In this article, we answer common objections to the celebration of Christmas and the Dec. 25th birth of Christ, including allegations it was
- Invented by the Catholic Church,
- Is of pagan origin,
- Takes its date from the Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and solstice,
- The shepherds would not have been in the field in December, and that
- Jesus was probably born in September or some other month.
Objection: The Dec. 25th birth of Christ invented by the Catholic Church in the 4th century.
Answer: There is no evidence supporting any part of this allegation. There is good evidence that the Nativity has been celebrated from as early as the second century, hundreds of years before the Catholic Church even existed.
The Catholic Church and Papacy as we know them today did not grow up until the 6th and 7th centuries. Boniface III, in 607, was the first Bishop to actually use the term “Pope.” Prior to this, there was no centralized authority in the church to institute observance of the Nativity, and what customs existed grew up spontaneously by the common consent of the collective church. Not even the emperor Constantine (AD 242-337), who is sometimes associated with the beginnings of Catholicism and a centralized power in the church, ever addressed the issue of the Nativity.
Objection: If there was no Catholic Church or Papacy prior to the 6th or 7th centuries responsible for instituting celebration of Christ’s birth Dec. 25th, what about an ecumenical council?
Answer: Here again there is no evidence supporting this supposition.
The first ecumenical council was the Council of Nicea in AD 325, long after the Nativity was already being celebrated. This council took up the question of the uniform celebration of the Pasche (Easter), but history is silent about it or any other council instituting the Feast of the Nativity. So far as may be authoritatively shown, if not set in the church by the apostles, celebration of the Nativity grew up spontaneously as a way of commemorating important events in sacred history, like the miracle at Cana, the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. In the East, January 6th (Epiphany) was kept as the date of Christ’s birth until late in the fourth century, (though the same date was supposed by others to commemorate Jesus’ baptism, the arrival of the Magi, or the miracle at Cana). In the West, the Nativity was celebrated Dec. 25th for as long as history remembers. The fact that the Nativity was celebrated differently in differnt places proves that no pope or council established the Feast of the Nativity, for if that were the case there would be no place for this difference to have grown up. Among the earliest testimonies to celebration the Nativity include the following:
- Theophilus, Bishop of Caesarea (A.D. 115-181) – Theophilus lived in the time of Emperor Commodus; he lived within 100 years of the apostles, and was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the very fount whence sprang our faith.
We ought to celebrate the birth-day of our Lord on what day soever the 25th of December shall happen.” Magdeburgenses, Cent. 2. c. 6. Hospinian, de orign Festorum Chirstianorum
- Clement of Alexandria (AD 153-217) – In the second century, Alexandria became the intellectual center of Christianity, beginning with Clement, followed by his student, Origen.
“And 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 twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon.” (Stromata, I, xxi)
Counting from the death of Antony in 30 B.C., the 28th year of Augustus would have been 2 B.C. The first month of the Egyptian calendar was Thoth, answering to late August (Thoth 1 = August 29). The ninth month was Pachon. The 25th of Pachon answers to the 20th of May. However, this is usually explained by the fact that the months originally took their names from where they occurred in the year. Hence, October, November and December were the eighth, ninth, and tenth months counting from March in the original Roman calendar, which had only ten months. But the Greek Fathers frequently took April, instead of March, for the first month of the year, as we see expressly in St. Chrysostom, in Anastasius Patriarch of Antioch, the Apostolic Constitutions, in Macarius, Stephanus, Gobarus, and other of the ancients. This would make December the ninth counting from April. Supposing therefore that some were informed Christ was born the 25th day of ninth month, who then transferred it to the Egyptian calendar, the 25th of Pachon would be the result. This is the belief of John Selden and Johannes Keppler.
- Hippolytus of Rome (A.D. 170-240) – Hippolytus of Rome provides one of the earliest known references to the December 25 birth of Christ in his commentary on Daniel. Chrysostom says that the Feast of the Nativity was kept “from the beginning” by those in the west, and we find corroboration of this in Hippolytus:
“The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the calends of January, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, 5500 years from Adam.” (Commentary on Daniel 4:23)
The eighth before the calends of January is the twenty-fifth day of December, and the forty-second year of Augustus counting from the death of Julius Caesar was 2 BC.
- Apostolic Constitutions (circa A.D. 70-250) – The Apostolic Constitutions are a compilation, whose material is derived from sources differing in age. Early writers were inclined to assign them to the apostolic age and to Clement Romanus (A.D. 70), but they are now generally assigned to the second or third century. In the Fifth book, Sec. III, we find:
“Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month.
