Q. Is it true that the date on which we celebrate Christmas (December 25) has pagan origins?
A. The actual date of Jesus’ birth is long lost in the mists of ancient history. The fact that shepherds were “in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8) suggests that it was springtime. So why did the Church establish the feast of the Nativity on December 25, in the dead of winter?
The common explanation was propagated by an 18th-century German Protestant scholar who sought to prove that the Catholic Church was guilty of various “paganizations.” He claimed that, since a pagan Roman feast was celebrated on December 25 in ancient times to honor the sun, the Church decided to co-opt it by having Christians observe Christmas festivities instead. Nevertheless, this claim has been challenged by historians who believe that events actually developed the other way around.
This date, they insist, had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before the year 274, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before then. Rather, the pagan feast celebrating the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on December 25 of that year, had political purposes and served to give a pagan significance to a date already important to Roman Christians. Later, Christians in turn re-appropriated the pagan celebration to refer to the birth of Jesus Christ, the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”
If this is the case, then why would the early Christians choose the day December 25? According to this historical scenario, they were attempting to calculate the date of Jesus’ birth according to the notion, inherited from Jewish religious culture, that a great prophet was destined to die on the same calendar date as that of his birth or conception.
Because of previous calculations involving the ancient Jewish lunar calendar and the date of the Passover, Christians in the West generally came to the conclusion that Jesus had died on March 25, and thus had been conceived on that day as well (which is when we celebrate, of course, the Feast of the Annunciation). Nine months later (December 25) would then have been the reasonable date to set for Jesus’ birth.
We might reasonably ask whether it would really matter if either historical scenario were somehow proven to be true. Even if the Church did arrange its liturgical calendar to “baptize” a pagan holiday, the legitimacy of the principle has long been established: Whether it’s evergreen wreaths or wedding rings, the customs of pagan cultures can be fruitfully adopted by the Church, enriched with Christian meaning, and made her own.