December 25th Is The Day Christ Was Born: 8 Arguments
The question of the “actual date” of Christ’s birth is often raised as a thing to shout slogans about on Facebook come Nativity season and classically educated Christians really should have something to say about the matter which rises above the lucidity and erudition of, say, the meme.
I am grateful that Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas brought up the matter of Christ’s birth date, especially because the film helpfully points out that, often enough, those who claim December 25th is not the actual day to celebrate rarely have arguments in their corner which come from sources more dignified than Wikipedia. “Christ was not born on December 25th” has sadly become the kind of uninvestigated truism which sits comfortably alongside, “The Inquisition killed tens of thousands,” or, “Renaissance popes were bad,” or, “Medieval peasants were filthy drunks who couldn’t read.” These are all claims which everybody knows, but which almost nobody has researched. Despite the lack of care for historical research by those who typically make such claims, they are ironically often attended by dismissals of Medievals as “uneducated and superstitious people.” For my money, though, the idea that Christ was not born on December 25th should be taken no more seriously than the idea that black cats and broken mirrors are bad luck.
In Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, one genuinely good reason for the December 25th date is given. Christ is born on the Winter Solstice, that day when the world is darkest. Christ is born into the darkness of mankind, and from His birth onward, light begins to grow. Sounds good, but I doubt this argument by itself is going to convince anyone who wasn’t itching to be convinced already. If you investigate the matter of the December 25th date, though, you’ll find that honest and open-minded historians who research the matter often become obsessed with their work. The arguments in favor of the 25th become richer and more various the longer you look. I daresay if you threw all the evidence in favor of the 25th down a bottomless pit, you’d end up creating a mountain.
Let me offer some of my favorite reasons for the December 25th date:
1. The first mention of the December 25th date comes during the age of the martyrs. Bishop Hippolytus of Rome ( c. 170 AD – c. 235 AD) wrote a commentary on the Book of Daniel sometime around 202 AD in which he claimed: "The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, 5500 years from Adam.” This puts the birth of Christ at December 25th, 2 BC. Julius Sextus Africanus claimed the same date in his Chronographiai, which was written around the same time as Hippolytus. Defamers of the December 25th date often suggest that Christians selected their date for Christ’s birth out of jealousy for the celebration of Saturnalia, a pagan festival which occurred around the same time. Had the December 25th date arisen in the fourth or fifth centuries, this argument might hold a little water. But consider for a moment that when Hippolytus and Africanus wrote, Christians were being persecuted by the Roman state. Hippolytus was ultimately martyred for Christ. The love which underwrites martyrdom is a love which cannot be tempted by the things of this earth. Is it reasonable to claim that this same Hippolytus was looking longingly at the things of the same Roman state which would ultimately slaughter him?
Furthermore, while the December 25th date goes all the way back to the early 3rd century, Christians would not come to celebrate Christmas widely until much later. Thus when Hippolytus declared the date, there was absolutely no intention of co-opting a Roman holiday.
If Christians today believe that the date was chosen out of jealousy for pagan practices, it seems they are actually projecting their own neuroses on Christians of a bygone era who could look on the things of the world without desire, unlike ourselves.
2. Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th, not December 25th. In the 5th century, the pagan historian Macrobius wrote a history of Saturnalia wherein three possible origins were suggested. While all three suggest Saturnalia was instituted to celebrate peace given to man by the gods, by the time of Augustus, Saturnalia had become elongated to a week long holiday in which drunkenness and licentiousness prevailed. The holiday was such a drain on the Roman state that Augustus tried to scale it back to just three days. He failed to do so. Caligula (not a name associated with moderation) was so vexed by difficulties arising from Saturnalia, he tried to scale it back to five days. He also failed. While Saturnalia continued to be celebrated for seven days, it yet concluded prior to the December 25th date. Saturnalia and Christmas have never occupied the same calendar day.
3. There is no record of Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25th until the 4th century. When critics of the December 25th date aren’t claiming Christmas was originally Saturnalia, they claim Christmas was originally Sol Invictus, a holiday celebrated in honor of the unconquerable sun. However, the first historical data suggesting Sol Invictus was celebrated on December 25th comes from the Chronography of 354, an illustrated calendar made for a rich Roman Christian named Valentinus. The holiday Sol Invictus instituted by Aurelian in 274 AD, but the imperial proclamation of the holiday comes with no fixed date. “The traditional feast days of Sol, as recorded in the early imperial fasti, were August 8th and/or August 9th, possibly August 28th, and December 11th,” writes Steven Hijmans in a remarkably well-written piece which can be read in full here. The first historical record of Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25th comes two generations after the legalization of Christianity and more than 150 years after Christ’s birth was first dated to December 25th. In this, it is more likely that Sol Invictus is actually a co-opting of Christmas, not the other way around.