The ninth month counting from Nisan (April) is Casleu in the Jewish calendar. Transferred to our Roman calendar, the ninth month answers to December.
- Diocletian (A.D. 303-304) – Nicephorus wrote an ecclesiastical history in which he reports Diocletian’s destruction of a church on Dec. 25th, filled with worshippers celebrating the Lord’s Nativity:
“At Nicomedia (a city of Bithynia) when the festival of Christ’s birth-day came, and a multitude of Christians in all ages had assembled together in the temple to celebrate that birth-day. Diocletian the tyrant, having gotten an advantageous occasion whereby he might accomplish his madness and fury, sent men thither to enclose the temple, and to set it on fire round about, and so consumed them all to ashes, even twenty thousand persons.”
John Selden in his monumental work, Theanthropos (1661, pp. 33, 34), confirms Nicephorus’ report, saying that ancient Greek and Roman martyrologies date this event to Dec. 25th. It is probable that this occurred in A.D. 303-304.
Objection: Dec. 25th was assigned for celebration of Christ’s birth to Christianize the pagan solstice, Saturnalia, Feast of the Unconquered Sun, and other pagan festivals.
Answer: Not one word from antiquity has ever been produced supporting this assertion. The whole notion is supposition at best, or deliberate slander at worst. The church fathers never spoke of Dec. 25th in connection with Christ’s birth except as the traditional, received date of the Nativity.
- Saturnalia – The Saturnalia was originally celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth Kalends of January (Dec. 17). With the Julian reform of the calendar, two days were added to December, causing the festival to fall on the sixteenth Kalends of January. Macrobius reports that the addition of two days to December caused the festival to be celebrated more days than one, which, coupled with the Sigarillaria, came to be celebrated a full week, or Dec. 17-23.
“I judge that I’ve now abundantly demonstrated that the Saturnalia used to be celebrated on one day only, the fourteenth before the Kalends, but that it was later extended to three, first as a result of the days that Caesar added to the month, and then by the edict of Augustus in which he assigned to the Saturnialia a three day holiday. As a result, they begin on the sixteenth day before the Kalends and end on the fourteenth, when the one day observance was formerly held. But the addition of the Sigillaria extends the public bustle and religious celebration to seven days.” Saturnalia I.10.23, 24
Thus, the Saturnalia reached only as far as Dec. 23rd and therefore cannot account for Christmas occurring Dec. 25th.
- Solstice – It is true that pagan peoples throughout the ancient world had various celebrations at the major turning points of the calendar, including the winter solstice, and that this anciently fell upon Dec. 25th. However, due to defects in the Roman calendar, by the time of Jesus’ birth the winter solstice anticipated Dec. 25th by about two days. By the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, the astronomical event anticipated the calendar by four days. Therefore, to correct this deficiency and provide for the uniform observance of the Pasche (Easter), the council set the vernal equinox, which anciently fell on March 25th, to March 21st, moving it four days. But in correcting the civil date of the vernal equinox to correspond with the astronomical event, the winter solstice was also necessarily corrected, for the two stand in fixed relation one to another. Hence, the solstice now falls on Dec. 21st. However, the coincidence that the Nativity is celebrated on the day the solstice anciently occurred in the civil calendar is no more evidence that the date is contrived than the coincidence that Christ’s passion and resurrection occurred near the vernal equinox. Indeed, might not God have chosen man’s salvation to come about precisely this way because of its poetic symbolism and value? Malachi associated Christ with the sun over 400 years before his birth, saying, “the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2). New Testament writers make similar use of the metaphor (Lk. 1:78; Jn. 1:4, 9; 2 Pet. 1:19). Thus, it is altogether fitting that Christ should come into the world in the dark of winter, bringing spiritual light and salvation, and be raised from the dead in the spring when the earth is reborn after the pall of sin and winter death.
