Light to the revelation of the Gentiles
By Liam Gibson | 20 December 2023
One of the most frequently repeated myths about Christmas is that its origins lie in a pagan Roman festival. The story goes that the early Church having failed to win people over from pagan celebrations sought to incorporate them into its liturgical calendar. Sometimes it is suggested that the Church’s approach was to “christianise” these events, but atheists and anti-Catholics have also used this thesis to undermine the credibility of Christian tradition. Modern scholarship, however, makes these claims largely unsustainable.
The two festivals which allegedly provide the “real origin” for the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord on 25 December (the Winter solstice in the Roman calendar)1 are Saturnalia — dedicated to Saturn, whose mythological reign was said to be a Golden Age of peace and abundance — and Natalis Solis Invicti — “the birth of the unconquerable sun”.2 Saturnalia was a major feast in pagan Rome and it is true that it bore some superficial similarities to our modern Christmas, such as gift-giving, and to some medieval customs such as the temporary reversal of social hierarchies. It was not, however, celebrated in the same way everywhere throughout its history. And while the duration of the festival grew longer or shorter over the centuries, records indicate that its celebration never extended beyond 23 December.
The “birth of the unconquerable sun”, on the other hand, did fall on that date. Nevertheless, this festival was “not so ancient, widespread and momentous as to exert a strong influence on Christian communities”.3 Besides, it appears that the Christian association with this date was well established in some parts of the Empire before the pagan holiday came about.
The first known accusation that a pagan festival was co-opted for the celebration of Christmas was recorded in a note in the margin of a manuscript by Dionysius bar Salibi, a Syriac Bishop who died in 1171. The note does not appear to be by Dionysius himself but the twelfth century is so far removed from the events it describes that it does not represent a credible source. The note states:
“The Lord was born in the month of January, on the day on which we celebrate the Epiphany; for the ancients observed the Nativity and the Epiphany on the same day, because he was born and baptised on the same day. Also still today the Armenians celebrate the two feasts on the same day. To these must be added the Doctors who speak at the same time of one and the other feast. The reason for which the Fathers transferred the said solemnity from the sixth of January to the twenty-fifth of December is, it is said, the following: it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same day of the twenty-fifth of December the feast of the birth of the sun. To adorn the solemnity, they had the custom of lighting fires and they invited even the Christian people to take part in these rites. When, therefore, the Doctors noted that the Christians were won over to this custom, they decided to celebrate the feast of the true birth on this same day; the sixth of January they made to celebrate the Epiphany. They have kept this custom until today with the rite of lighted fire.”4
In some places in the East, the Nativity was regarded as just one part of Our Lord’s Theophany — the manifestation of God to the world. It also includes the visit of the Magi, His baptism and His first miracle. The Western Church introduced separate liturgies for each of these events, commencing with the celebration of the Nativity on 25 December and running to the Epiphany.
The choice of this date, however, was not arbitrary but gradually arrived at through deduction and calculation. The Early Church Fathers correctly viewed the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection as more important than the anniversary of His birth. It was, therefore, necessary to verify this date in order to celebrate Easter. There were two decisive factors involved in this. The first of these was the information provided by the Gospels regarding the events taking place around the time of the Passion. St John juxtaposes the crucifixion of Jesus with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. This would have occurred on 14 Nisan in the Hebrew calendar. As sundown marked the start of a new day, the Last Supper, the arrest, trial and death of Our Lord would all have taken place on 15 Nisan.5 This roughly corresponded to 25 March, the Spring Equinox in the Roman solar calendar.
The second factor was more theological. According to Jewish tradition, Isaac, a typological forerunner of Jesus, was born at the season of Passover. It was also believed that the prophets and patriarchs lived a perfect number of years being born and dying on the same date.6 When this rationale was applied to the life of Christ, it meant that His birth also took place on 25 March. However, Sextus Julius Africanus (cc. 160–240 AD), who is regarded as the father of Christian chronography,7 pointed out that the Incarnation did not occur when Jesus was born, but when He was conceived at the Annunciation. His Nativity, therefore, would have taken place nine months later on 25 December. By 204 AD, Hippolytus of Rome explicitly affirmed this as the date of the Nativity.
Then, in 274, in a move that seems to have been provoked by the growing influence of Christianity, Emperor Aurelian reinstituted the cult of Sol Invictus — “the unconquered sun”. A planned persecution of Christians was avoided when he was assassinated the following year. However, celebrations of Natalis Solis Invicti on 25 December do not appear in the records until much later. This has led some commentators to argue that it was only in 362 AD that a festival on this date was instituted by Julian the Apostate (331–363).
