends of January held this significance (see Maurus Servius Honoratus commentary on the Aeneid, book 7, line 720). Other writers considered December 25th to be the day of the new sun or the birthday of the sun (see Censorinus, chapter 21).
Tertullian noted that a significant number of early Christians took a particular interest in observing days such as bruma. As aforementioned, early Christianity spread within the confines of the Roman Empire (and eventually went outside of it). Even as it ventured into other countries, the bulk of Christians dwelt within the Roman Empire for centuries.
Another development in this time period is the spread of sun worship. For an unknown reason, some Christians started to pray towards the sun’s rising and setting in the late second/early third century (see Tert. Apology, ch 16). References to Christ as the sun increased over time as well. In later centuries this became a bigger issue. In the late fourth/early fifth century, Augustine denounced those who tried to combine the worship of Christ with that of the sun (Tractate 34 on the Gospel of John, sec. 2).
In the fourth century AD, we find the first reference to a commemoration for the birth of Christ. Ambrose, in his work “On Virginity”, recalled a sermon from Pope Liberius (352-366) where a day was set aside to remember the birth of Jesus. The specific day of the year for this event is not mentioned. As time passed there seem to be two developing thoughts about the birth of Jesus. The Eastern Church leaned toward January 6th as the birth of Jesus. The Western Church leaned towards December 25th. At first the remembrance of Christ’s birth was more of a solemn commemoration rather than a celebration. There was a reluctance to imitate unbelievers on the day (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38).
But the use of language exactly mirroring that of pagan Romans, such as Pliny, became very common. Christ was even called the new sun by some.
In Augustine’s Sermon 190, which is concerning the birth of Christ and its celebration, he wrote, “…on the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, and night began to endure loss, and day took up an increase.” The Latin reads:…ideo die Natalis Domini nostri Jesu Christi, et nox incipit perpeti detrimenta, et dies sumere augmenta.” In the same message, he stated: “We have therefore, brothers, this sacred (or solemn) day, not as the unbelievers on account of this sun, but on account of him who made this sun” The Latin reads: “habaemus ergo, fratres, solemnem istum diem; non sicut infideles propter hunc solem, sed propter eum qui fecit hunc solem.”
Poems and hymns of various kinds were written to honor the birth of Christ on December 25th as the bruma or new sun (such as Prudentius and Paulinus of Nola). The winter celebration became popularized by a Roman law in 425 AD which forced certain establishments to close on the day dedicated to Christ’s birth. This allowed the day’s influence to spread.
This of course did not come without problems. Some sun worshipers confused Christianity and their previous way of life, which led to some trying both (see Pope Leo I sermon 22:6 for example). Pope Leo had a problem with people trying to worship the sun and then attending church.
In the sixth century onward, various church councils made attendance on Christmas mandatory and perhaps carried with it certain penalties. Perhaps by the time of Charlemagne and certainly by the Middle Ages, its practice was very much entrenched in mainstream Christendom. The term ‘Cristes Maesse’ first appears in Old English in 1038 AD. This was followed at times by forced communion on the day.
But one must also remember that other days such as March 25 (Spring Equinox / Mary’s Annunciation) and June 24 (Summer Solstice / John the Baptist’s birthday) were also adapted from Roman customs.
For those of you who have wondered how December 25th was chosen as the day of Christ’s birth, there you have it! It was adapted from the Roman recognition of December 25th as the winter solstice (bruma) and the re-birth of the sun.
Today many people still remember Christ’s birth on December 25 without this knowledge. There was certainly a time when I did not know it either. I pray for everyone’s eyes to be opened. I am thoroughly happy to share it with others for your education and edification. My goal is simply to present the facts. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org