I know this series has been pretty heavy so far, with a lot of Biblical analysis and deep dives into scholarship and language and theology. So, I want to finish with a couple of posts on “lighter” topics: the date of December 25th, and St. Nick (or Santa Claus.)
Obviously, we celebrate Christmas, and thus the birth of Christ, on December 25th. But why? There is no Biblical tradition of Jesus being born on this day. In fact, to judge from the stories of the Nativity, if you just look at what is recounted, it makes no sense for the story to be taking place in deep winter. First, if shepherds were out in the field, this indicates pasturing season, March to September. Second, it is highly unlikely that if Joseph were going to take his very pregnant wife on a long journey to Bethlehem, that he would do it in the deepest, darkest part of winter. Not exactly the best weather for travel by foot or donkey.
But, that is all speculation, as we have now by this point in the series determined those details to be highly symbolic myth. So we are left with our original question: Why December 25th?
There are two main competing theories, one of which I’m sure you’re familiar with, the other not so much.
The most common theory is that December 25th was chosen to supersede pagan holidays. Late December was the time of year for two major Roman holidays: Saturnalia, which had been practiced since ancient times, and the Feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), instituted in 274 CE by Emperor Aurelian. The Germanic holiday of Yule was also fairly well known.
The idea is that Christians of the time (3rd-4th century CE) wanted to use the popularity of these pagan festivals to “piggy back” their celebration of the birth of the Messiah. And there is some truth here, in that early Christian’s writing around the time of the inauguration of Sol Invictus answered the Emperor’s new holiday by proclaiming Jesus to be the true “Unconquered Sun.” An anonymous tract from around that time states,
“But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December … the eight before the calends of January [25 December] …, But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…?”
There was clearly some effort by contemporary Christians to try to undercut the new holiday by proclaiming Jesus as the one worthy of celebration and reverence.
Beyond that, however, it seems unlikely that the identification with pagan festivals was primary consideration. Christians of the time, working in a very pluralistic religious atmosphere, were eager to distance their religion from the many, many others. It seems highly unlikely that Christians looking to highlight the exceptional nature of their faith would deliberately go about making decisions that obscured it in the face of other, more popular occurrences.
Further, the first mention of Christmas being a response specifically to pagan holidays wasn’t recorded until the 12th century. Surely, if this was the prime motivating factor, one of the many Christian literary sources we have available to us from this time would make some mention or allusion to such an act.
The second major theory is that of a divine connection between Jesus’ conception and death. Early Christian theorists deduced that Jesus’ death took place on March 25. This just so happens to be exactly nine months before December 25th.
Now, while that seems a lucky coincidence, it is actually an intentional connection being made by early writers. In Jewish tradition, the confluence of important dates was a common literary practice. For instance, rabbinic scholars of around the same time posited that the Jewish date of 14 Nisan was the date of the completion of creation, the beginning of the Exodus, and the birth of various Patriarchs. The idea that many important events happened across the years on a common day was an indication of God at work in the world.
Thus, Jesus being conceived on the same day he died was a way for early Christian writers to indicate Jesus’ ultimate fate as the Savior of mankind by his death was preordained from birth, and before even that. The connection was deliberately made between these two events to establish the role of Jesus in God’s divine plan. And so, by logical deduction, they were able to assert his birth as exactly nine months later: December 25.
Neither of these theories wholly explains to choice of this specific date. Rather, both probably played a small contributing role in a process that spanned centuries, and was fairly organic in it’s evolution.
For instance, December 25th wasn’t even a consensus choice. There was much early debate about January 6th being the correct date. Eventually, the Orthodox Church in the East selected the January date as their Christmas, a tradition that carries down to today. The Western church went with December 25, and picked January 6 as Epiphany (the Adoration of the Magi from the East) instead. (Early writers in the Orthodox tradition even went so far as to repudiate the conception date of March 25 by asserting that April 6 was the correct day.)
Up until the early Middle Ages, Epiphany held much more importance than Christmas did. As the conflict between east and west began to intensify, the west began to emphasize instead the importance of Advent, and the 12 days of Christmastide that followed (December 25-January 5.) The importance of the date of Christmas seems to have had a secular spur as well, with the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne choosing it as his coronation date in 800 CE, and King William I of England following suit in 1066. With these celebrations of the anniversaries of the coronations, Christmas became more and more popular.
The supposed roots of Christmas in pagan festivals was bolstered by splinter religious groups like the Puritans, who refused to celebrate it because of it’s supposed pagan links and influences. Modern day 7th Day Adventists picked up this stream of thought from their founding in the mid-19th century. The modern celebration of a more secular Christmas on December 25th, with presents and Santa Claus, gained steam in the 19th century, carrying on to a more Enlightened and secular world to today’s highly commercialized holiday.
The choice of December 25 is far from a conscious decision of the church. It is instead the product of 2000 years of tradition and wrangling and just plain dumb luck.