Most Christians today probably can’t imagine Christmas on any other day than December 25, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, for the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence, Jesus Christ’s birth wasn’t celebrated at all. The religion’s most significant holidays were Epiphany on January 6, which commemorated the arrival of the Magi after Jesus’ birth, and Easter, which celebrated Jesus’ resurrection. The first official mention of December 25 as a holiday honoring Jesus’ birthday appears in an early Roman calendar from 336 A.D.
But was Jesus really born on December 25 in the first place? Probably not. The Bible doesn’t mention his exact birthday, and the Nativity story contains conflicting clues. For instance, the presence of shepherds and their sheep suggest a spring birth. When church officials settled on December 25 at the end of the third century, they likely wanted the date to coincide with existing pagan festivals honoring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light). That way, it became easier to convince Rome’s pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire’s official religion
The celebration of Christmas spread throughout the Western world over the next several centuries, but many Christians continued to view Epiphany and Easter as more important.
Some, including the Puritans of colonial New England, even banned its observance because they viewed its traditions—the offering of gifts and decorating trees, for example—as linked to paganism. In the early days of the United States, celebrating Christmas was considered a British custom and fell out of style following the American Revolution. It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas became a federal holiday.
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When was the Savior's real birthday? Was Jesus born on December 25? Since the Bible doesn't tell us to commemorate Christ's birth, why do we celebrate Christmas at all?
The date of Christ's actual birth is unknown. It is not recorded in the Bible. However, Christians of all denominations and faith groups, aside from the Church of Armenia, celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.
Key Takeaways: Christmas on December 25
- Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
- The earliest celebration of Christmas, or the Feast of the Nativity, on December 25 was held in the year AD 336 in Rome.
- The term "Christmas" comes from the Old English Cristes Maesse, which means Christ's mass.
- In Eastern churches the birth of Jesus was originally celebrated on January 6 in connection with Epiphany Day, honoring the manifestation of Christ to the world at his baptism.
But Pagan Celebrations Were Happening At That Time
Since it appears unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25th, it raises the logical question of why Christmas is celebrated on this date. The answer points back to pagan celebrations which occurred around the winter solstice. Two celebrations in particular took place around December 25 - Saturnalia and the birthday of the sun god, Mithra.
The Saturnalia festival began on December 17th and later expanded with festivities through to December 25th. It paid tribute to Saturn, the agricultural god of sowing and husbandry, and was associated with the renewal of light and the coming of the new year. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn, followed by a public banquet and private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere.
The Early History of Christmas
Even if Zacharias was in the temple on September 24, Gabriel did visit Mary exactly six months later, and Jesus was born right on his due date, it’s still possible that we celebrate Christmas on December 25 for a different reason altogether.
While 3rd-century Christians were busy worshiping the Son of God, some of their pagan counterparts were busy worshiping the Sun God. In the 270s, Roman emperor Aurelian popularized the cult of Sol Invictus, or “The Unconquered Sun,” whose feast day was celebrated on December 25. According to John Carroll University history professor Joseph F. Kelly, other Romans revered a Persian god, Mithra, whose feast day also may have fallen on December 25. There was also Saturnalia, an annual Roman festival that ran from December 17 to December 23. In short, many ancient Romans were well-accustomed to celebrating something in late December by the time Christianity entered the mainstream.A painting of Saturnalia festivities by Antoine Callet, 1783. Themadchopper, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
That happened during Constantine’s rule over Rome in the early 4th century. In 313, Constantine and his fellow ruler Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which basically legalized Christianity and condemned the ongoing persecution of anyone who practiced it. Constantine was a devout Christian himself, and he spent the rest of his reign spreading the religion throughout the empire. The first known record of December 25 as Jesus’s official birthday is from 336, the year before Constantine died. Because it’s mentioned in a volume containing other important religious dates, some have assumed that a celebration probably occurred on that day, and 336 is often cited as the first known “Christmas.”
Whether Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25 before 336 may forever be unknown, but we do know that the custom quickly caught on (spending the holiday watching A Christmas Story marathon wouldn't come until much later). By the end of the 4th century, Christian bishops were holding Christmas Mass all over Rome, and pagan festivals soon fell out of fashion. The fact that Christmas essentially replaced those earlier December traditions could be a coincidence, but some believe it was by design: Since Romans were already primed for parties on December 25, the Church could’ve been trying to co-opt a built-in subscriber base.
In summary, the origins of Christmas are just as subject to interpretation as Jesus’s actual birthdate—so feel free to play Christmas music whenever you want.