It was not lost on the early Christians that major events in the life of Our Lord coincided with natural phenomena. Christ was after all the Lord of Creation, He “telleth the number of the stars: and calleth them all by their names”. (Ps 146:4) So why wouldn’t natural phenomena reflect the crucial events in the history of salvation? Christ’s birth on the shortest day of the year fitted perfectly with the words of St John the Baptist (born six months earlier on the Summer solstice), “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
The understanding of Christ as the Light of the World had an even more profound significance for the Early Church. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains:
“From the very beginning, this was made clear by the date of this feast. In the Jewish calendar, 25 December8 was and remains the feast of Hanukkah, the feast of lights, which recalls how on this day in 165 BC Judas Maccabeus removed the altar of Zeus — which tradition called the ‘abomination of desolation in the holy place’ — from the Temple in Jerusalem. It was on the same date that the Syrian King Antiochus, who was worshipped as ‘Zeus’, had set up the pagan idol in the Temple, designating December 25 as his own feast day. Now it became the date of the cleansing of the Temple, the day on which the glory of God, which had been trampled underfoot, was reestablished and God began to be honoured anew in the proper manner. It was from this day on that Israel dated its own rebirth: as soon as it was once again able to serve God in the appropriate way, Israel itself was restored.”9
The Feast of the Nativity, therefore, is not simply one aspect of the Theophany but the cleansing of the world and restoration of everything that was lost through the sin of Adam. This understanding of Christmas that persisted into the medieval period can be seen in the popularity in Northern Europe of Christmas or “paradise” plays that depicted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a snake wrapped around an evergreen tree. These Christmas trees became a standard part of the popular devotion which would be decorated with fruit, gingerbread and wafers.10 The custom of the paradise play came to an end with the rise of Protestant theology, only the stage prop, the Christmas tree, survived into the modern era. In some places, it is still known as a Paradeisbaum.
A feast of Mary and a feast of Christ
In his essay on the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which claims to be the Bethlehem of Rome, Cardinal Ratzinger writes:
“In the drama of salvation it is not the case that Mary had a part to play before exiting the stage like an actor who has said his lines and departs. The Incarnation from the woman is not a role that is completed after a short time; rather, it is the abiding being of God with the earth, with men, with us who are earth. That is the reason why Christmas is at the same time both a feast of Mary and a feast of Christ and for this reason a proper Nativity church must be a Marian church.”11
There are two major Marian feasts during the season of Advent — the Immaculate Conception on 8 December and Our Lady of Guadalupe commemorated on 12 December. In 1531, the Blessed Virgin appeared to Juan Diego on 9 December which at that time was the feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the Julian calendar, it was also the Winter solstice.12
In her instructions to Juan Diego, Our Lady spoke in his native Nahuatl language. The name she gave to herself was not the Arab-Spanish Guadalupe which could not be spelt or pronounced in Nahuatl. Nor could the local Spanish church officials grasp Nahuatl pronunciation. In 1895, Fr Mariano Jacobo Rojas, a professor of archaeology, studied the Nahuatl language and concluded that the name used by Our Lady was probably Coatlaxopeuh — “she who crushes the serpent”.13 One of the major Aztec deities, Quetzalcoatl, depicted as a feathered serpent, was honoured with an estimated 20,000 human sacrifices annually.
In the miraculous image given to Juan Diego, the black ribbon tied around the waist of the Virgin would have been understood by the Mexicans that she was pregnant. The configuration of the quatrefoil flowers on her dress would have told them that she bore the “child sun god”.14 In the ten years following the apparitions, an estimated 9 million native Mexicans abandoned paganism and were baptised.
While the other Evangelists begin with the genealogies and Nativity narratives, St John starts his Gospel with a description of Jesus as the light shining in the darkness. It is this light, the light of Christmas, that overthrows pagan idols, ends human sacrifices and will surely cleanse the Temple of God once again.
- In the northern hemisphere, the next Winter solstice will be Friday 22 December 2023.
- Sol, the Roman sun god, was an ambiguous figure sometimes identified with the Greek sun god Helios but sometimes with Apollo.
- C Philipp E Nothaft, “Early Christian Chronology and the Origins of the Christmas Date: In Defense of the ‘Calculation Theory’”,  Questions Liturgiques/Studies in Liturgy 94, p 249.
- Thomas J Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, [2nd ed] (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp 101–2.
- Each of the four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Our Lord’s death but there are some differences between St John’s evidence and the other Evangelists.
- Nothaft, p 253.
- “Julius Africanus” in Catholic Encyclopaedia.
- December in the Roman calendar corresponds roughly to the Hebrew month of Kislev.
- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Blessing of Christmas, (Ignatius Press, 2007), p 105.
- Mark Forsyth, A Christmas Cornucopia: The hidden stories behind our Yuletide traditions (Viking, 2016), p 28-9.
- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Images of Hope, (Ignatius Press, 2006), p 21.
- “Our Lady of Guadalupe“, New Daily Compass, 12 December 2022.
- Francis Johnston, The Wonder of Guadalupe, (TAN books, 1981), p 47.
- “Our Lady of Guadalupe Explained”, Archdiocese of Washington.