Is December 25th a Pagan Holiday?

A quick Google search will find millions of articles connecting the date of Christmas to a pagan Roman festival. They come from websites on history, news, and theology, to name a few. Their claim isn’t a new one, by any stretch. One of the first assertions of this connection between a festival of the sun and Christmas came from the Syriac Orthodox Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi, writing from Mesopotamia in the 12th century (see Bibliotecha orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae 2:164). But does that claim stand up to historical scrutiny?

Clarifying the Question

At the outset, I want to ensure that we frame the question well. The question that I’m going to answer is not, “Was December 25th the exact day of Jesus’ birth?” That’s a muddy question to attempt to answer for a number of reasons. It raises issues of whether shepherds would be in the field on a December night and the precision of numerous points of evidence we’ll address in a bit. 

Another question that is beyond the scope of this article is whether modern Christmas traditions like the Christmas tree, Yule log, mistletoe, etc. are pagan adaptations. I’m also not going to wade into whether the adaptation or overhauling of pagan holidays or practices pose a moral problem for Christians. Instead, I will answer the question, “Did the early church adopt a pagan holiday or did they have other reasons for adopting the December 25th date for Christmas?”

I would affirm that the church had solid non-pagan reasons for adopting the December 25th date for Christmas. Some of these reasons have more validity to me than others, but I find the evidence for non-pagan origins of the December 25th date of Christmas compelling. Unlike other posts along these lines, I have tried, where possible, to link to original source material so readers who wish to check my research can do so.

The Early Christian Resistance to Paganism

Early Christians detested the thought of amalgamating their faith with Roman paganism or any other sort of non-Christian faith. Owing to its Jewish origin and the writings of the New Testament, early Christians held a strong position against syncretistic efforts, choosing rather to suffer persecution than to add Christ to the Roman pantheon or adapt Christian teaching or practice to that of the pagan culture. Some early examples of this trend are worth noting.

In the Epistle to Diognetus, a writer who merely designates himself as a “disciple” writes one of the early examples of Christian apologetics (probably mid- to late-second century). In his second chapter, the writer explains why Christians hold pagan practices in “contempt.” Justin Martyr is another early example of Christian apologists (early- to late-second century). Time-and-again, Justin excoriates pagan practices, leaving no room for any sort of amalgamation with pagan practices (see particularly his “First Apology” chapters 9 and 24). A third early exemplar of this anti-pagan tradition in the early church is Irenaeus (mid second to early third century). In his second book of “Against Heresies,” one of his arguments that he deploys to attack the Gnostic teachings of Valentinus is that they have been derived from pagan mythology. Irenaeus expects his readers to detest any sort of substitution of Christian nomenclature, theology, or practice with that of paganism.

But while the early Christians resisted syncretistic practices, the cults of the day exercised little discretion in borrowing from Christian traditions. In fact, one of the early offenders in this regard was the cult of Mithras. Mithras was a cult that gained popularity in the Roman empire during the first century alongside Christianity. Details of the cult remain sparse, leading to many scholarly conjectures about its origins and practices. While scholars debate whether the early Christian apologists had an accurate understanding of Mithraism, we do have two indications of a syncretistic effort within the Mithras cult. For example, during the second century, Justin Martyr accuses Mithraism of borrowing the Christian elements of the Eucharist. And later Tertullian (late second to early third century) suggests that Mithraism and other pagan traditions, as servants of Satan, are attempting to borrow Christian practices as their own

Academics in the field of history of religions frequently argue that because Mithraism pre-dated Christianity (Mithras was the Persian sun god, with extant references before the time of Christ), Christians must have adopted and adapted elements of the cult in their own worship and theology. But all of the scholarly work on Mithraism admits several important elements:

  1. Mithraism was not static, but evolved rapidly as it encountered Roman culture and religions. Even the amalgamation with Sol Invictus was part of this evolution. To posit that Mithraism, favored by the emperors of the era, incorporated Christian elements to draw Roman citizens away from Christianity makes more sense than the persecuted church adapting Christianity to Mithraism (or the early generation of Jewish disciples adapting Judaism to Mithraism).
  2. Mithraism lacks robust extant primary sources for study. We do have some extant references and know that some writers in the ancient world provided far more detail on the cult. Because many of the details are lacking, academics are left to interpret history, to fill in the blanks.
  3. Because of the evolving nature and because we don’t have many sources to research, later summaries of the practices and beliefs surrounding Mithras and Sol Invictus have been interpolated into the historic practices of the cult. The best way to unravel the connection is to examine the trail of historical evidence surrounding specific elements where overlap is alleged to find their source. This article attempts to do this with the most notable of alleged Mithras/Christianity overlaps.

