The Christmas celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th has long been a tradition of professing Christians. But when did the Church begin celebrating this day as the birthday of Christ? More importantly, should Christians celebrate Christmas today?
Two common objections to Christmas are that the Bible speaks against Christmas Trees in Jeremiah 10 and that Santa is actually Satan. Actually Jeremiah 10:1-5 refers to heathen idol worship, not Christmas Trees. And Santa Claus’ real name is St. Nicholas of Myra, an Orthodox Christian bishop from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the fourth century who suffered for Christ under the persecution of Diocletian and is remembered for his charitable life.
It is often suggested that Christ’s birthday was celebrated when the wise men presented to him gifts (Matthew 2:11). But this was not the birthday of Christ, nor was it even the birth of Christ. Matthew said, “Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men” (Matthew 2:16). Therefore, the wise men offered gifts to Christ when he was as old as two years. But the birth of Christ is recorded earlier in Matthew 1:18-25.
Moreover, the only birthdays which are celebrated in the Bible are Pharaoh’s birthday (Genesis 40:20) and Herod’s birthday (Matthew 14:6), both of which ended in murder. Along these lines Origen (c. 245, E) wrote,
And on birthdays, when the lawless word reigns over them, they dance so that their movements please that word. Someone before us has observed what is written in Genesis about the birthday of Pharaoh and has said that the worthless man who loves things connected with birth keeps birthday festivals. And I, taking this suggestion from him, find nowhere in Scripture that a birthday was kept by a righteous man. For Herod was more unjust than that famous Pharaoh. For the latter killed a chief baker on his birthday feast. But the former killed John. (9.428)
This indicates that the early Christians did not celebrate birthdays during Origen’s time. If we find nowhere in Scripture that a birthday was kept by a righteous man, then why would we all of a sudden make a precedent for celebrating Christ’s birth?
In Christmas Was Never A Pagan Holiday, Marian T. Horvat wrote,
We can be certain that the first Catholic apologists and Fathers of the Church, who lived very close to the time of the Apostles, were fully aware of the dates associated with the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They had all the calendar sources at hand and they would not allow any untruth to be introduced in the Catholic liturgy. The date of Christ’s birth was transmitted by them as being December 25, a Sunday.
Frankly, this does not seem to be the case. To the earliest Christians, December 25th wasn’t even a consideration for Christ’s birth. The only primary source I’ve found among the Pre-Nicene Christians concerning the birth of Christ is what Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E) says below:
Therefore, from the birth of Christ to the death of Commodus are a total of one hundred ninety-four years, one month, and thirteen days. There are those who have calculated not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day. They say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon [May 20]. . . . Others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth day of Pharmuthi [April 19 or 20]. (2.333)
Notice that among the theories of the early Church concerning the birth of Jesus Christ, the date of December 25th was not even considered. It is unreasonable to assume that later generations had a better idea of Christ’s birthday, being further removed in time than the Pre-Nicene Christians.
Moreover, there is the overwhelming silence of the Christmas celebration on December 25th from the Pre-Nicene Christian writers. These are strong indications that Jesus’ birth was not marked or celebrated at that time. For the first three centuries there is no early Christian reference to the celebration of Christmas, let alone the birthday of Jesus on the December 25th.
The Tradition Jesus Was Born on December 25th
It has been argued that Hippolytus (170-236) wrote about the December 25th birthday for Christ. Supposedly in his Commentary on Daniel we find the following passage:
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the kalends of January [December 25th], the 4th day of the week [Wednesday], while Augustus was in his forty-second year, [2 or 3BC] but from Adam five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty third year, 8 days before the kalends of April [March 25th], the Day of Preparation, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar [29 or 30 AD], while Rufus and Roubellion and Gaius Caesar, for the 4th time, and Gaius Cestius Saturninus were Consuls. (tr. Tom Schmidt).
