My favorite version of the Christmas Carol, excluding the Muppets, starred Albert Finny in the 1970 musical version titled Scrooge. In this beautiful and energetic rendition, Mr. and Mrs. Fezzywig sing the song “December the 25th”. This song declares it to be the greatest day in all the year…sung in your best British accent. I love Christmas and have studied its details for the past 20+ years. As I mentioned in my last blog, this year, I am attempting to answer questions surrounding Christmas by way of my opinion.
Today I want to dive into the controversial issue of the date of Christ’s birth. Like many other details, we cannot prove one way or another. Scripture does not tell us. In many cases, we miss the point if we quibble over the date. Still, over the past few years, I have seen an increasing number of believers stop celebrating Christmas as it is rooted in pagan traditions. I find this thought interesting as many Christian traditions are older than the pagan traditions. We are always said to borrow from them rather than them from us.
December the 25th became the date of Christmas because early believers coopted a celebration to the Roman Sun God…or so you have probably heard. Is this really what happened? I studied Roman and Greek mythology in high school, and I don’t recall a sun God of any importance. Author John Seward writes of this possibility in his book Cradle of Redeeming Love (Ignatius, 2002). He states, “The message would be that Christ is the true and eternal sun and Son….” An article on Crosswalk.com states,
“If the dating of Christmas was influenced at all by pagan celebrations, the most likely candidate was a holiday established in 274 AD by the Roman Emperor Aurelian (around 214-275 AD) called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “The Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” on December 25. However, it is equally possible that Aurelian was attempting to co-opt a date that already had significance for believers. According to history professor William Tighe, “The date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.”
At least two early Church Fathers believed December the 25th was the correct date and was celebrated in Alexandria, Egypt, around 100 years before establishing the Sun God holiday. Crosswalk.com continues,
“The tradition for December 25th is actually quite ancient. Hippolytus, in the second century A.D., argued that this was Christ’s birthday. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Church, January 6th was the date followed. But in the fourth century, John Chrysostom argued that December 25th was the correct date, and from that day till now, the Church in the East, as well as the West, has observed the 25th of December as the official date of Christ’s birth.”
Many believe Jesus could not be born in December in Bethlehem because shepherds were in the fields. Many ancient Jewish texts and traditions speak of sheep in the fields throughout the year. They still have to eat after all. From what I understand, sheep are not big fans of dried hay. While it is true that Israel can be cold at times, Bethlehem and Mt Hermon, for instance, likely had a vast range of temperatures. We cannot base the accuracy for or against a date based on our opinion of the weather. Again, even so, the sheep were still hungry.
While many may believe that Christians always co-opted from pagans, I often think pagans co-opted from Christian traditions. Suppose Christmas on December 25th predated the Sun God celebration. In that case, it stands to reason that the Romans, wanting to minimize Christian influence, set a date for the Sun God on the same date. As a side note, this Sun God is not even Roman, but Persian. Again, quoting Corsswalk.com,
“By the time of Aurelian’s reign, it appears that the God Mithras (originally a Persian deity who was said to be either the son of the sun or the companion of the sun) was earning popularity among traveling Roman soldiers. Aurelian decided to seize on an opportunity to bring a monotheistic cult to the Roman Empire, and his motivation likely was to compete with Christianity – a growing monotheistic religion that he saw as a threat to the empire.”
Whatever the actual date, the purpose is to recognize and worship Christ, be thankful for His first coming, and live in expectation of His second coming. Yet, I do not support giving to Satan what the Lord has redeemed. Paul writes, in Rom 14:6, “Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God.” However and whenever you celebrate Christ’s birth, may the gravity of Emmanuel, God with us, impact your worship and your life. I agree with Fezzywig, December the 25th is “the greatest day in all the year.” It has been for 2,000 years. Let’s keep it that way.