The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

How December 25th became Christmas

You can find lots of intriguing history in this deciphering of the most famous holy day on the Christian calendar.

A snip:

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.  March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation–the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.  Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.


This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”  Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399-419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”


In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar–April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6–the eastern date for Christmas. In the East too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.”13 Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.


Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary–the moment of Jesus’ conception–the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.

There’s much more, so check out the whole thing.

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posted December 20, 2009 at 1:22 pm

It was a marketing scam, pure and simple. Around the time Christians gained the upper hand politically and had an emperor to “help” citizens choose Jesus, Dec. 25 was a well-observed celebration for both solis invicti “rebirth of the Roman sun” and Mithras, a popular military deity. It was all just part of a time-honored carot and stick approach of conversion. Make the locals believe you’re just giving them a new download to their favorite holidays, make the new religion the politically favorable one, and then marginalize, torture and kill the stragglers.

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posted December 20, 2009 at 5:49 pm

As the wife of a deacon in the Diocese of Scranton, it is always interesting to gather more information about the traditions we hold so close. Merry Christmas.

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Mary Ann Crane

posted December 20, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Your version might be a pagan marketing scam.

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Mary Ann Crane

posted December 20, 2009 at 7:55 pm

Read the article in it’s entirety for more about the Christmas/Sol Invictus theory.

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Adrian Rodrigues

posted December 21, 2009 at 8:50 am

Great Religion Magazine collection for all religious people.Wish you a Merry Christmas and may this festival bring abundant joy and happiness in your life!

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The Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO

posted December 21, 2009 at 10:00 am

It’s amazing how many sons of gods were born of virgins on December 25 all over the world. Some of them were even crucified in the Spring.

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John V

posted December 21, 2009 at 11:37 am

Much of this was presented in an essay titled Calulating Christmasby William J. Tighe that appeared in Touchstone in 2003.

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Steve P

posted December 21, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Barking Unicorn (and any other neo-pagans) might consider this very typical Amazon review of their source material, Barbara Walker’s “Encylopedia”. Sadly, it has become an oft-quoted source from a thoroughly discredited “scholar” in places like Wikipedia and elsewhere.
“As someone who has a passion for mythology, I was quite excited about The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Unfortunately, as any careful reader versed in mythology and/or history will soon discover, this “scholarly” book is actually a collection of supposition, opinion tossed off as fact, flights of fancy, and misinterpreted quotations (many from spurious sources). Indeed, the book is so full of supposition and error that hardly a page is left unblemished.
The author seems more interested in pushing a radical feminist agenda than in presenting and analyzing myths and historical facts. She consequently creates a history for which there is little or no evidence, and one in which there is a woman lurking behind every rock and tree. The author invents her own etymological system as proof that a god worshiped in one corner of the world must have originally been a goddess from another corner of the world–never mind that one may have been in Rome and the other on a south sea island! Her word play often becomes so silly as to be almost insulting to the reader’s intelligence. Example:
Mare Nostrum: “Our sea,” or “our mother”; Roman title of the Mediterranean, or “middle-of-the-Earth Sea.” All seas were maria, “Marys,” symbolized by the Goddess in her blue robe, sometimes a mer-maid (literally, Sea-Virgin) often named Aphrodite Marina. See Mary.”
Huh? What a jumble of nonsense! Where did the mother connection come from [“Mother” in Latin is mater or genetrix]? Also note how “mare” (sea) jumps to maria (?) and from there to “Mary”. Of course, the Biblical Mary “the Goddess in her blue robe” takes her name from Miriam, but facts don’t matter when you’re goddess hunting. And where mermaids enter the picture, I don’t know.
To fully debunk this book would require a volume three times the book’s size and I am already nearing the 1000-word limit for a review. Suffice it to say that The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets is so full of mistakes, fallacies and distortions that it borders on being a hoax.
–John Mitchell

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posted December 21, 2009 at 6:02 pm

I find the theories such as those mentioned by “kenneth” and “The Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO” endlessly fascinating .. or at least, the readiness with which people accept them endlessly fascinating. Most of them boil down to this: there was some figure or god that predates Christianity that shares features with either Christianity or Jesus, therefore Christianity is just paganism revised. “The Jesus Mysteries,” the “16 Crucified Saviors” page, etc. all fall into this pattern. But there is a fundamental problem, they all lack critical historical inquiry. Usually what history actually shows is that there is a god, figure or religion/cult that predates Christianity, but the evidence that demonstrates similarities does not emerge until centuries after Jesus and Christianity. For example:
The Persian Mithra may predate Christianity, but he was not a savior god and the Roman Mithras bears little in common and post-dates Christianity. And most of the common features do not emerge in Mithraism until well after Christianity.
Though the cult of Dionysis is much older than Christianity, Dionysis did not attain his crucified savior characteristics until centuries after Jesus.
Most of the similarities between Attis and Jesus are either made up or so thinly stretch you could read a book through them. The similarities that do exist all post-date Christianity.
Marcus Aurelian did institute Satrunalia on December 25, but this was in 275, long after many Christians had decided or at least posited that Dec. 25 was Jesus’ birthday. It is also worth noting that Aurelian was rather hostile toward Christianity and that this was in the Christian persecution era when many Romans blamed Christians and their unwillingness to adapt their religion to state cults for the decline in the Roman Empire.
So, in all these theories we see a commonality, a certain impairment of timeline. There were similarities between Christianity and pagan cults, but most of the evidence makes those similarities a pagan response to Christianity rather than a Christian adaptation of paganism.

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