However, this does not appear in the Ante-Nicene Fathers version of the text. The translator Tom Schmidt’s website is no longer available and his paperback book Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel is no longer in print. Moreover, according to Roger Pearse, “The text cannot be said to be in good condition. The manuscripts in which the material is preserved are often in a poor state, or illegible. The most recent edition . . . often indicates words added by conjecture or asterisks where there are gaps impossible to fill.”
The real difficulty is with the third century statue of Hippolytus and a third century work which is based on a lost work of Hippolytus. Ed Rickard explains:
But many scholars believe that the reference to 25 December is a late correction of the date actually stated by the author. The author’s date may be preserved in a single manuscript which curiously contradicts itself by giving two dates: both 25 December and 2 April. For two reasons, it is likely that 2 April is the original reading.
1. A third-century work called De Pascha Computus, which, it is agreed, is based on a lost work of Hippolytus, states that Christ was born on Passover. It is therefore probable that Hippolytus himself was of the same opinion. Although the date of Passover Eve varies from year to year, it is never far from 2 April.
2. In the Lateran Museum at Rome is an ancient statue of Hippolytus which was probably executed shortly after his death. This statue bears the dates of Passover for the years 222-333, and next to one date, 2 April of a certain year, is inscribed “genesis [‘birth’] of Jesus Christ.” No doubt the statue was intended to honor Hippolytus as the one who calculated the dates of future Passovers. We therefore surmise that in the third century, it was believed that Hippolytus set Christ’s birth on 2 April, one of the recurring dates in the Passover cycle.
The alleged quote from Hippolytus is important because it is the only quotation with the December 25 birthday predating Constantine. But it appears Hippolytus also believed in another date for the birth of Christ: April 2.
How is it that the earliest Christians believed Christ could have been born on April 2, 19, 20, or May 20, but the later Christians who were much further removed in time from the Apostles could speak with certainty that Christ was born on December 25th?
There are plenty of influential early Christian writers such as John Chrysostom (386) and Augustine (400) who spoke of the December 25th birthday. Additionally there are The Philocalian Calendar (354) and The Apostolic Constitutions (375-380) which mention the December 25th celebration. But no tradition linking Christmas to December 25th can be traced back before the time of Constantine.
Why December 25th?
One hypothesis is based on the link between Christmas and the celebration of a pagan feast of the winter solstice in honor of the sun god. This is called the history of religions theory.
It has to do with the fact that the Church was paganized under the reign of Constantine. It is my opinion that the Church apostatized during the reign of Constantine by allowing the union of church and state, the embrace of pagan customs, and conquering by the sword. One possibility is that the celebrations of Saturnalia and the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) were “Christianized” in order to reach heathens who celebrated those pagan holidays.
When was Christmas first celebrated? A fourth century manuscript called the Chronology of 354 (compiled in AD 354) contains the first reference to the Christmas celebration. It is interesting that in part 6 of the document on December 25 says: “N·INVICTI·CM·XXX” (“Birthday of the unconquered, games ordered, thirty races”) – a reference to the pagan feast of Sol Invictus. Part 12 of the document contains commemoration dates of the martyrs, which begins with “VIII kal. Ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae” (“Eighth day before the kalends of January [December 25], Birth of Christ in Bethlehem Judea”). According to New Advent, “Even if the ‘Depositio Martyrum’ dates, as is probable, from 336, it is not clear that the calendar contains evidence earlier than Philocalus himself, i.e. 354.” This day, December 25, 336, is the first recorded celebration of Christmas, which was during the reign of Emperor Constantine.
Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) was the official sun god of the later Roman Empire and a patron of soldiers. In 274 AD the Roman emperor Aurelian made it an official cult alongside the traditional Roman cults. The near-solstice date of December 25 for Christmas was likely selected because it was the date of the birthday of Sol Invictus.
In an attempt to refute the history of religions theory, William J. Tighe in Calculating Christmas writes,
The pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance. . . .
In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.
