Christmas falls within a few days of the winter solstice every year. Easter is usually within a few short weeks of the spring equinox. The date of Pentecost Sunday varies from year to year like Easter, but it is usually roughly two weeks from the summer solstice. Though closer to the old holiday of Samhain, All Saints’ Day falls not too far from the fall equinox.Every year, Christians celebrate holidays that are just on the cusp of important natural events. Christians remember the birth of Christ just days before the longest night of the year. The joyful festivities that surround the anniversary of the Resurrection come shortly before the day is split into equal parts light and darkness. The remembrance of the flame of Pentecost falls just before the longest day of the year. These holidays, however, are purely Christian holidays. They are tied to the events in the life of Christ, and the dates of both Easter and Pentecost are calculated based on the Jewish calendar and New Testament references. Christmas, however, was deliberately placed near the date of the winter solstice. Scholars agree that it is extremely unlikely that Christ was actually born during the ancient equivalent of the month of December.
According to scholars, it is highly doubtful that Jesus was born in midwinter. Shepherds would not be in their fields during Israel’s winter, and Mary would have had trouble traveling late in her pregnancy. When these facts are combined with references to the birth month of John the Baptist and the dates of astrological events that are the most likely suspects for the Star of Bethlehem, the general consensus among scholars is that Jesus was probably born in late summer or early autumn. That said, there are some who put forth early to mid-spring as the actual date of Jesus’ birth. So why does Christmas fall during December? The answer, rather simply, is politics.
The actual date of Jesus’ birth is not found anywhere in the New Testament nor do any Old Testament prophecies reference what time of year the Messiah will be born. Instead, both early and modern Christians had to estimate when Christ was born. The actual date, of course, is of less importance than the recognition of the incredible events that took place. As such, Christians chose a date that was very close to a popular pagan holiday: the winter solstice.
As is clear from both the New Testament and surviving accounts of both Romans and Christians, pagan Rome was not a good place to be a Christian prior to Constantine the Great’s conversion. Christians were routinely rounded up, arrested, tortured and then murdered in a variety of creatively grisly fashions. Rome knew how to turn pain, fear and death into a spectacle that simultaneously entertained a bloodthirsty populace and cowed them into submission. As such, Christians had to be careful how and when they worshiped. For much of its early life, the Christian religion essentially existed underground.
Despite their collective status as persona non grata, especially after the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64, Christians had no intention of not celebrating Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. The average Christian living in what was essentially hostile territory, however, recognized the need for discretion. So, they chose to have Christian celebrations around the same time as pagan holidays. No one would question another family who was feasting or making merry around the winter solstice. Most of Rome was doing the same. As such, Christians who were celebrating Christmas instead of Saturnalia or the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun went unnoticed by Roman authorities or neighbors with a grudge.
After Constantine’s conversion, the Roman Empire officially changed from a pagan empire to a Christian one. Christians were afforded special privileges while those of pagans slowly declined, culminating with the anti-pagan decrees and persecutions of pagans under the rule of Emperor Theodosius I. In these years, placing Christian holidays close to traditional pagan celebrations served a new purpose. It allowed for a smoother, easier conversion of the general pagan populace to Christianity. Pagans were already celebrating near those dates, so it was a smaller matter to introduce a new God to these pagans and then slowly whittle away at the other gods mentioned in the celebrations until only Christ was left.
Interestingly, nearly two millennia after early Christians carefully replaced solstice celebrations with inherently Christian holidays, the question of celebrating the solstice has arisen once more as Neopagan religions grow. Can Christians celebrate the solstice or should they refuse to recognize the longest and shortest days of the year in any more than an interesting quirk of the changing seasons?
The answer to this question largely depends on what a Christian means by “celebrating the solstice.” Both pagans of old and Neopagans tend to recognize these days as the exchange of power between gods or the shifting of the god and goddess into a new form. Nature itself is worshiped. These practices, obviously, are off limits for Christians. So, Christians should not celebrate the solstice in the traditional pagan sense, but Christians can recognize the significance of the date.
The solstices represent the natural shifts between increasing light and increasing darkness. During the longest and shortest nights of the year, there is no reason Christians cannot marvel at the world God has made and give thanks for His creation. The solstices can also serve as easy markers in a Christian’s practice. A Christian who is endeavoring to read the whole Bible in a year could note that they need to have reached a certain book by the solstice. A Christian who wants to cease sinning in a particular way could use the solstice as an easy deadline. This would give them roughly six months to accomplish whatever goal they had, such as stopping their usage of pornography. Actual worship of the solstice, however, remains off limits to Christians. Thankfully for those Christians who might be feeling left out around the solstice, the Christian calendar is set up in such a way that no Christian needs to wait long before they have a “legitimate” holiday to celebrate. Not that a Christian really needs a holiday. After all, God can be honored and celebrated any day of the year, regardless of how long or short a time the sun is out.