It is probably safe to say that when researching the history of Christmas, most people trace its origin to the early years of the fourth century CE. It was around that time that the emperor Constantine was ruling. Constantine came into power, in many ways, with ease. So easily won was the battle over an enemy, Maxentius, that everyone regarded Constantine as favored by the gods. In fact, an arch still stands in Rome today that is engraved with pictures of his enemies drowning with the inscription that notes this victory came by the “prompting of a deity”.
The deity or god that this inscription refers to is the “Unconquered Sun”. While Constantine is commonly spoken of as a Christian, it is true that he worshipped the sun god. In the late Roman Empire, Mithraism, a cult that worshipped the god of light (or the sun) began to flourish. They believed that this light would protect them from all evil. Constantine believed this too.
Prior to entering battle one afternoon, Constantine looked up at the sun. In that moment, he claimed that he saw a cross amid the sun and heard a voice which said, “by this [cross], conquer.” Constantine saw this as a sign from God. For him though, there was no differentiation between the sun god and the God of Christianity. He thought of them as one in the same. Soon after, worship and celebration of the birth of the sun god became popular. The date of the celebration? December 25th. (Others have suggested that something similar took place with Aurelian in CE 274. Whether one champions a Constantinian or Aurelian argument is moot. The argument focuses on whether or not Dec. 25th was developed by Christians before or after pagan celebrations with the same date.)
But Christianity, contrary to popular opinion, did not start celebrating the birth of Christ as a reaction to pagan festivals such as these. In my view, this is simply a widespread rumor that is incorrect. Actually, it seems to be the other way around. Pagans were concocting celebrations to combat the rapidly growing religion of Christianity. You see, in the early second century, a man by the name of Hippolytus went to great lengths in one of his commentaries (Commentary on Daniel) to defend the date of Christ’s birth (this is in the 2nd century CE!!!). What is more is that as Christians in the early second century (again, long before Constantine in the fourth century) sought to define a date for Christ’s crucifixion, in the process, some arrived at December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth. How did this happen?
Christian historian William Tighe (see more from a recent interview with him below) says that there was a common belief that existed among those of Jewish origin that can be referred to as the “integral age concept”. Simply put, this was the belief that great prophets died on the same day of the month that they were born. So, if a prophet was born on the 25th day of some month, he would also die on the 25th day of a month as well. Tighe contends that when the early Christians set the first Passover date (the time of Jesus’ death by crucifixion / Easter), they set it at March 25th. If you add nine months to that, this is how they arrived at December 25th.
Up until three centuries ago, nobody (as far as I have found) was using the argument that the pagan celebration had come first (this is a modern argument). Tighe shows that two men, Protestant historian Paul Ernst Jablonski and Catholic monk Jean Hardouin, were the first to make the “pagan origins” argument. Thus, according to Tighe’s research, of which I find rather compelling, the Christmas holiday did not start as pagan or have its roots in paganism. Nor was it invented to simply combat pagan celebrations. Again, it was the pagans who wanted to combat Christianity that developed festivals promoting false worship.
While in the big picture the particular day of Jesus’ birth might not change anything about our faith, it is still important to be able to discuss the matter. Further, using the arguments that the mega-Churches used a few years ago is, in my eyes, incorrect and unacceptable. But then again, that’s the reason for writing posts that deal with the issue of Christmas Traditions vs. Scripture. Lastly, here is a segment of a 2004 interview done with Tighe, some fascinating food for thought:
"Last year, Inside the Vatican magazine also supported Dec. 25, citing a report from St. John Chrysostom (patriarch of Constantinople who died in A.D. 407) that Christians had marked Dec. 25 from the early days of the church. Chrysostom had a further argument that modern scholars ignore:Luke 1 says Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist. During the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Mary learned about her conception of Jesus and visited Elizabeth "with haste."The 24 classes of Jewish priests served one week in the Temple, and Zechariah was in the eighth class. Rabbinical tradition fixed the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 and, calculating backward from that, Zechariah's class would have been serving Oct. 2-9 in 5 B.C. So Mary's conception visit six months later might have occurred the following March and Jesus' birth nine months afterward."