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 365 days 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 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 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, 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 (and even later) 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 tendency worsened. Tertullian, a very influential writer in the early third century, recorded that the majority of Christians he knew engaged in this 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).
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, referred 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 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 (which is the greater context of Pliny’s words), bruma was set on December 25th. While this is certainly not the astronomical solstice (which is Dec. 21/22), it was the day that the Romans recognized 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 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 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 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 Tert. 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 (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38).
But the use of language exactly mirroring that of pagan Romans, such as Pliny, became very common. 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 (such as Prudentius and Paulinus of Nola).
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.”
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 and complained that some people worshiped the sun and then attended church (see Sermon 22.6 for example).
In the sixth century onward, various church councils made attendance on Christmas 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.
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. I pray for everyone’s eyes to be opened to this vital truth. “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). 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