“It’s that time of year again when many Christians encounter claims that pagan deities predating Jesus Christ were born on December 25. In popular films, Internet videos, and other media you can find long lists of gods who were supposedly born on the same day.
This idea is not limited to unbelievers. I have heard many Christians claim that the date of Christmas was intended to provide an alternative to pagan celebrations. In some ways it has become a pious legend. On the other hand, some Fundamentalist denominations refuse to celebrate Christmas for this reason.
Of all the deities of whom people make this claim, only three can be found to come close: Saturn, Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), and Mithras.
Saturnalia was the feast dedicated to the Roman god Saturn. Established around 220 B.C., this feast was originally celebrated on December 17. Eventually, the feast was extended to last an entire week, ending on December 23. The supposed connection to Christmas is based on the proximity of the two festivals to each other.
This can be found repeatedly on the Internet. In his article Saturnalia: The Reason We Celebrate Christmas in December, columnist Mark Whittington explains:
It has been suggested that Christians in the 4th Century assigned December 25th as Christ’s birthday (and hence Christmas) because pagans already observed this day as a holiday. In this way the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday would be sidestepped, thus making the Christianizing of the population easier.
If the suggestion were correct, one would expect to find at least a single reference by early Christians to support it. Instead we find scores of quotations from Church Fathers indicating a desire to distance themselves from pagan religions.
The feast of Sol Invictus was the attempt by the Roman emperor Aurelian to reform the cult of Sol, the Roman sun god, and and reintroduce it to his people, inaugurating Sol’s temple and holding games for the first time in A.D. 274. Not only was this festival not annual, it also cannot be historically documented as having been established on December 25 by Aurelian (cf. Steven HijMans, Sol Invictus, The Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas, Mouseion, Series III, vol. 3, pp. 377-398).
According to inscriptions on candle votives and other ancient works of art, there is a link between Mithras and Sol Invictus. In some cases, it appears the Mithraists believed that Mithras and Sol were two different manifestations of the same god. In others, they appear to be two gods united as one. These connections are difficult to understand given our limited knowledge of the Mithraic belief system, but they are important because they help to explain why skeptics claim the birthday of Mithras was celebrated on December 25.
A manuscript known as the Chronography of 354 shows the birth of Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25. Given the fact that the Mithraists equated their god with Sol in one way or another, it is understandable that they may have appropriated the date as their own. The problem for the skeptic is that no evidence exists to suggest that Aurelian was a Mithraist, or that he even had Mithraism in mind when he instituted the feast of Sol Invictus. The connection of Mithra to December 25 is only coincidental.
The deathblow to both the Mithras and Sol Invictus parallels is that the Chronography of 354 is the earliest mention of any pagan god being celebrated on December 25. The celebration of the birth of Christ by Christians is also mentioned on the calendar as having been celebrated on that day, which diminishes the likelihood that the pagan feast came first. At the very least, it negates the claim that it can be proved from the historical record that any December 25 pagan festival predates the Christian tradition.
Although the date of Christ’s birth is not given to us in Scripture, there is documented evidence that December 25 was already of some significance to Christians prior to A.D. 354. One example can be found in the writings of Hyppolytus of Rome, who explains in his Commentary on the book of Daniel (c. A.D. 204) that the Lord’s birth was believed to have occurred on that day:
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.
The reference to Adam can be understood in light of another of Hyppolytus’ writings, the Chronicon, where he explains that Jesus was born nine months after the anniversary of Creation. According to his calculations, the world was created on the vernal equinox, March 25, which would mean Jesus was born nine months later, on December 25.
Nineteenth-century liturgical scholar Louis Duchesne explains that “towards the end of the third century the custom of celebrating the birthday of Christ had spread throughout the whole Church, but that it was not observed everywhere on the same day” (Christian Worship, Its Origin and Evolution: a study of the Latin liturgy up to the time of Charlemagne, p. 260).
In the West, the birth of Christ was celebrated on December 25, and in the East on January 6.
Duchesne writes “one is inclined to believe that the Roman Church made choice of the 25th of December in order to enter into rivalry with Mithraism. This reason, however, leaves unexplained the choice of the 6th of January” (ibid., p. 261). His solution, therefore, was that the date of Christ’s birth was decided by using as a starting point the same day on which he was believed to have died. This would explain the discrepancies between the celebrations in the East and West.
Given the great aversion on the part of some Christians to anything pagan, the logical conclusion here is that one celebration has nothing to do with the other. In his book, Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI explains:
The claim used to be made that December 25 developed in opposition to the Mithras myth, or as a Christian response to the cult of the unconquered sun promoted by Roman emperors in the third century in their efforts to establish a new imperial religion. However, these old theories can no longer be sustained. The decisive factor was the connection of creation and Cross, of creation and Christ’s conception (p. 105-107).
While these explanations of how December 25 came to be the date of Christmas are all plausible, we know one thing for sure: The evidence that this day held a special significance to Christians predates the proof of a supposed celebration of Sol Invictus or other pagan deities on that day.