But it cannot be argued that the date had no religious significance in the Roman Empire prior to Aurelian’s time in 274 AD. Their is evidence to suggest otherwise such as the inscription that uses Invictus as an epithet of Sol is from AD 158. From The Roman Army, 31 BC – AD 337, A Sourcebook (pages 42-43):
72 CIL 6. 715=ILS 2184, inscription Rome, AD 158
To the unconquered Sun god, in accordance with the vow undertaken, on receiving an honorable discharge from the unit mounted bodyguards of the Emperor, Publius Aelius Amandus gave this as a gift, in the consulship of the Tertullus and Sacredos.
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the pagan deity Saturn, held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to December 23. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving and partying.
Notice some of these quotes from Tertullian about pagan holidays such as Saturnalia:
[ADDRESSING PAGANS:] On your day of gladness, we [Christians] neither cover our doorposts with wreaths, nor intrude upon the day with lamps. At the call of public festivity, you consider it a proper thing to decorate your house like some new brothel. . . . We are accused of a lower sacrilege because we do not celebrate along with you the holidays of the Caesars in a manner forbidden alike by modesty, decency, and purity. Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.44.
The Roman traitors clad their doorposts with green and branching laurels. They smoked up their porches with lofty and brilliant lamps. Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.44.
What less of a defilement does he incur on that ground than does a business . . . that is publicly consecrated to an idol? The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s as the Saturnalia is Saturn’s. Yes, it is Saturn’s day, which must necessarily be celebrated even by little slaves at the time of the Saturnalia. Likewise, New Year’s gifts must be caught at. The Septimontium must be kept. And all the presents of Midwinter and the Feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted. The schools must be wreathed with flowers. . . . The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday. Every ceremony of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian teacher? Tertullian (c. 200, W), 3.66.
And among these, [the wife of an unbelieving husband] will be agitated by the odor of incense on all the memorial days of demons, at all solemnities of kings, at the beginning of the year, and at the beginning of the month. She will have to exit by a gate wreathed with laurel and hung with lanterns, as from some new meeting place of public lusts. Tertullian (c. 205, W), 4.47.
Covering the doorpost with wreaths, gift-giving, public festivity, decorating homes, lamps and lanterns all resemble the modern customs of the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
Christmas and Worldliness
We can see that many modern Christmas customs have been directly influenced by such festivals, including gift-giving and lamp-lighting from the Roman Saturnalia, greenery, and lights from the Roman New Year. The next three passages from Tertullian are written as rebukes to worldly Christians:
However, the majority [of Christians] have by this time convinced themselves in their minds that it is pardonable when they do what the pagan does at anytime, for fear that [otherwise] “the Name might be blasphemed.” Tertullian (c. 200, W), 3.69.
The Saturnalia, New Year, Midwinter festivals, and Matronalia are frequented by us! Presents come and go! There are New Year’s gifts! Games join their noise! Banquets join their din! The pagans are more faithful to their own sect. . . . For, even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord’s Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet, we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans! Tertullian (c. 200, W), 3.70.
Nowadays, you will find more doors of heathens without lamps and laurel wreaths than of Christians. . . . If it is for an idol’s honor, without doubt an idol’s honor is idolatry. Yet, even if it is for a man’s sake, . . . let us again consider that all idolatry is worship done to men. Tertullian (c. 200, W), 3.70.
Sadly the words of Tertullian apply to many professing Christians today who are celebrating Chistmas. Many Christians don’t celebrate Christmas today simply because they consider it worldly on the basis that it’s observed by unbelievers. What do modern Christmas customs have to do with Christ?
What would God say to people today who spent their time and money buying gifts for their family and friends, decorating their houses and lawns, eating, drinking and being merry all in Christ’s name on December 25th (the birthday of Sol Invictus)? We know that to the man who “takes his ease; eating, drinking, and being merry” God will say to him, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” (Luke 12:19-20). Jesus said, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Jesus also said, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14). This is the true spirit of Christianity, before it became paganized and worldly.