How Did December 25th Finally Get Adopted by Many Professors of Christ?

By Bob Thiel

What date was Jesus born?  When did December 25th get adopted by the Greco-Roman faiths?

While the Bible is clear about dates that God wants His people to observe and/or celebrate (see Leviticus 23), it does not state the date that Jesus was born nor does it give any instructions to celebrate the date of His birth.

Jesus Was Not Born on December 25th

But one thing that all interested in the truth can be sure of was that Jesus was not born on December 25th.

Why can I state that?

Because of the account in Luke’s Gospel.  Notice:

1 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

14 “Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. (Luke 2:1-17)

Notice that, at the time of the census, Luke teaches that the shepherds were out all night in the field at the time of Jesus’ birth.  This is biblical evidence that Jesus could not have been born in late December for a couple of reasons.  One of them is that the practice of shepherds spending the night with their flocks outside ceased each Fall.

Furthermore, related to the reason that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem (the census) at the time of Jesus’ birth, even The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that the “census would have been impossible in winter” (Christmas, 1908).  If something is impossible, then it did not happen.  Jesus was not born on December 25th.

Partially because of this account by Luke, various ones have speculated that Jesus was born in the early Fall or perhaps late Spring.

The Church of Rome Did Not Originally Celebrate December 25th

The early Catholic Church of Rome did not celebrate Christmas. Furthermore, Tertullian (one of its leading 2nd/3rd century writers) warned that to participate in the winter celebrations made one beholding to pagan gods.  There was one such celebration known as the Saturnalia that was celebrated by the heathen in late December.

Notice what Tertullian wrote about winter celebrations, such as Saturnalia (from a pagan deity whose name meant plentiful):

The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s, as the Saturnalia Saturn’s; Saturn’s, which must necessarily be celebrated even by little slaves at the time of the Saturnalia. New-year’s gifts likewise must be caught at, and the Septimontium kept; and all the presents of Midwinter and the feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted; the schools must be wreathed with flowers; the flamens’ wives and the aediles sacrifice; the school is honoured on the appointed holy-days. The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday; every pomp of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian master, unless it be he who shall think them suitable likewise to one who is not a master? (Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter X. Translated by S. Thelwall. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).

Around the time of Tertullian, the Roman Bishops Zephyrinus (199-217) and Callistus (217-222) had a reputation of compromise and corruption (and this is confirmed by such Roman Catholic saints such as Hippolytus) and allowed people in their church that compromised with paganism, etc.

Tertullian also reported:

But, however, the majority {of Greco-Roman ‘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 “the Name be blasphemed”…To live with heathens is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul, not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. But if we have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more wicked to celebrate them among brethren! Who can maintain or defend this?…By us,…the Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals 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!…Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even it they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians. We are not apprehensive lest we seem to be heathens! (Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter XIV. Translated by S. Thelwall. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).

What Tertullian seems to be saying is that observing mid-winter celebrations make Christians appear to be followers of pagan gods, and since the pagans would not intentionally celebrate days considered by many to be Christian, Christians should not celebrate days that are honored by the heathen. Specifically, he felt that those who profess Christ should not celebrate Saturnalia, New Year’s, or other pagan days, as even the observance is a form of idolatry.  Tertullian was correct on those points.

The Roman Saturnalia and the Persian Mithraism themselves were of an even earlier pagan religion – that of the ancient Babylonian mystery cult. The ancient Babylonians celebrated the reborn Nimrod as the newborn Tammuz by worshipping an evergreen tree. The Babylonians also celebrated this rebirth during the season of the winter solstice. Jeremiah condemns ancient Israel for copying this type of paganism, and and condemned the the pagan use of trees in Jeremiah 10:2-4 and the evergreen tree in Jeremiah 3:13.

Those who teach “Jesus is the reason for the season” are in historic error. The initial reason for the season appears to be that many of those who somewhat professed Christ wanted to have a party. And did not care if the party was related to pagan gods.

December 25th Officially Adopted Later

The Catholic Encyclopedia teaches that:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church (Martindale C. Transcribed by Susanti A. Suastika. Christmas. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).

The above is true.

So, how did it end up getting adopted and with a December 25th date?

An Armenian scholar called Ananias of Shirak, circa 600 A.D., wrote:

The Festival of the holy Birth of Christ, on the 12th day before the feast of the Baptism, was not appointed by the holy apostles, nor by their successors either, as is clear from the canons… which is 6th of January, according to the Romans.

But many years after their fixing the canons, this festival was invented, as some say, by the disciples of the heretic Cerinthus; and was accepted by the Greeks, because they were truly fond of festivals and most fervent in piety; and by them it was spread and diffused all over the world.  (Ananias of Shirak, On Christmas, The Expositor, 5th series vol. 4 (1896) Translation. pp.323-337, as reported by ccel).