That the Christians chose a date so close to the winter solstice is also not proof that this was done to mimic pagan festivals. The various pagan religions all had festivals spanning the calendar. Whatever month the early Christians might have otherwise chosen would still place Christmas near some pagan celebration, and oppositional theorists would still be making the same claims.
The solstice was important to everyone for agricultural reasons in the same way water is important to the survival of human beings, and so we see rituals involving water showing up in various religions. That doesn’t prove that one borrowed the idea or theme from another.”
Love, Merry Birth of Our Lord,
Do environmental conditions contradict what the Gospels claim?
CHALLENGE: Christians are wrong to celebrate Christmas on December 25. Jesus couldn’t have been born then. It would have been too cold for the shepherds to keep their flocks outdoors (Luke 2:8).
DEFENSE: There are several problems with this challenge.
First, the Catholic Church celebrates Jesus’ birth on December 25, but this is a matter of custom rather than doctrine. It is not Church teaching that this is when Jesus was born (note that the matter isn’t even mentioned in the Catechism).
Second, although most Christians today celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, this was not the only date proposed. Around A.D. 194, Clement of Alexandria stated Christ was born November 18. Other early proposals included January 10, April 19 or 20, and May 20 (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §488, §553). By far the most common proposals, however, were January 6 (ibid., §§554-61) and December 25 (ibid., §§562-68).
While the last was eventually adopted by the Catholic Church for use in its liturgy, the fact that the Church did not declare alternate proposals heretical shows the matter was not considered essential to the Faith.
Third, the proposals that put Jesus’ birth in the colder part of the year (November 18, December 25, January 6, and January 10) are not ruled out by the fact that there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night.
Ancient Jews did not have large indoor spaces for housing sheep. Flocks were kept outdoors during winter in Judaea, as they are elsewhere in the world today, including in places where snow is common (search for “winter sheep care” on the Internet). Sheep are adapted to life outdoors. That’s why they have wool, which keeps body heat in and moisture out.
Sheep are kept outdoors in winter in Israel today: “William Hendricksen quotes a letter dated Jan. 16, 1967, received from the New Testament scholar Harry Mulder, then teaching in Beirut, in which the latter tells of being in Shepherd Field at Bethlehem on the just-passed Christmas Eve, and says: ‘Right near us a few flocks of sheep were nestled. Even the lambs were not lacking. . . . It is therefore definitely not impossible that the Lord Jesus was born in December’” (ibid., §569).
The Prophecy of Immanuel
Could the Gospel writer have misunderstood the Old Testament prophecy?
CHALLENGE: Matthew misunderstands Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel (Isa. 7:14). It doesn’t point to Jesus.
DEFENSE: Matthew understands the prophecy better than you think.
The biblical authors recognized Scripture as operating on multiple levels. For example, Matthew interprets the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as a fulfillment of the prophetic statement, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In its original context, it is obvious the “son” of God being discussed is Israel: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).
Matthew understood this. He had read the first half of the verse and knew that, on the primary, literal level, the statement applied to the nation of Israel. But he recognized that on another level it applied to Christ as the divine Son who recapitulates and fulfills the aspirations of Israel.
In the same way, it is obvious in Isaiah that on the primary, literal level the prophecy of Immanuel applied to the time of King Ahaz (732-716 B.C.). At this point, Syria had forged a military alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel that threatened to conquer Jerusalem (Isa. 7:1-2). God sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz the alliance would not succeed (Isa. 7:3-9) and told him to name a sign that God would give him as proof (Isa. 7:10-11).
Ahaz balked and refused to name a sign (Isa. 7:12), so God declared one: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. . . . For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isa. 7:14-16).
For this sign to be meaningful to Ahaz, it would have to be fulfilled in his own day—indeed, very quickly. It therefore points, on the primary, literal level, to a child conceived at that time (perhaps Ahaz’s son, the future King Hezekiah).
This was as obvious to Matthew as it is to us, but—like the other New Testament authors—he recognized the biblical text as having multiple dimensions, so the prophecy was not only fulfilled in Ahaz’s day but also pointed to Christ as “Immanuel” (Hebrew, “God with us”).
Is Christmas Pagan?
From Saturnalia to Sol Invictus, there is no shortage of theories
CHALLENGE: Christmas is based on a pagan holiday.
DEFENSE: There are multiple responses to this challenge.
First, which pagan holiday are we talking about? Sometimes Saturnalia—a Roman festival honoring the god Saturn—is proposed. But Saturnalia was held on December 17 (and later extended through December 23). It wasn’t December 25.
Another proposal is Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Latin, “The Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”), but the evidence this was the basis of the dating of Christmas is problematic. The Christian Chronography of A.D. 354 records the “Birthday of the Unconquerable” was celebrated on that date in 354 AD, but the identity of “the Unconquerable” is unclear. Since it’s a Christian document that elsewhere (twice) lists Jesus’ birthday as December 25, it could be the Unconquerable Christ—not the sun—whose birth was celebrated.
Second, correlation is not causation. Even if Christmas and Sol Invictus were both on December 25, Christmas might have been the basis of Sol Invictus, or the reverse, or it might just be a coincidence. If you want to claim the date of Sol Invictus is the basis for the date of Christmas, you need evidence.