- Sol Invictus – This is a facet of the winter solstice, but we treat it here separately. In A.D. 274 following his victories in the east, the emperor Aurelius built a temple and instituted quadrennial games in behalf of Sol Invictus, a pagan sun god to whom he attributed his victories. An illuminated codex manuscript produced for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus contains, in part six, a calendar for the year 354 (the Chronography of 354). (The Codex is available on-line here) This calendar bears the following inscription for Dec. 25th: “N INVICTI CM XXX”. N = Natalis (“birthday/nativity”). INVICTI = “Of the Unconquered one”. CM = Circenses missus (“games ordered”). XXX = 30. Thus, for birthday of the “unconquered one” that year, thirty games were ordered. Many believe this refers to Sol Invictus and the “birthday” of the sun god worshipped by the Roman Emperor Aurelius. Although this has been questioned and others believe the games instituted by Aurelius were kept in October, we may accept as true for present purposes that Sol Invictus was honored Dec. 25th.
The same codex, in part 12, contains reference to the birth of Christ in the first entry under a section devoted to annual commemoration of the martyrs:
ITEM DEPOSITIO MARTIRVM
VIII kal. Ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae
Eight days before the Kalends of January is Dec. 25th. It is generally agreed that the Item Depositio Martirum originally dates to A.D. 336, but was updated to A.D. 354 for inclusion in the codex. (The Codex is available on-line here) Based upon the codex of Valentinus, the following observations are in order:
1) By A.D. 336, the Nativity was already so well established as to obtain a permanent place at the head of the ecclesiastical year. Since this was true at a time when there was neither papacy nor Catholic Church, and no ecumenical council had addressed the issue, we may conclude that it attained its place at the head of the ecclesiastical year by popular assent to received tradition, presumably from the apostles and first disciples.
2) Hippolytus’ commentary on Daniel (A.D. 170-240) and numerous other early witnesses give Dec. 25th as the birth of Christ considerably earlier than Aurelius instituted his games, giving lie to the argument that Sol Invictus was the source of this date.
3) The fact that reference to Sol Invictus and the Nativity occur in the same codex argues against the latter being derived from the former. If the intention was to Christianize the festival Sol Invictus by replacing it with the Nativity, we would not expect both to occur in the same codex; we would expect reference to Sol Invictus to be suppressed. However, that both in fact appear shows that the owner who commissioned the codex felt there was nothing to hide by the coincidence of these occurring on the same day, thus arguing for a separate providence of the Nativity.
4) The erection of a temple and celebration of quadrennial games at Rome cannot account for annual celebration of Christ’s nativity in such diverse and remote places as Egypt, Syria, Bithynia, Cadiz and Thrace.
Other than the mere coincidence that the civil date of the solstice occurred on Dec. 25th, there is no evidence Christians elected to celebrate of the birth of Christ on this date owing to pagan custom.
Objection: Shepherds would not have been in the field keeping watch over sheep in winter.
Answer: This argument assumes that weather conditions in Jerusalem and Judea are similar to those of Europe and other northern climes. However, Judea is a desert climate. Its average high temperature in December is 57.2° Fahrenheit; its average low is 47.1°. Its record high in December is 79°. The Bible fully confirms the ability of shepherds to be in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks in December. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived year round in tents their whole lives (Heb. 11:9; cf. Gen. 128; 13:3, 18; 18:1, 9), as did many of the Jews for centuries after conquering Canaan (Jud. 4:18; Jer. 35:7, 10). Moreover, scripture specifically relates that Jacob kept watch over Laban’s flocks by winter frost at night (Gen. 31:40). The pictures below were taken in Bethlehem at Christmas 1890 and 2006. As may be seen, the climate is perfectly suitable for being out of doors. Hence, there is simply no basis to this objection.
Objection: Jesus was probably born in September.
Answer: The usual method used as proof Jesus was born in September is the priestly courses. A second method is an interpretation of Rev. 12:1-5 vis-à-vis astronomical events. Both are wrong.
Priestly Courses: We know that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest and was executing his priestly office when told that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive a son (Lk. 1:5, 9). John was conceived six months before our Lord (Lk. 1:24, 26, 36). If it can be determined when John was conceived, it can be identified when Jesus was born some fifteen months later. There were twenty-four courses of priests (I Chron. 24:18). Zechariah was a member of the course of Abijah, the eighth course (Lk. 1:5; I Chron. 24:10). If it is assumed that the courses began their ministration in the spring on Nisan 1, the course of Abijah would have been serving the week of Jyar 20-26 (the eight weeks are as follows: Nisan 1-7, 8-14, 15-21, 22-28, 29-5 Jyar, 6-12, 13-19, 20-26). This is sometimes extended a week based upon the assumption that the normal progression of the course was interrupted by Passover Nisan 14. If so, Zechariah would then have been serving the week of 27 Jyar – 4 Sivan. Working from this latter date, and assuming John was conceived the first week Zechariah returned home, a normal 38 week gestation would place John’s birth the week of Shebat 29- Adar 5. Jesus’ birth 6 months (26 weeks) later would thus fall on Elul 4-10. If it is then assumed that Nisan 1 answers to April 1, Elul would then translate into September 4-10, for it is the fifth month from Nisan. In this way, therefore, it is argued that Jesus was born in September. However, there are several errors and oversights in this approach that render it untenable.