4. The first non-Christian to claim December 25th was originally a celebration of Sol Invictus was Julian the Apostate. In the Hymn to King Helios, delivered in 362, Julian claimed that the December 25th date for celebrating Sol Invictus was instituted by none other than Numa Pompilius (8th c. BC), the mythical second king of Rome. The passage in question (section 155, which can be found here) is a remarkable work of rhetorical sleight-of-hand and historical revisionism, and really needs to be read to be believed. I would encourage you to read further on the matter, but suffice to say for now that claiming the Romans had commemorated the goodness of Sol on December 25th since Numa is roughly equivalent to a US president claiming Americans had been celebrating their freedom from Britain on July 4th since the time of Christopher Columbus.
Further, Julian the Apostate was one of the great (failed) culture warriors of his day, and ruthlessly wasted imperial funds trying to combat and defame the Christian traditions which were becoming more and more firmly entrenched in Roman culture by the year. Paganism was dying quickly in Julian’s time and the emperor was at pains to find ways to revive worship of the gods. Harnessing the significance the December 25th date already had for the Christians was a last ditch attempt to grant a little dignity to the demonic forces which the Church had been openly insulting for fifty years.
5. The December 25th date is derived primarily from its’ relation to the March 25th date for Passover, which was also the date of the Annunciation. In Hippolytus’ Chronicon, the early Christian historian writes:
…from Adam until the transmigration into Babylon under Jeconiah, 57 generations, 4,842 years, 9 months. And after the transmigration into Babylon until the generation of Christ, there was 14 generations, 660 years, and from the generation of Christ until the Passion there was 30 years and from the Passion up until this year which is year 13 of the Emperor Alexander, there is 206 years. Therefore all the years from Adam up until year 13 of the Emperor Alexander make 5,738 years.
Elsewhere, Hippolytus and Africanus are so bold as to suggest the day and month on which the earth was created: March 25th, 5500 BC. This is the date of the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox is a day on which the tilt of the earth is neither for nor against the sun. On the equinox, day and night are divided equally. While contemporary Christians are quick to dismiss the possibility of such a day having any meaning, late antiques read the day as a signification of God’s perfect order. The vernal equinox revealed an orderly God who began the earth at an even keel, a straight line. From the state of equal day and equal night, the days would grow longer as the knowledge of God grew in the hearts of men.
In all this, a profound argument emerges in favor of human personhood beginning at conception— an argument which might have been recognized before Modern discoveries about the fertilization of eggs. While Christ was born on December 25th, the Incarnation did not occur on December 25th. The Incarnation took place on the day when the Word became flesh, and that day is March 25th, the date of the Annunciation.
March 25th is the date of the creation of the world, but it is also the date of the recreation of the world. On the first March 25th, God began revealing Himself in finite substance, and on a later March 25th, He fulfilled the promises He had first begun when the world was created.
6. Jesus died on March 25th, thus fulfilling the Jewish doctrine of “the integral age.” While the idea of “the integral age” is lost on most contemporary Christians, William Tighe suggests that first century Jews widely accepted the idea that all prophets both entered and exited the world on the same date. We can thus either reason from the date of Christ’s death to His conception, or reason from the date of Christ’s conception to His death, and arrive at the December 25th date for His birth. This assumes an exactly nine month pregnancy, which might seem a little precise, and this leads us to question what was significant about the December 25th date which can confirm a cosmological argument in its’ favor.
7. Christ is born on the darkest day of the year. Adjusting the date slightly for minor cultural/calendar differences and changes to the earth itself over the last two thousand years, Christ is born about the time of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. From the day Christ’s face first shines on creation, the world becomes increasingly bright. Christ is the Light Who enlightens all men, and once that light emerges from the darkness of the womb, the knowledge of God grows in man. Thus, the December 25th date allows us to see man at harmony with the heavens; as the heavens become enlightened, so does man. The birth of Christ begins the reconciliation of God and Man— Heaven and earth mutually reflect the light emanating from the other.
8. Cosmological arguments for the December 25th date are more reliable than purely historical arguments. The December 25th date for Christ's birth emerged as early as the 3rd century, a time when Christians were deeply suspicious of the trustworthiness of earthly things. The earth was a place of constant change, constant flux. When modern Christians seek a sign that Christ was born on December 25th, they want historical records, like a hotel registry from Bethlehem dating back to 4 BC which features Joseph and Mary's name next to "Discount stable rate." Early Christians would have had little use for such "evidence" because it could be easily faked, and even if such a hotel registry existed, it would need some corroboration in the changless stars. The spheres were a realm beyond the corruptions of time, the fluctations of matter, the whims of fortune. If Christians staked their sacred calendar on what was revealed in books written by men, the calendar could not be a celestial reality into which man was drawn. The calendar would be viciously cyclical, only linear, demanding itself and governing itself and supporting itself all at once. However, if the truth of Christ's birth is written in the heavens, man may enter the heavens in the celebration of His birth.
Note: I would highly encourage readers to pursue the same sources which I read in putting together this article. In coming back to it in 2017, I found that Hijman's dissertation was no longer available. I believe the same information can be found here. I also depended heavily and highly recommend this piece from William Tighe at Touchstone. The amount of scholarship on the subject of the December 25th tradition is staggering, and I have only represented a small corner of these men's work in this article.
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