Why Was December 25th Chosen for the Birth of Jesus?

Why Was December 25th Chosen for the Birthday of Jesus?

by Kelly McDonald, Jr.

There are 365 days a year in the current calendar used in much of the world (366 days on leap years). Of all the days available, why do so many people remember the birth of Jesus on December 25th?

The New Testament does not list the day on which Jesus was born. Also, there are no mentions of a celebration or remembrance of Jesus’ birth. In fact, references for the birth of Jesus are scarce outside of the initial event when it occurred.

Consider the following: the term ‘born’ is used 45 times in KJV. Of these, there are 9 specific references to Christ’s birth (Matt. 1:16; 2:1, 2:2, 2:4; Luke 1:35; 2:11; John 18:37; Gal. 4:4, Rev. 12:4). The first six verses discuss the initial event. Three of these refer to Him being born.

Said another way – no one could read the Bible only and conclude that Jesus was born on December 25 or that any ongoing celebration should be held. Jesus did not keep His own birthday! Neither did the disciples.

The Birthday Conundrum
Primary sources attest that neither Jewish people nor Christians near the time of Jesus celebrated birthdays. For some sources, see Josephus, Against Apion, 2.26; Tertullian, On Idolatry, 10; Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8; Arnobius, Against the Heathen, 1.64.

The Bible and history help us establish the fact that no one celebrated their own birthdays, including the birth of Jesus. To my knowledge, Clement of Alexandria was the first Christian writer to identify the exact day on which Jesus was born.

“And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon (20 of May). Further, others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi (19 or 20 April)” (Stromata, 1.21).

This quote from Clement makes no reference to December 25th or any date near it. There are also no references to any celebration for this event.

What About December 25?
To understand how December 25 became an important day in mainstream Christianity, one must consider that Christianity initially spread within the Greco-Roman world. Let’s discuss for just a moment the significance of December 25 to the Romans.

Marcus Varro, a Roman writer who lived mostly in the first century BC, wrote: “Bruma is so named, because then the day is brevissimus ‘shortest’: the solstitium, because on that day the sol ‘sun’ seems sistere ‘to halt,’ on which it is nearest to us…The time from the bruma until the sun returns to the bruma, is called an annus ‘year,’…” (On the Latin Language, 6.8).

“…the Kalends of January (Jan 1) are called the new year from the new sun [novo sole]…” (ibid, 6.28).

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…The winter solstice [bruma] begins at…the eighth day before the kalends of January [December 25]…” (Natural History, 18.57, 59).

The bruma or winter solstice was specifically listed as the “eighth day before the kalends of January.” This translates to December 25. This is certainly not the astronomical solstice, but it was the day that the Romans recognized as the solstice.

Even as late as the fourth/fifth century, December 25 held this significance to people (see Maurus Servius Honoratus’ Commentary on the Aeneid, book 7, line 720). Other Roman writers considered December 25 to be the day of the new sun (novus solis) or the birthday of the sun (see Marcus Varro [above] and Censorinus, De Die Natali, chapter 21).

The Romans were very superstitious and managed their lives based on certain astronomical events. For instance, they avoided putting eggs under hens from November 1 through December 25 (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 18.62). They thought that the weather on December 25 and the following three days determined the climate for the rest of winter (ibid). They also thought that a tree cut down on December 25 during the conjunction was considered of everlasting value (ibid, 16.74).

Bruma fell between two major Roman celebrations – Saturnalia (Dec. 17-23) and the Kalends of January (January 1). Both were a time of gift-giving and riotous celebration. It seems that the celebration spilled over into other parts of December (for some references to this, see Seneca, Epistulae, 18.1-4; Juvenal, Satires, 7.96-97; Martial, Epigrams, 12.81; Epiphanius, Panarion, 51.22).

Christianity and Syncretism
In about 200 AD, an important Christian figure named Tertullian lamented that many Christians participated in Roman celebrations. They thought that doing so would keep the name of Jesus from being blasphemed by unbelievers. He wrote the following:

“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, 10, 14).

As Tertullian pointed out, the ‘heathens’ did not accept Christian celebrations, so why should Christians accept theirs? Among the celebrations he mentioned were Saturnalia, New Year’s and Midwinter’s festivals [Latin: brumae].

As aforementioned, these 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 1. December 25 fell in between them.

Tertullian described a phenomenon that started in the second century called syncretism. In general, syncretism is the mixing of two religions. Starting in the second century, many outside movements began to taint Christianity. Sun worship was one of them.

For an unknown reason, some Christians started to pray towards the sun’s rising in the late second/early third century (see Tertullian’s, Apology, ch 16). He is the first writer to defend the faith against the accusation of Sun worship. Moreover, Christian buildings were constructed to face the rising sun (ibid, Against the Valentinians, 3; Apostolic Constitutions, 2.7).

Eventually, Christian theology incorporated a heavy emphasis on Christ and the sun (for an example, see Cyprian, Treatise, 4.35). By the fourth century, imagery from the sun gods Helios and Sol was incorporated with depictions of Jesus (Catholic Encyclopedia: Nimbus, Archaeology of the Cross and the Crucifix; the Lamb; Encyclopedia Britannica: Aureole). 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).

December 25th Emerges
In the midst of this syncretism, we find the first reference to a commemoration for the birth of Christ. The fourth century Christian writer Ambrose recalled a day set aside to remember the birth of Jesus from the time of from Pope Liberius (352-366). The specific day of the year for this event was not mentioned.

“…reconsider those precepts of Liberius of blessed memory which you used to talk over with me…For he, when on the Nativity of the Saviour in the Church of St. Peter…” (Concerning Virginity, 3.1.1).