Twelve days before January 6th is December 25th (see also Conybeare F.C. The Key of Truth: A Manual of the Paulician Church of Armenia. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898, pp. 185). Hence, the above report suggests that December 25th was originally developed by the apostate Cerinthus.  Irenaeus wrote that Cerinthus was strongly denounced by the Apostle John who would not even be remain in the same building with him (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book III, Chapter 3, Verse 4).

Why would the apostate Cerinthus pick December 25th?

Probably because that was the day of celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra. December 25th also took place during the Saturnalia, hence it was acceptable to at least two groups of pagans. Followers of Mithra represented an influential group in the Roman Empire. Other practices associated with Mithraism have become part of the Roman and Orthodox Catholic churches.

The Roman Emperor Constantine, who is considered to be an Eastern Orthodox saint was a devotee to the sun god Mithras (sometimes spelled Mithra) in the fourth century.  Even after he made some type of profession of Christianity, he still embraced the worship of Mithras.  Mithras birthday was December 25th.  Constantine had had a reputation for doing the politically expedient, and it seems that he liked the idea of his type of ‘Christians’ observing the date of Mithras birth.

Notice the following from The Catholic Encyclopedia:

Constantine the Great… Constantine can rightfully claim the title of Great, for he turned the history of the world into a new course and made Christianity…the religion of the State… it is easy to understand that many of the emperors yielded to the delusion that they could unite all their subjects in the adoration of the one sun-god who combined in himself the Father-God of the Christians and the much-worshipped Mithras; thus the empire could be founded anew on unity of religion. Even Constantine…cherished this mistaken belief… Could not Sol Deus Invictus, to whom even Constantine dedicated his coins for a long time, or Sol Mithras Deus Invictus, venerated by Diocletian and Galerius, become the supreme god of the empire?  Constantine may have pondered over this. Nor had he absolutely rejected the thought even after a miraculous event had strongly influenced him in favour of the God of the Christians… It is true that the believers in Mithras also observed Sunday as well as Christmas. Consequently Constantine speaks not of the day of the Lord, but of the everlasting day of the sun.  (Herbermann C., Georg Gp. Constantine the Great. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908).

Mithraism A pagan religion consisting mainly of the cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun-god Mithra. It entered Europe from Asia Minor after Alexander’s conquest, spread rapidly over the whole Roman Empire at the beginning of our era, reached its zenith during the third century, and vanished under the repressive regulations of Theodosius at the end of the fourth century…Helios Mithras is one god…Sunday was kept holy in honour of Mithra, and the sixteenth of each month was sacred to him as mediator. The 25 December was observed as his birthday, the natalis invicti, the rebirth of the winter-sun, unconquered by the rigours of the season (Arendzen J.  Mithraism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911).

The birthday of the sun god Mithras was what Constantine observed and he wanted his followers to observe. And it ended up getting officially adopted by the Greco-Roman bishops.

The World Book Encyclopedia notes:

In 354 A.D., Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate on December 25. He probably chose this date because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the sun (Sechrist E.H. Christmas. World Book Encyclopedia, Volume 3. Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, Chicago, 1966, pp. 408-417).

It needs to be understood that some scholarly sources believe that the celebration in Rome of Christmas may have began 2-3 decades earlier (by Constantine), but none I am aware of suggest it was prior Constantine in the fourth century.

There have been scholars who believe that Constantine was involved as tradition claims a certain church in Rome as the first site of a December 25th “Christmas” celebration as the following 2007 news account indicates:

The church where the tradition of celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 may have begun was built near a pagan shrine as part of an effort to spread Christianity, a leading Italian scholar says.

Italian archaeologists last month revealed an underground grotto that they believe ancient Romans revered as the place where a wolf nursed Rome’s legendary founder, Romulus, and his twin brother, Remus. A few feet from the grotto, or “Lupercale,” the Emperor Constantine built the Basilica of St. Anastasia, where some believe Christmas was first celebrated on Dec. 25…

It opted to mark Christmas, then celebrated at varying dates, on Dec. 25 to coincide with the Roman festival celebrating the birth of the sun god, Andrea Carandini, a professor of archaeology at Rome’s La Sapienza University, told reporters Friday. The Basilica of St. Anastasia was built as soon as a year after the Nicaean Council. It probably was where Christmas was first marked on Dec. 25, part of broader efforts to link pagan practices to Christian celebrations in the early days of the new religion, Mr. Carandini said. “The church was built to Christianize these pagan places of worship,” he said. “It was normal to put a church near these places to try to ‘save’ them.” Rome’s archaeological superintendent, Angelo Bottini, who did not take part in Mr. Carandini’s research, said that hypothesis was “evocative and coherent” and “helps us understand the mechanisms of the passage from paganism to Christianity.” (Scholars link 1st yule church to pagan shrine. Washington Times – Dec 23, 2007 ROME (AP). http://washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071223/FOREIGN/924350661/1001 viewed 12/24/07).