First, postponing of the normal service of Abijah in the eighth week cannot be justified. Although the Mishna indicates all the courses served at the three great feasts of the year (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) (Finegan, p. 133, § 241), there is no basis for assuming that the normal rotation of the courses was suspended, rather then merely supplemented. The extra work associated with the great feasts might require additional courses to serve, but the regular evening and morning sacrifices and other priestly duties still had to be made throughout the remainder of the week. Hence, we would expect this responsibility to fall to the course whose duty it was to minister that week. The better view therefore is that the course whose turn it was to serve received assistance of other courses, not that the normal rotation was entirely suspended. Second, there were twenty-four courses of priests, but about 51 1/2 weeks in the Jewish lunar year of 354 days (about 54 3/4 weeks in leap years of 384 days). Each course therefore served twice annually, plus such additional weeks as necessary to fill out the year (e.g., some courses served a third time). The model above assumes Zechariah was serving in the first weekly ministration and does not allow for the possibility he was serving six months later, which would place Jesus’ birth in March. Third, and most important, the best scholarship agrees that the priestly courses began their annual rotations in the fall on Tishri 1, not in the spring on Nisan 1 as proposed by the model above (Finegan, p. 134 § 243). It was the seventh month when the temple was dedicated by Solomon for which the courses were created in the first place, and the seventh month when the sacrifices resumed again under Ezra after the Babylonian captivity (I Kn. 8:2; Ezra 3:6). Hence, Tishri is the correct point for the annual rotation to begin, not Nisan. The most basic assumption underlying September birth model is therefore false. On the other hand, we have shown in our tables of priestly courses that, working from 1 Tishri and constructing the courses in twenty-four year cycles from A.D. 70 backward to 21 B.C., it is fully possible that John was conceived in the fall and born in June, placing Jesus’ birth six months later in December.
Rev. 12:1-5: Another method of placing Jesus’ birth in September was proposed by Ernest L. Martin in his book, The Star that Astonished the World (ASK Publications, 1996). Therein, Martin asserts that Rev. 12:1-5 provides an exact time for the birth of Christ, right down to the day and hour. Martin is able to do this by interpreting the woman as the constellation Virgo. He then urges that her being “clothed with the sun” signifies that the sun was midway in the constellation, thus clothing her. For Martin, the key is the moon beneath her feet, which he says could only happen within a 90 minute window one day in the year 3 BC. Thus, according to Martin, we have the precise means of dating Jesus’ birth:
“The Moon has to be positioned somewhere under that 7 degree arc to satisfy the description of Revelation 12. But the Moon also has to be in that exact location when the Sun is mid-bodied to Virgo. In the year 3 B.C.E., these two factors came to precise agreement for about an hour and a half, as observed from Palestine or Patmos, in the twilight period of September 11th The relationship began about 6:15 p.m. (sunset), and lasted until around 7:45 p.m. (moonset). This is the only day in the whole year that the astronomical phenomenon described in the twelfth chapter of Revelation could take place.”
Of course, at the critical moment that the moon is allegedly in position the sun has set, so it difficult to see how Martin can argue for the literalness of the vision. Moreover, the constellation Draco does not answer the description of the dragon in Revelation, nor for that matter does Virgo match the description of the woman (Virgo does not have a crown of twelve stars and Draco does not have seven heads and ten horns). Hence, Martin insists upon the literalness of the vision only when it suits him and not at all points. However, by far the most glaring discrepancy between Martin’s account and scripture is the year of Jesus’ birth. Luke is emphatic that Jesus was 29 going on 30 at his baptism in the fall of 15th of Tiberius (A.D. 29). This would place Jesus’ birth in 2 B.C. Thus, Martin’s interpretation of Rev. 12:1-5 is contradicted by God’s inspired word. (For a full refutation of Martin, click here).
None of the normal objections put forward against Christmas and the Dec. 25th birth of Christ have any factual basis.