Why Was December 25th Chosen for the Birthday of Christ?
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
There are 365 days a year in the current calendar used in much of the world (366 on leap years). Of all the days available, why do so many people remember the birth of Christ on December 25th? This is not an illogical question, especially as we consider that the New Testament does not provide any references to an ongoing celebration of Jesus’ 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 life, the Christian community was 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. These infamous teachers were so dangerous that volumes of literature were written to refute their ideas.
Among these false teachers, Valentinus was known for spreading the belief that true Christians were free to openly participate in pagan Roman celebrations (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.6.3). As time passed this tendency worsened. In about 200 AD, Tertullian, a very influential thinker and writer, recorded that the majority of Christians he knew engaged in this kind of behavior. We have a quote below:
“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).
Tertullian mentioned the following celebrations: “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 (Dec. 17-24) 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, referred to December 25th.
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 kalends of January…” (Natural History, 18.57, 59).
The bruma or winter solstice was specifically listed as the “eighth day before the kalends of January”. After the Calendar reform of Julius Caesar in 45 BC, bruma was set on December 25th. While this is certainly not the astronomical solstice, it was the day that the Romans recognized as the solstice. Even as late as the fourth/fifth century (300s/400s AD), Dec. 25th held this significance to people (see Maurus Servius Honoratus’ Commentary on the Aeneid, book 7, line 720). Other Roman writers considered December 25th to be the day of the new sun (novus solis) or the birthday of the sun (see Censorinus, De Die Natali, chapter 21).
Tertullian noted that a significant number of early Christians took a particular interest in observing pagan days such as bruma. As aforementioned, early Christianity spread within the confines of the Roman Empire (and eventually went outside of it).
Another development in this time period was 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 Tertullian’s, Apology, ch 16). References to Christ as the sun also increased. In later, centuries this became a significant 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, 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 was not mentioned.
As time passed there seem to be two developing ideas about the day Jesus was born on. The Eastern Church leaned toward January 6th date whereas the Western Church leaned towards December 25th.
Initially, Christ’s birth was observed as more of a solemn commemoration rather than a celebration. There was a reluctance to imitate pagans who observed the same day (see Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38). Gregory of Nazianzus declared himself the initiator of this remembrance (Oration 39).
Roman Catholic writers began to use the same language as pagan Romans, such as Pliny, to connect Christ and the sun; it became very common to do so. Some even called Christ the new sun or novus solis. Poems and hymns of various kinds were written to honor the birth of Christ on December 25th as the bruma or new sun.
Paulinus of Nola, who lived from 354 to 431, wrote a series of poems. In poem 14, lines 13-20, he linked the birth of Christ with the new sun and the winter solstice. He made a direct connection to Christ, the new sun, and the increase of light in the common Roman fashion.
“Truly, after the solstice [post solistitium], when Christ is born in the body, with a new sun [sole novo] he will change the frigid days [bruma] of the north wind. While he is offering to mortals the birth that will bring them salvation, Christ with the progress of days gives command that the nights be declining” (English quoted from Sinker, 5; Latin from Hartel, p 46).
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.” 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.” It is interesting that Augustine omitted the commemoration of Jesus’ birth from his list of major festivals (Letter 54).
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 (CT: 15.5.5). This law does not specify the date and may have accommodated the differences between western and eastern churches. This law allowed the day’s influence to spread.
This of course did not come without problems. Some sun worshipers confused Christianity with their previous way of life. For instance, Pope Leo I (440-461) gave a sermon about the celebration of the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25th and complained that some people worshiped the sun and then attended church (see Sermons 22-27).
In Sermon 27, he wrote: “From such a system of teaching proceeds also the ungodly practice of certain foolish folk who worship the sun as it rises at the beginning of daylight from elevated positions: even some Christians think it is proper to do this that, before entering the blessed Apostle Peter’s basilica, which is dedicated to the One Living and true God, when they have mounted the steps which lead to the raised platform they turn around and bow themselves towards the rising sun and with bent neck to do homage to its brilliant orb…which is partly due to the fault of ignorance and partly to the spirit of heathenism: because although some of them do perhaps worship the Creator of that fair light rather than the Light itself, which is His creature, yet we must abstain even from the appearance of this observance: for if one who has abandoned the worship of gods, finds it in our own worship, will he not hark back again to this fragment of his old superstition, as if it were allowable, when he sees it to be common both to Christians and to infidels?”