In short, early in Christian tradition we find deep-seated resistance to any sort of syncretistic amalgamations of Christian worship and practice (particularly of Mithraism). Instead, we find that Roman paganism (particularly Mithraism) was well positioned to absorb unique Christian practices for their own.

Which Came First?

We’ve thus far established that it seems plausible that the Mithras cult borrowed from Christianity rather than the other way around. So what does this have to do with the date of Christmas? The legend of “pagan Christmas” suggests that Christians borrowed the December 25th date from Natalis Invicti, the birth of Sol Invictus–a sister cult to that of Mithras. In order for this legend to be true, we need evidence that supports (a) prior pagan celebrations on December 25 and (b) later Christian celebrations on December 25. Instead, here’s what we find when we examine the source material:

  1. A pagan holiday on December 25th is is poorly attested.
    • Many sources (see this one in the Washington Post, for a more popular example) point to the Roman Emperor Aurelian as “the Father of Christmas”, alleging that he launched the holiday of Natalis Invicti in AD 274. This late third century date for Natalis Invicti, however, is unsubstantiated. We know that Aurelian returned to Rome in triumph and dedicated a temple to the Sun (for extensive research on this temple and related imagery, see Roger Pearse’s articles). Beyond those facts, we find nothing about December 25th in the three key primary sources on Aurelian (Historia Augusta, “The Deified Aurelian”, XXV.6;  Sextus Aurelius Victor, Epitome de Caesaribus XXXV; Eutropius, Abridgement of Roman History IX.13–15). As best I can tell by chasing the primary sources, historians who posit the AD 274 origin of the December 25th celebration are reading more recent practices back into what may have happened in 274.
    • So what is that more recent source that is read back into Aurelian’s temple dedication? The first indication of the Natalis Invicti celebration on December 25th comes from a mid 4th century calendar that features key dates celebrated by the Roman government in the year 354. There it notes “N·INVICTI·CM·XXX.” Even here, we should note that the description here is not incredibly specific, lacking the word “SOL”, which appears elsewhere in the calendar. “CM·XXX” indicates an event that involved 30 races in the Roman circus. It should also be noted that later in the same document, when listing Christian observances, the same date is listed as the “birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea.” In summary, the “Chronography of 354” is by no means a straightforward document. While the dates included in the chronography surely began at an earlier time, this is the first possible historical instance of a pagan December 25th celebration; however, this is not the first historical instance of December 25th being noted as the birthday of Jesus.
  2. A Christian tradition supporting December 25th as the birthdate of Jesus Christ has much earlier attestation in ancient literature. 
  3. Questionable sources are often cited as evidence for a “pagan Christmas” background.
    • One such example is the quotation alleged to be from Augustine: “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.” It would be possible to read this statement either as an admission that December 25th was initially adopted to subvert earlier pagan tradition or as a defense of Christian tradition’s non-pagan foundations. But even here, I can’t find any primary source for this quotation.
    • Another category in question is the iconography surrounding Sol Invictus. While some sources on the topic draw on coinage or inscriptions for primary information on Sol Invictus and how it may integrate with Christianity, many of the alleged icons are questionable, at best
    • A variety of claims about Christian/Mithraic parallels that work well on memes or in rapid-fire YouTube comments don’t stand up to careful analysis. This list of four alleged parallels with some helpful documentation will help kickstart some helpful research.
    • I’ve seen a number of sources pointing to more ancient Juvenalia or Saturnalia celebrations as the source for the December 25th date of Christmas; however, the dates for these festivals occurred earlier in December.

In summary: While Christians in the fifth century and beyond showed gradually greater degrees of syncretism, careful historians will be hard-pressed to make the case that even in the second and early third centuries–before the legalization of Christianity–that Christians were already adopting and adapting the pagan religions of Rome. Further, the earliest sources that specifically refer to the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth and not to any pagan festival.

So if December 25th wasn’t a pagan holiday, where else could it have come from? Let’s look at three intriguing possibilities.