Why is Christmas Celebrated on date 25 th December 2020
No one knows the actual birthday of Jesus! The date is not given in the Bible, so why celebrate December 25th? There are so many arguments as to when it should be celebrated for the early Christians! Also, Jesus was probably not born in 1 year, but shortly before, BC. Between 2 / BC and 7 BCE / BCE, probably 4 BCE / BCE (not 0 years. Go 1/1 from BC / BCE!).
During the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine, the first date for celebrating Christmas was December 25, 336. But this was not the official Roman state celebration at this time.
However, there are many traditions and theories as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th.
According to very early Christian tradition, the day on which Mary was told to give birth to a very special child. Jesus (called Revelation) was on March 25 – and it is still celebrated on March 25.
March 25 25 months after March 25! March 25 was also the day some Christians thought the world was made. The day Jesus died when he grew up.
It’s March 25 was chosen because people counted the day Jesus died. As an elder (Nisan 14 in the Jewish calendar) and they conceived Jesus and he died on the same day of the year.
Winter is the shortest time between sunrise and sunset. It will take place on December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere. (In the southern hemisphere, this time summer and winter occur in late June)
25 th December
What this means for the pagans is that they know that the days will start light and longer and the nights will come shorter – the weather will change. Celebrating people is a mid-winter festival to celebrate the ‘victory’ of the sun over the darkness of winter.
During this time, animals kept for food are slaughtered for winter feeding and also drink some of the beverages they have been drinking since the autumn / harvest. This is a good time to celebrate food and drinks before the rest of winter so be ready for it. (We are celebrating the New Year near this time!)
In Scandinavia, and some other parts of northern Europe. The winter solstice is known as the Yule (although the word Yule is only 300 years old). In Eastern Europe, the mid-winter festival is called koleda.
Iranian / Persian culture, the winter solstice is known as ‘Yalda Night’. ‘Shab-e Chelleh’ and is a time when family and friends come together to eat, drink, and recite poetry. Shab-e Chelleh means ‘forty nights’ which means there are forty nights in winter.
The word Yalda means ‘birth’ and at this time the birth of Jesus is celebrated from the early Christians living in Persia. Food, fruits, nuts, pomegranate and watermelon are important in Yalda / Chelle and you can get Yalda cakes that look like watermelon!
Christmas Celebration (why is christmas celebrated)
The Roman Festival of Saturnalia is held from December 17 to 23 and is dedicated to the Roman god Saturn. Roman also felt that there was a wallpaper on December 25th. In 274, the Roman emperor Urellian ‘Day Natalis Solis Invicti’ (meaning ‘birthday without the sun’) is also known as ‘Soul Invictus’ and took place on December 25.
Due to the dates, some say that Christians took power on December 25 from these Roman festivals and/or Yule. However, records go back from 200 BC to Nissan 14 to March 25 to connect 200 Christians. So December 25 is the ‘Christian’ festival date many years before ‘Soul Invictus’!
Recent studies have found that the ‘Soul Invictus’ connection did not appear until the 12th century and that it originated from a note on the edges of a manuscript. ‘Soul Invictus’ may also occur in October, not December
The early church celebrated Christmas on January 6, and they also celebrated Epiphany (meaning Jesus is the Son of God) and Jesus Baptism.
(Similar to the date of December 25 above, which is based on the calculation of Jesus’ death / conception, but not from April 6 to March 25.) Now Epiphany is primarily celebrating the journey of Jesus, the child of wise men. Celebrate again. Both salmon! Jesus’ baptism was originally considered more important than his birth, when he began his ministry.
Winter Celebration Festival
The Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah Kisale, begins on the 25th (the month of December in the Jewish calendar, almost the same time). Hanukkah is celebrated when the Jewish people are able to re-dedicate and worship in their temple, without being allowed to follow their religion for many years.
Jesus is Jewish, so this may be another reason why the early church chose December 25 for the Christmas date!
The Gregorian calendar, used by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, is widely used around the world. Earlier the ‘Roman’ or Julian calendar was used (named after Julius Caesar).
The Gregorian calendar is much more accurate than the Roman calendar, which is many days of the year! When the switch was turned on, 10 days had passed, so the day after 15 October 1582 was 15 October 1582. In 1752 the calendar was changed in Britain. The day after September 2, 1752 was 14 September 1752.
Many Orthodox and Coptic churches still use the Julian calendar and therefore celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which falls on December 25 on the Julian calendar).