And the December 25th date was adopted apparently because the Greco-Roman church was filled with people who did not care that this was the Saturnalia/Mithra birthday, so calling it by the name of Christ somehow was believed to make the sun rebirth activities more acceptable.

It may be of interest to note that the December 25th Christmas did not become part of the official observations in Constantinople until the famous hater of Jews, John Chrysostum, introduced it there:

We may take it as certain that the feast of Christ’s Nativity was kept in Rome on 25 December…It was introduced by St. John Chrysostom into Constantinople and definitively adopted in 395 (Thurston. H. Transcribed by Rick McCarty. Christian Calendar. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York ).

Furthermore, here is even more that The Catholic Encyclopedia teaches about Christmas:

Christmas…Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the “birthdays” of the gods.

Alexandria. The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I, xxi in P.G., VIII, 888) says that certain Egyptian theologians “over curiously” assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ’s birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus…

Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Asia Minor. In Cyprus, at the end of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserts against the Alogi (Hær., li, 16, 24 in P. G., XLI, 919, 931) that Christ was born on 6 January…

Rome. At Rome the earliest evidence is in the Philocalian Calendar (P. L., XIII, 675; it can be seen as a whole in J. Strzygowski, Kalenderbilder des Chron. von Jahre 354, Berlin, 1888), compiled in 354, which contains three important entries. In the civil calendar 25 December is marked “Natalis Invicti”…

By the time of Jerome and Augustine, the December feast is established, though the latter (Epp., II, liv, 12, in P.L., XXXIII, 200) omits it from a list of first-class festivals. From the fourth century every Western calendar assigns it to 25 December…

The Gospels. Concerning the date of Christ’s birth the Gospels give no help; upon their data contradictory arguments are based. The census would have been impossible in winter: a whole population could not then be put in motion…

Natalis Invicti. The well-known solar feast, however, of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date. For the history of the solar cult, its position in the Roman Empire, and syncretism with Mithraism, see Cumont’s epoch-making “Textes et Monuments” etc., I, ii, 4, 6, p. 355…The earliest rapprochement of the births of Christ and the sun is in Cypr., “De pasch. Comp.”, xix, “O quam præclare providentia ut illo die quo natus est Sol . . . nasceretur Christus.” – “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born.”…

Cards and presents. Pagan customs centering round the January calends gravitated to Christmas…

The yule log. The calend fires were a scandal even to Rome, and St. Boniface obtained from Pope Zachary their abolition (Martindale C. Christmas, 1908).

Hence it is clear that even early Roman writers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen did not endorse Christmas, nor did Augustine even list it as an important holiday. And that even later Catholic sources recognize that it is not likely that a census (as shown in Luke 2:1) would be done during the winter–making a December 25th date of birth unlikely (it was also too cold for shepherds to spend the night with their flocks out in an open field, as shown in Luke 2:8, making a December 25th birth basically impossible).

So How Did December 25th Get Accepted?

December 25 was tied in with the winter solstice celebrations that ancient pagan cultures had.

A well know heretic, Cerinthus, may have introduced the December 25th date into his highly apostate group, because of the pagan celebrations.

When Roman Bishops, such as Zephyrinus and Callistus gained power, they apparently compromised in many ways, and thus many associated with their church choose to celebrate the Saturnalia.

It also appears that towards the beginning of the third century, there were some in Alexandria (not Asia Minor, or even Rome) who began to feel that Jesus’ birth should be celebrated, and that it would be in May.

But later, in the fourth century, Christmas began to be celebrated with both January 6th or December 25 being the dates observed.

To a great degree a winter date was chosen, because the sun-worshiping Emperor Constantine, and/or one of his successors, wanted to have a Sun holiday at the time of Saturnalia and Brumalia to placate the Gentiles (it should be noted that while Catholic scholars admit the probable pagan origins of the date and celebrations associated with Christmas, they tend to not believe that it was derived from Saturnalia).

December 25th has a long history of being used in pagan worship, and because various ones consider that the sun-worshiping Emperor Constantine was “great” and/or a “saint” and his influence was powerful, they ended up selecting December 25th as the date to supposedly celebrate the birth of Jesus.  A date that Jesus could not have been born on.

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