Origins of Christian Holidays – Christmas – Part 2

This is one of those projects that’s been on my mind since I initially published about Halloween many years ago, and then Easter. The difficulty with Christmas, is that it’s a more complex issue than either Halloween or Easter.

Most of the stuff you’ll hear hinges either on the date, or various specific Christmas traditions themselves having pagan origins. There are two sorts of people that generally make these arguments, and with Christmas they actually seem to agree with each other. I think it’s important to understand where these arguments are coming from as it helps understand whether they are valid.

The first sort of person is the newly de-converted atheist. Many go through a loud, angry infant phase right after they de-convert.

The second sort are usually evangelical or fundamentalist Christians of some stripe that are in a similar loud, angry infant phase that typically happens during high school.

It’s funny to me that these two kinds of people wouldn’t agree on much, but not only agree on this specific topic, but almost always have similar motivations and goals for speaking up about it.

Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

Short answer. No, it’s not. Obviously.

Longer answer, some of the traditions associated with Christmas were adopted from pagan traditions as the people who practiced them converted.

Is December 25th When Jesus Was Born?

No one really knows, and for a long time no one cared. Christianity revolves around Jesus’ death and resurrection, His birthdate is unimportant.

Arguing or even proving that He wasn’t born on December 25th doesn’t change anything. The Church hasn’t made any effort to hide that the date is arbitrary. The argument that the Church set it there to replace a pagan holiday is not even a controversial idea.

It’s only important because Christmas has become the most culturally and commercially significant holiday in the western world. To some, invalidating the date invalidates the religion, or invalidates one variation of the faith in favor of another..

Here’s a short list of the most common arguments against the December 25th date.

  • Jesus could not have been born in the winter because it says “Shepherds were watching their sheep at night” and that’s not something they would do.
  • The Bible doesn’t actually say what time of year Jesus was born.
  • You would not travel with a pregnant woman that late in her pregnancy.
  • December 25th was the date of the birth of Sol Invictus, and Christians just co-opted that date to replace that celebration.
  • December 25th is when Saturnalia happened, and the Church just co-opted that celebration and all the weird traditions around Christmas are offerings to Saturn.
  • December 25th is just the church’s attempt to replace existing winter solstice celebrations.
  • December 25th is the birthdate of Mithras, not Jesus.
  • December 25th is the birthdate of Horus, not Jesus.
  • These are just weird solar holiday celebrations and are completely allegorical.

Most boil down to either logical reasons why Jesus couldn’t have been born on that date, the church supplanted an existing pagan holiday, or that Jesus is a clone of a pagan deity. Both Atheists and Christians make the same exact claims for much the same reasons.

I’ll get to the list in future articles. For now, I’m going to address how the vast majority of Christianity came to celebrate Christmas on December 25th.

Calculation of The Birth of Christ

The way that the date was calculated is far more stupid and illogical than any reason you’ll likely hear. It’s documented though, and goes a long way to debunk many of these claims.

One major reason we don’t know when Jesus was born, is that no one in the Near East placed any real importance on birthdays. Even if they did, most people simply weren’t famous or important enough for anyone to record that. If you look up famous people from that era, you’ll see a lot of Romans with specific birthdates, but almost no one else. We do not know Herod the Great’s birthday, nor that of Pontius Pilate, but we do know Julius Caesar was born on July 12th, 100 BC.

At some point, likely in the late first or early second centuries the date of Jesus birth became a topic of curiosity. I suspect this is due to more and more Romans becoming Christians during this time. If you look up people from after the second century, you find there are a lot more specific birthdays recorded, at least among the upper classes.

Various groups of Christians started calculating possible dates for Jesus birth around this time. As one sect rose to dominate the others, their dates were the ones that stuck. Two of these dates, December 25th and January 6th are still used today by the successors of this dominant sect. In simple terms Catholics and Protestants hold to December 25th, and Eastern Orthodox generally hold to January 6th.

Now for the embarrassingly dumb reason Christmas falls on December 25th: It was chosen based on an ancient near eastern belief that great men die on the day they were conceived. It’s likely the January 6th date was calculated based on similar beliefs.

Jesus, as recorded in all four canonical gospels, either died on or within a few days of Passover and rose from the dead the following Sunday. With few exceptions, Passover is and has always been celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Nisan every year. Using the Gregorian calendar, this means it usually falls some time in March or April.

For this reason, assumptions on the year Jesus was born, and assumptions made on when John the Baptist was born, these early Christians calculated March 25th as the date of both Jesus’ death, and therefore His conception. Add nine months to March 25th, and you get December 25th.

This is attested to in no less than three documents from the early third century.

So, the reason for calculating the date was based on an ancient superstition, not anything reasonable like replacing a celebration dedicated to a sun god.

Other groups of early Christians used other methods to do their calculations. Their results ranged the entire year. Since what we refer to as Catholic and Orthodox Christianity won out, their dates were what became ‘canon’. If another group had been deemed orthodox we might celebrate Christmas and July 1st, and Canada Day would have been postponed to the 3rd due to the holiday.






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