Two other interesting finds date to the tenure of Pope Liberius. The first of these is the Calendar Philocali. It is a Roman Calendar that dates to about the year 354 AD. It lists special celebrations for certain days of the year. On December 25 is listed “Natali Invictus CM XXX.” In Latin, this refers to the birth of Sol Invictus, the sun god. The abbreviation CM refers to the Circus Maximus, which was a stadium dedicated to the sun god where races were held. XXX refers to the 30 races that were held on the day.

In 362 AD, Julian the Apostate was the Roman Emperor. He celebrated December 25th as the festival to the sun. “The Saturnalia, being the concluding festival, are closely followed in cyclic order by the Festival of the Sun; the which I hope that the Powers above will grant me frequently to chaunt, and to celebrate; and above all others may the Sovereign Sun, lord of the universe!” (Upon the Sovereign Sun. Addressed to Sallust)

As time passed there seem to be two developing ideas about Jesus’ birthday. The Eastern Church leaned toward January 6 date whereas the Western Church leaned towards December 25. While this article is focused on the later date, the former date likely comes from some sort of polytheistic superstition as well.

Roman Church writers began to use the same language as pagan Romans, such as Pliny, to connect Christ and the sun. Poems and hymns of various kinds were written to honor the birth of Christ on December 25 as the bruma or novus solis (new sun). We will review some of these sources below.

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).

Augustine’s Sermon 190 focused on 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…We have therefore, brothers, this 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).

In about 400 AD, Prudentius wrote: “Why does the sun already leave the circle of the arctic north? Is not Christ born upon the earth who will the path of light increase?”  (Hymn on VIII Kal. Jan.).

Initially, Christ’s birth was observed as more of a solemn commemoration rather than a celebration. There was a reluctance to imitate pagans (see Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38). Gregory of Nazianzus declared himself the initiator of this remembrance (Oration 39).

The winter commemoration became popularized by a Roman law in 425 AD which suspended certain activities 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 and normalized the idea of curbing one’s activity on it.

The establishment of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday came with 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 Christians worshiped the sun on the day (see Sermons 22-27). We have two excerpts below:

“…to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honour, not so much from the nativity of Christ, as according to them, from the rising of the new sun…” (Sermon 22).

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?” (idem)

By the fifth century, mainstream Christian thought was merged with sun references. The merger of Roman Church and Roman State solidified the widespread observance of Jesus’ birthday.

As the Western Roman Empire disintegrated from the late fifth century onward, various Church Councils excommunicated and marginalized those who did not observe December 25 (Agde, Orleans, Epaone, 2nd Council of Tours are among them). By 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 (Roman Spring Equinox / Mary’s Annunciation) and June 24 (Roman 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 Jesus’ birth, there you have it!

The birthday was adapted from the Roman recognition of December 25 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 formed based upon the sun’s light. There remains confusion today regarding this day because it is mixed with other religious observances.

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 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. 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.

Apostolic Constitutions. 2.7. Translated by James Donaldson. Edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Revised by A. Cleveland Coxe. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol 7. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890. pp 421-424.

Arnobius. Against the Heathen, 1.64. Translated by Hamilton Bryce and Hugh Campbell. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 6. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. New York, 1886, p 432.

Augustine. 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.

Calendar Philocali. Inscriptiones Latinae Antiquissimae Ad C Caesaris Mortem. Edited by Theodorus Mommsen. pp 332-358. Berlin: 1863. Also found in: Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Latina. Vol. 13. Paris, 1845, pp 675-687.

Catholic Encyclopedia. 1908-1911. Articles: Archaeology of the Cross and the Crucifix; the Lamb, Christmas, Mithraism, Natal Day.

Censorinus. 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.

Clement of Alexandria. Stromata, 1.21. Translated by William Wilson. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 2. New York, 1885, pp 333.

Codex Theodosianus. 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.

Encyclopedia Britannica: Aureole, Christmas.

Epiphanius. Panarion, 51:22. Translated by G.R.S Mead. Did Jesus Live 100 BC? London, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1903, pp 408-409.

Gregory 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.

Gregory of Nyssa. Oration on the Day of the Nativity of Christ. English: Guéranger, p 10. Latin: Migne, JP. Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Graeca. Vol. 46. Paris, 1863, p 1130.

Josephus. Against Apion, 2.26. Translated by William Whiston. The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, London, 1737, p 794.

Julian (The Apostate). Upon the Sovereign Sun. Addressed to Sallust. Translated by C.W. King. Julian the Emperor. London, 1888, pp 250-251.

Juvenal. Satires, 7.96-97. Translated by Rev. M Madan. A New and literal Translation of Juvenal and Persius. Vol 1. London, 1813, pp 238-239.

Leo I (The Great). 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.

Martial. Epigrams 12.81. Translated by Walter C.A. Ker. Martial Epigrams. Vol. 2. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920, 464-465.

Maurus Servius Honoratus (Servius). 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.

Origen. Homily on Leviticus 8; from Catholic Encyclopedia 1911 article “Natal Day”.

Paulinus 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. 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.

Prudentius. Hymnus VIII Kalendas Ianuarias. English quoted from: Sinker, page 4. Latin: Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Latina. Vol. 59. Paris, 1847, pp 888-889.

Seneca. Epistulae, 18.1-4. Translated by Dr. Richard M. Gummere.  Seneca Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales. Vol 1. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1953, pp 117-120.

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. 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. Against the Valentinians, ch 3. Translated by Dr. Roberts. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Revised by A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. p 504.

Varro, Marcus. On the Latin Language. 5.64, 6.8-28.  Translated by Dr. Roland Kent. Vol. 1. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1938, pp 61, 181-201.

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