Possible Source #1: The Early Church Understood the Jewish Priestly Calendar

This argument runs as follows:

  1. The course of priests on duty when the temple was destroyed can be estimated with a reasonable degree of accuracy (see Josef Heinrich Friedlieb’s Leben J. Christi des Erlösers. Münster, 1887, p. 312). This starting point may have been more commonly understood in Jewish families in the first and second centuries.
  2. There were 24 courses of priests (Neh. 12:12–21), of which Abijah is 8th. Working back from the course of Joarib serving on the 9th of Av (August 4th) in AD 70, you can determine when each course of priests served.
  3. Zacharias was from the course of Abijah (Luke 1:5), the eighth course of priests (Neh. 12:17), meaning that he would have served both during the 3rd week of Nisan (including the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread) and the 2nd week of Tishri (including the Day of Atonement) in 5 BC. 
  4. If the latter week is correct, then we can add 280 days (give or take a little) and arrive at the end of June for the birth of John the Baptist. Catholic tradition places the date of John’s birth on June 24.
  5. Now we just have to add 6 months to June 24 to find out when Jesus was born, because John was 6 months older than Jesus (Luke 1:24). This puts us at December 24–25.

There are some challenges with this schema:

  1. The entire argument, from our perspective, depends on the accuracy of Friedlieb’s claim regarding the priestly course of Joarib serving on the 9th of Av in AD 70.
  2. Because there were 24 courses of priests and 50 weeks in the year, the year we select for the birth of Christ could make a big difference in how this schema works.
  3. There is a 50/50 chance that Zacharias would have served either in Nisan or Tishri on the given year. Tishri backs up the chronology for the traditional dates, but it isn’t the only possibility. Proponents of this view may point to the “Infancy Gospel of James”, which has Zacharias entering the most holy place (see section 8), an act associated with the Day of Atonement. I don’t find the argument from the infancy gospel convincing.

Those challenges stated, if our understanding of the priestly rotation is correct and if the early church understood Zacharias as serving in the temple at or around the Day of Atonement, then it would be relatively easy to date Christmas on December 25th without any other influence.

Possible Source #2: The Early Church Counted Back from Easter

Somewhere along the line, the idea came about that Jesus was conceived on the day that he died. The origins of this thinking bear more investigation than I can trace out, but it’s a line of reasoning adopted by Augustine:

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.

In other words, they worked back from what they were most certain (Jesus’s death on March 25th), assumed his conception was on the same day, and calculated his birth on December 25th. And there’s a long line of interpreters who argued for the March 25th crucifixion of Christ (a substantially earlier tradition than December 25th for Christmas). See, for example, Tertullian (mid second to early third century). 

While the argument for Jesus dying on the day of his conception seems incredibly forced to modern interpreters, it seems to have been a commonplace expectation of ancient interpreters. And it was reasonable enough for them to accordingly set the date of Christmas on December 25th. And the same argument seems to be in play in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where April 6th was argued as Christ’s death and conception and January 6th for his birth.

In summary, there is good reason to believe that the early church was not determining Easter based on Sol Invictus, but rather determining Christmas based on Easter.

Possible Source #3: The Early Church Understood the Historical Events Surrounding Christmas

Based on what we know of the eclipse around the time of Herod’s final illness, placing it in April of 4 BC, we can work backwards a few weeks for the disease to run its course, three to four weeks for the flight to Egypt, one week for Herod’s wait for the magi, and 6 weeks of purification before Jesus was presented. This gives a November or December date for Christmas (see Maier pages 124 and 127). 

The results here are a little more speculative, but the arguments are plausible because they rely on a known historical event as recorded by Josephus. They also don’t arrive exactly at the specific date of December 25th, but a little flexibility in the weeks could make it work.

Conclusion

Without making an appeal to history (i.e., that the early church had better access to historical records and sources), we can chart three possible routes for the early church to arrive at the December 25th date of Christmas via known and extant sources. We can also make a compelling case that pagan alternatives would have been rejected by Christians at this time and that the Christian mentions of the December 25th date predate the mentions of a pagan celebration. So I feel confident in arguing that December 25th was not a pagan holiday converted into a Christian one, but a date arrived at by one of many possible lines of evidence.

Additional Reading

The following sites provide some excellent jumping-off points and additional arguments related to the issue of the “pagan Christmas” festival:

 

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