And the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates it on January 6th! In some parts of the UK, January 6 is still known as ‘Old Christmas’ because it is the day on the calendar that Christmas does not change. Some people did not want to use the new calendar because they thought it was ‘cheating’ themselves for 11 days!
Christmas Tree Near Me
Christians believe that Jesus is the light of the world, so the early Christians thought that this was the right time to celebrate Jesus’ birth. He also performed some of the rites of the winter solstice and gave them Christian meanings such as Holi, mistletoe and Christmas greetings!
St. Augustine of Canterbury was the one who introduced Christmas celebrations widely in large parts of England (other Celtic parts of Britain were not Christians, but Christianity may have been introduced in areas run by the Anglo-Saxons in the 6th century) but there is not much documentation about whether or not Jesus’ birth was celebrated.
Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to The Great Rome, and the church used the Roman calendar so that Western nations could celebrate Christmas on December 25. Then the people of Britain and Western Europe celebrated Christmas around the world on December 25th!
If you want to know more about the history behind Christmas dating, read this good article on the Bible History Daily.
So when was Jesus born?
Jesus may not have been born in the winter, but there is a strong and practical reason to stay in the spring or spring or autumn! In winter it is very cold and shepherds are not likely to keep sheep on the hills (because those hills can sometimes get a little snowy!).
In the spring (March or April) there is a Jewish festival called ‘Passover’. This festival is 1500 years before the birth of Jesus the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt. Many lambs were needed to be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem during the Passover.
All the Jews in the Roman Empire went to Jerusalem for Passover. So it was a good time for the Roman people to conduct a census. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for a census (Bethlehem was six miles from Jerusalem).
In the autumn (September or October) there is the Jewish festival ‘Sukkot’ or ‘The Feast Tabernacles’. This is the most mentioned festival in the Bible!
This is when the Jewish people fled from Egypt and spent 40 years in the desert, remembering that they all relied on God. It also celebrates the end of the harvest. During the festival, Jews live in makeshift shelters (the word ‘tabernacle’ is a Latin word meaning ‘booth’ or ‘hut’).
Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?
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Christians have celebrated Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, on December 25th for centuries. Without any real record of Jesus' birth and without any information within a few generations of Jesus' time on earth providing any sort of date, how did we come to decide that Jesus was born on December 25? Nothing in the Bible indicates any particular date. For the first couple of centuries, there is no indication that early Christian communities celebrated the birth of Jesus at all, let alone on December 25. Some Christian sects today celebrate the birth of Jesus on January 6.
Another theory is that it was meant to replace the festival of dies natalis solis invicti, ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’. This was a celebration of the winter solstice, when the days began to get longer again. It was also celebrated on December 25 (they were a few days off from what we know today as the actual solstice). This was also a Roman civil holiday for the religion of Mithras. Mithra was often portrayed as a baby in these celebrations marking the beginning of a new year (much like baby new year today). Mithra was also popular in Egypt and Syria at this time. These regions were also major centers of Christianity. Emperor Aurelian (214-275), was a proponent of the cult, making its holidays widely followed. This was only a few decades before Emperor Constantine (272-337) made Christianity the State religion.
The notion, however, that early Christian leaders would simply perpetrate a fraud by declaring the date of Jesus' birth to blot out the holiday of another religion seems a bit odd.
The earliest reference to Christmas comes from the era of Constantine, A Roman calendar from the year 354 AD references both the birth of Christ for the Christians and the Mithras celebration of the "unconquered sun" on that day. So the two were celebrated concurrently for at least some time.
There is no evidence that the Christian communities celebrated Jesus' birth for at least the first two centuries of Christian worship. One early Church leader, Origen of Alexandria (165) writes mockingly about Roman practices celebrating birth anniversaries. He dismisses them as "pagan" practices to be avoided. This indicates that Christians did not celebrate any birth anniversaries of their own.
|Clement of Alexandria|
“There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in the modern calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21] and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”
|Augustine of Hippo|
It that is case, the December 25 date was probably established at some time around 200-300 AD. During this period, Christianity was generally an illegal cult within the Roman Empire. Church leaders were not in a position to blot out pagan holidays by reclassifying them during this period. However, they may have wanted a celebration of their own at a time when everyone else was celebrating.
One theory that I find intriguing is based on the belief by early Church leaders that Jesus came into this word and left it on the same date. The Gospels indicate the Jesus died during the Jewish celebration of Passover, which some in the early Church calculated to be March 25. So, if Jesus was also conceived on March 25, he would have been born nine months later on December 25. When information was lacking, formulas like this were often employed to come up with a date.