From the sixth century onward, various church councils made attendance on Dec. 25th mandatory; certain penalties could be imposed otherwise. From the time of Charlemagne forward, its practice was very much entrenched in mainstream Christendom. The term ‘Cristes Maesse’ first appears in Old English in 1038 AD; it refers to the mass of Christ on December 25th. This is where the term ‘Christmas’ comes from.
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 the Roman calendar.
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. Popular Christian writers borrowed the same terms the pagan Romans used for the sun/bruma and then re-applied them to Christ. This occurred during a time when veneration for the sun was syncretized into Christianity; an entire ecclesiastical calendar was then based upon the revolution of the earth around 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. It has helped me to realize the traditions I once held versus that which is definitely found in the Scripture. I pray for everyone’s eyes to be opened to this vital truth. “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Ambrose. 339-397 AD. Bishop of Milan. Concerning Virginity, 3:1:1. Translated by H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin and H.T.F. Duckworth. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. New York, 1896, p 381.
Augustine. 354-430 AD. Bishop of Hippo and Apologist. The following works were used of his: Letter 54 to Januarius. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. New York, 1886, p 300. Latin: Migne, J.P. ed. Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Latina. Vol. 33. Paris: 1845. p 200; Tractate 34 on the Gospel of John, sec 2. Translated by John Gibb. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. New York, 1888, p 200; Sermon 190. Latin: Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Latina. Vol. 38. Paris: 1863, p 1008. Translation by author.
Catholic Encyclopedia. 1908-1911. Articles: Christmas, Mithraism, Natal Day.
Censorinus. 200s AD. Roman Grammarian. De Die Natali, 21:13. Translated by William Maude. New York Cambridge Encyclopedia Co. 1900, pp 29-36. Latin: Hultsch, Fridericus. Censorini, De Die Natali Liber. Lipsiae, 1857, p 46.
Codex Theodosianus. 438 AD. Code of Roman Law. Translated by Clyde Pharr. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Princeton University Press, 1952. Latin: Gothofredi, Jacobi (ed). Codex Theodosianus. Vol 5. Lipsiae, 1741, p 400.
Gregory of Nazianzus. 330-389. Bishop of Nazianzus. Orations 38:3-6; 39:14. Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. New York, 1894, pp 345-346, 357.
Irenaeus. 120-200 AD. Bishop of Lyon. Against Heresies, 1:6:3. Translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol 1. Edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913, p 324.
Leo I (The Great). Bishop of Rome 441-461 AD. Sermons 22, 24, 26, 27. Translated by Charles Lett Feltoe. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. Second Series, vol 12. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. New York, 1895, pp 129-141. Latin: Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Latina. Vol. 54. Paris, 1846, p 212.
Maurus Servius Honoratus (Servius). Fourth of fifth Century AD. Roman Grammarian. Commentary on the Aeneid. 7.720. Hagen, Hermannus and Thilo, Georgius. Servii Grammatici qui feruntur in Vergilii Carmina Commentarii. Vol 2. Leipzig, 1884, p 188. Authors note: to my knowledge, Servius’ commentary cannot be found in English.
Paulinus of Nola. 353 to 431 AD. Bishop of Nola. Poem 14:13-20. English quoted from Sinker, p 5. Latin quoted from: Hartel, Guilelmus de. Corpus scriptorium ecclesiasticorum latinorum. Vol 30. S Pontii Meropii Paulini Nolani Opera: Pragae, Vindobonae, Lipsiae, 1894, p 46.
Pliny the Elder. 23-79 AD. Roman Author. Natural History 16:74; 18:49-64; 34:18. Translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley. The Natural History of Pliny. vol. 3 London, 1855, pp 415-417; Vol 4. 1856, pp 62-83. vol 6, 1857, p 166.
Sinker, Robert. “Christmas and the Nativity of Mithras.” The Open Court, a monthly magazine. Vol. XVIII, No 1. January 1904. No 572. pp 4-5.
Tertullian. 155-220 AD. Early Christian Writer. On Idolatry, 10, 13-14. Translated by Rev. S. Thelwall. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 3. Edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. New York, 1918, pp 66-70. Latin: Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Latina. Vol. 1. Paris, 1844, pp 674, 682. Apology, ch 16. Translated by William Reeve and Jeremy Collier. The Apology of Tertullian. London, 1894, pp 52-53.