Third, that evidence is hard to come by. Even if the Chronology of A.D. 354 refers to Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25, this is the first reference to the fact, and we know some Christians held that Jesus was born on that date long before 354 AD.
For example, St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 240) stated in his commentary on Daniel that Jesus was born on December 25, and he wrote around a century and a half before 354 (see Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §562). Further, Sol Invictus wasn’t even an official Roman cult until 274 AD, when the Emperor Aurelian made it one.
Fourth, if Christians were subverting Sol Invictus, we should find the Church Fathers saying, “Let’s subvert Sol Invictus by celebrating Christmas instead.” But we don’t. The Fathers who celebrate December 25 sincerely think that’s when Jesus was born (ibid., §§562-567).
Finally, even if Christmas was timed to subvert a pagan holiday, so what? Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and celebrating the birth of Christ is a good thing. So is subverting paganism. If the early Christians were doing both, big deal!”
Love, He comes!!!!
Lo! How a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As those of old have sung.
It came a flower bright
Amid the cold of winter
When half-spent was the night.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind;
And so then we behold it,
The Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright
She bore to us a Savior
When half-spent was the night.
“All was quiet and still with that quiet stillness that slows one’s step almost without him noticing. Beneath the dark boughs of the forest, the crisp flakes of the newly fallen snow caught and crystalized the silver moonlight. Brother Laurentius, wandering through this melancholic solemnity, observed amid the encircling white and diamond a deep ruby warmth. Stooping, the Cathusian(1)[Brother Laurentius (apocryphal); Carthusian monk Conradus, 1580s, Trier, manuscript anthology] lifted the blooming rose to a silver shaft of light. How strange to find such a flower nestled amid the Christmas snowfall. Still contemplating the blossom, the monk trudged back to the convent. Finding a crystal vase, he placed the rose beneath the gentle candlelight of Mary’s altar.
Brother Laurentius’s(1) midnight discovery, according to tradition, inspired the meditative Advent and Christmastide hymn, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”).
From the beginning, “Lo, How a Rose” was a sort of gentle call to a Marian contemplation. The Church had long seen the Blessed Virgin prefigured in the words of the Song of Songs: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys” (Song 2:1). The first version, which appeared in a German hymnal in 1599, sang of Mary as the rose that “has brought forth a floweret,” Christ. The verse captures the mystique of Mary’s role in the Incarnation of the Son of God. The perfect flower of her holiness provided the fitting stem upon which to form the humanity of the perfect man. Like Br. Laurentius gazing on the color of the rose amid the darkness of night, the listener contemplates the sinless beauty of the Virgin Mother of God amid the pallor of fallen world.
The current version of the hymn, with the powerful harmonies composed by Michael Praetorius in 1609, focuses more on that floweret, Christ:
This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
We now see Christ as the rose fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa 11:1). The grace and truth of the Christ child, like the sweet fragrance of a rose, permeates the rotten decay of our fallen world and makes all things fresh. The gentle light of the newborn king’s face, like the red rose in the field of white, shines out a glorious splendor that will blaze forth on the Mountain of the Transfiguration, obliterate the darkness of the grave in the light of the Resurrection, and flow to every corner of the earth through the faces of his friends who have seen this light.
In this focus on Christ the rose, the hymn retains its Marian aspect. Now, we join the Virgin Mother in her undiluted contemplation of her Son. The goal of the hymn, the purpose, is to join our eyes to those of Mary gazing upon this “flow’ret bright”: “With Mary we behold it.”
Mary is the contemplative par excellence. In her maternal care, we hear several times how she pondered in her heart the mystery of her divine Son (cf. Lk 1:29; 2:18, 51). When we pray the Rosary, we join in Mary’s contemplation, gazing with her into the inexhaustible mystery of her Son.
“Lo, How a Rose” invites us to a similar contemplation. We wonder at “How Christ, the Lord of Glory, / Was born on earth this night.” With Mary we ponder the baby in the crib, knowing that he is “True man, yet very God” and that “From sin and death He saves us.”
Praetorius’s musical arrangement aids this contemplation. The lyrics move slowly and gently through the harmonies, beckoning to us to slow down, to listen, to behold. The chords rise and fall, grow and subside with all the intensity and subtlety of contemplation, one moment powerful, the next moment gentle, yet always moving with a heavenly steadiness.
In this Christmas contemplation, we see ever more clearly what Mary saw and what her motherhood shows:
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
Christ the flower came breathing forth the fragrance of divine love. He sprung from Mary’s “tender stem” to reveal the love of God, to manifest in visible form the heights and depths of God’s love. “To show God’s love aright,” God’s only Son became the Son of Man, born our brother through Mary, that we might be born his brothers through grace, becoming sons of God.
With Mary, then, we behold afresh the flowering of grace and new life in the Christ Child.
Love & the budding joy only He can give,
(1) O’Sullivan, J. (2008). There Is a Rose Come Forth. The Furrow, 59(4), 242-245. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/27665728