No one knows for certain how December 25 came to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus. It is, however, so deeply embedded now in western tradition that it would be impossible to change, even if conclusive proof of a different date was revealed.
Uniting Pagan and Christian Beliefs
When Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, he may not have imagined how difficult it would be to convert pagans into Christians. To ease the transition, the birth of Jesus became associated with pagan holidays which fell in December. As the Pagan holidays gained Christian significance, it was decided that the birthday of the Sun God should also be the birthday of the Son of God. The Catholic Encyclopaedia quotes an early Christian stating, "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born. Christ should be born".
Top image: ‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. Source: Public Domain
April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.
Why December 25?
It's very tough for us North Americans to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging to Bethlehem in anything but, as Christina Rosetti memorably described it, "the bleak mid-winter," surrounded by "snow on snow on snow." To us, Christmas and December are inseparable. But for the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn't in December&mdashor on the calendar anywhere.
If observed at all, the celebration of Christ's birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church's earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Origen (c.185-c.254) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.
Not all of Origen's contemporaries agreed that Christ's birthday shouldn't be celebrated, and some began to speculate on the date (actual records were apparently long lost). Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ's birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day.
The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen's concern about pagan gods and the church's identification of God's son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other .
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History of Christmas: Why do we celebrate it on December 25?
Here begins our series of articles on the History of Christmas. Advent begins this Sunday.
Advent means the “coming” of the Christ Child. The Advent Season is marked by the four Sundays before Christmas and is celebrated in the church calendar as one the most festive seasons of the year. This year is a bit unusual: as Christmas is on a Monday, the four Sundays before begin on December 3.
As we shall see in this series many of the traditions, customs, and stories of the Advent Season have Christian roots while others have non-Christian sources. Some are legendary, and others are firmly rooted in history.
It is perhaps ironic that the actual date of the Nativity or birth of the Christ Child, which our Western calendar system is based upon, is not known with certainty. Indeed, the Feast of Christmas was not an early festival for the church, like Resurrection Sunday (Easter) was, and in fact, did not see general observance until the 4th century. The western church did not agree upon the current date of December 25 until the early part of the 5th century under Pope Leo I, though this date for Christmas was first mentioned in the 4th century illuminated manuscript the Chronography of 354.
Some historians, especially in the eastern church, suggested that the date of Christmas was derived as 9 months after the Annunciation (to Mary) which is celebrated on March 25. This would place the birth of Christ on December 25. Many 18th century scholars, including Isaac Newton, argued that this date was picked to supplant the pagan year-end holiday Saturnalia that was celebrated by the Romans and many of whose customs survive today: decorations of evergreen, holly, mistletoe, feasting, and the exchange of gifts.
December 25, the ancient date for their Winter Solstice, was celebrated as the “birth of the unconquerable sun” or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti when the sun’s transit was at the lowest point on the horizon with the shortest “day” of the year and then with longer days coming began its transit northward. Under the Christian calendar the 25th was to become known as the birth of the unconquerable Son.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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Why is Christmas on Dec. 25? A brief history lesson that may surprise you.
Dec. 25 is not the date mentioned in the Bible as the day of Jesus’s birth the Bible is actually silent on the day or the time of year when Mary was said to have given birth to him in Bethlehem. The earliest Christians did not celebrate his birth.
As a result, there are a number of different accounts as to how and when Dec. 25 became known as Jesus’s birthday.
By most accounts, the birth was first thought — in around 200 A.D. — to have taken place on Jan. 6. Why? Nobody knows, but it may have been the result of “a calculation based on an assumed date of crucifixion of April 6 coupled with the ancient belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception,” according to religionfacts.com. By the mid-fourth century, the birthday celebration had been moved to Dec. 25. Who made the decision? Some accounts say it was the pope others say it wasn’t.
One of the prevalent theories on why Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25 was spelled out in “The Golden Bough,” a highly influential 19th-century comparative study of religion and mythology written by the anthropologist James George Frazer and originally published in 1890. (The first edition was titled “The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion” the second edition was called “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.” By the third printing, in the early 20th century, it was published in 12 volumes, though there are abridged one-volume versions.)
Frazer approached the topic of religion from a cultural — not theological — perspective, and he linked the dating of Christmas to earlier pagan rituals. Here’s what the 1922 edition of the “The Golden Bough” says about the origins of Christmas, as published on Bartleby.com:
Yet an account titled “How December 25 Became Christmas” on the Biblical Archaeology Society’s Web site takes some issue with this theory: