I don’t know how many times I’ve heard over the years that Constantine is the one who decided Christmas would be celebrated on December 25, because it was already a pagan holiday, and this would make it easier on his people to convert to Christianity. I pretty much believed this for years . . . until I looked it up for myself.
I had to look into this when I began my research for Giver of Wonders. There are two different major holidays celebrated by Rome, which Constantine is accused of trying to integrate into Christmas, or vice versa. One of these holidays actually wasn’t even celebrated until after the days of Constantine, when the date of Christmas was definitely set. So that rules that one out.
The other is Saturnalia, which had been celebrated in Roman culture for centuries. It was a festival of lights (does sound familiar…) and one of gift-giving (also familiar). So is there truth to that accusation? Did Constantine choose that date for Christmas and then integrate our holy day into a pagan festival?
In reality, Constantine didn’t do anything but legalize what was already custom. The church had been observing the birth of Christ on December 25 for many years already by the time the emperor converted, and even by the time that date was canonized by the Council.
Why December 25th then? Those who study history and the Jewish calendar are pretty sure Christ could not have been born in winter. There were shepherds in the hills, after all, which wouldn’t have been the case in December. So what gives?
Well, I don’t know why those in the know ignored some very sound logic when determining the date. But here’s what I do know: they had a reason for selecting December 25 that had nothing to do with any pagan holidays. See, at that time in history, Dec 25 was the winter solstice (did you know the date of the solstice had moved??). That’s why the pagans celebrated on that day–it’s why pretty much every religion had a celebration on that day.
But Christians? Why did we?
Well, it’s because the Christian scholars and priests of that era (educated, it may be worth noting, in Greek and Roman schools–there were no Christian-only schools at the time) believed that the God who created the universe created it with order and symmetry. They believed, for example (as did their Greek and Roman compatriots) that important men had a star appear to herald their birth. (So it would have been odd if the Gospels hadn’t included this for Jesus!) They believed their lives and births were written in the very cosmos–which is pretty cool, really. Right?
Well they also believed that this symmetry extended to the length of their life as well, and that the best and most important men in history lived in a full number of years.
Um . . . huh?
It’s weird. I know. This belief certainly didn’t survive the millennia, LOL. But that’s honestly what they thought. That Jesus, as the greatest man ever, would have lived a whole number of years, no random months and days added on.
So that would mean born and died on the same day, right? And we know he died on Passover–which was, as it happened, the Spring Equinox. So he must have been born on it . . . right?
Wrong. Life was not counted from the date of birth–it was counted from the supposed date of conception. So the belief was that the Holy Spirit must have conceived Jesus in Mary on the Spring Equinox (March 25). Which meant that He would have been born 9 months later.
So our quick math scrolls that calendar ahead 9 months to . . . voila! December 25.
This, my friends, is the honest-to-goodness reason why Christmas was set on December 25, way back in the 200s, well before Constantine took power and converted to Christianity.
Now, did some of the pagan traditions–candlelight and gift-giving–work their way into the day? Perhaps. Though gift-giving on Christmas wasn’t actually that prevalent until centuries later. Gift-giving, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, was actually done on Dec 6–the Feast Day of St. Nicholas (yesterday!), to remember the saint who gave so generously of his wealth, and anonymously. Dec 6 was a day to give and have no one know who gave. But it was close to Christmas. And over the years, the traditions blurred together. Especially, honestly, after the Protestant Revolution, when Luther declared “No more feast days of saints!” The people weren’t willing to give up their St. Nicholas Day . . . so they began saying it was the Christ Child who gave gifts on his birthday instead (Christ-kindl in German, which is where Kris Kringle came from!).
So there we have it. It may not be the actual date on which Jesus was born–probably isn’t–but it was a date selected because the people doing the selecting believed that the greatest Man in history would have been conceived and died on the same day.
Fascinating post! I have always been interested in this topic. Authors Brock and Bodie Thoene also did a considerable amount of research on the date as part of their A.D. Chronicles series, and they have noted that the sheep raised as the temple flock (ie, for sacrifice) were watched in the fields year round. It adds an extra layer of significance to think that the shepherds the angel appeared to could have been guarding the temple flock. Some years ago they published a little book called 'Why a Manger' that brought together their research about Christmas and the significance of what, when, and where.
Can't wait to read 'Giver of Wonders'.
Well that does make sense, doesn't it! Very cool, thanks for sharing. I'll have to check out that book…
This is an interesting post! An interesting fact for everyone is that certain Orthodox countries celebrate Christ's birth on January 7th. This is because of the differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. So while it's December 25th on the Julian calendar, it is January 7th on the Gregorian calendar, which is the one we all follow.
Also, I'm so glad you mentioned St. Nicholas! I taught a lesson about him in my Sunday School class this past week! I know many Orthodox families that still celebrate him by putting candy gold coins in their children's shoes on the morning of the 6th.
Interesting post! I enjoyed it!I know there has quite a bit of debate about this. And, I know the story about St. Nicholas, which I read several years ago (Because I was curious about that, too!). This post makes a lot post sense.
In the Middle Ages, there was the Feast of Annunciation, supposed to mark the day when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Mary which was – March 25th. People did sometimes give gifts on Christmas, but sometimes it was more common to give them on New Year. Of course, there were several dates for the New year, and some measured it from the Annunciation.
Yes, the spring equinox was considered the new year by many–and was thought to be the day God created the earth too, by those same Jewish and early Christian scholars.