- A pagan festival?
KNOWS THAT DECEMBER 25 HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ACTUAL BIRTH OF
JESUS, RIGHT? And that the Church Fathers simply baptised an already
pagan festival celebrating the re-birth of the sun as symbolic of the
birth of the Son.
At least. that’s what I understood - until recently. No intelligent
person, I thought, believed that early Christians considered December
25th to have been the date of Jesus' birth. Like Anton Wessels, author
of Europe, was it ever really Christian?
I saw Christmas as among various pagan celebrations and customs
converted to Christiain ends. Just yesterday... I heard a
Dutch pastor reiterate on television the ‘pagan origins theory’ as fact
– as I would have done last Christmas.
However, a Norwegian journalist challenged my perspective during our
Share the Heritage trip through Europe this summer. Ole-Christian
seemed no dummy. Recently he sent me an article* which indicated that,
like many things in life, the story was more complex than I had
This article argues that the anti-Christian Roman Emperor Aurelian
initiated the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ on
December 25, 274. The author, history professor William J. Tighe, of
Muhlenberg College in America, in turns draws from Thomas J. Talley’s The
Origins of the Liturgical Year
(The Liturgical Press). The empire was caving in on all sides. So
Aurelian wanted to unite the myriad pagan cults of the empire around a
celebration of the sun’s ‘re-birth’. He needed a symbol of renewal
based on the pagan worship which, he thought, had originally made Rome
great. The winter solstice fitted the need exactly.
Although two Roman temples of the sun existed in the first century,
their main festivals were in August, not at the equinox or solstice,
argue Talley and Tighe Even when Mithraism, a sun-worshipping cult from
the east, grew popular in the second century, the winter solstice was
not observed in ancient Rome, prior to Aurelian’s initiative.
Meanwhile, Latin Christians in both Rome and North Africa had already,
in the second or early third centuries, (mis?)calculated the date of
Jesus’ death to be March 25, 29AD. Eastern (Greek) Christians, using a
different calendar, had arrived at April 6 as the date of the
Applying the concept of “Integral Age” widely-held in first-century
Judaism - that the prophets of Israel all died on the same date as
their birth or conception - these early believers concluded that Jesus
had been conceived on March 25 or April 6, and thus born nine months
later on December 25 or January 6.
So, while actual liturgical celebration of these dates probably did not
start until well after Aurelian, the choice of December 25 in the west,
and January 6 in the east, to celebrate the birth of Jesus was not
simply a takeover of an existing pagan feast. Neither of these was the
likely date, but the traditional celebration, close to the winter
solstice in the northern hemisphere, remains an appropriate reminder
that the light of Christ did shine in the darkness, and the
darkness could not overcome it
Till next week,