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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Date of Christmas

Christmas a Christian Response
to the Pagan Winter Solstice

“The whole idea of celebrating [Jesus’] birth during the darkest part of the year is probably linked to pagan traditions and the winter solstice.”  (John Barton, Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture at Oriel College, Oxford University)

This statement made by Professor Barton could be used to demonstrate that the Catholic Church placed the date of Christmas around the winter solstice in order to Christianize the pagan tradition or create a Christian alternative to a pagan tradition. But what ready did come first, the celebration by the pagan’s of the winter solstice on December 25th or the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25th?    

According to an article in the December 23rd OSV, “Taking a look at the pope’s new book on Jesus’ infancy” by Mark Shea, the evidence strongly suggests that Christmas was not placed on the 25th in response to the pagan winter solstice.

Mark Shea writes, “According to William Tighe, a Church history specialist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, “the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.  Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”

Winter Solstice a Pagan Response
to Christian Christmas

One of the earliest to affix a date to Jesus’ birth was Christian theologian of the late 2nd century Clement of Alexandria who wrote, “From the birth of Christ, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days.”  Commodus was a Roman emperor who died on December 31, 192. 

Clement an Egyptian most likely used the Egyptian calendar, not the Roman, which would set the date as January 6, 2BC, the common date used by the Eastern Church for Christmas.

There was also a tradition amongst the Jewish people at the time of Christ that a true prophet died on the same date as his birth or conception.

Western Christians placed the date of Christ’s crucifixion (and therefore of his conception) as March 25th (feast of the Annunciation of the Lord), Eastern Christians placed the date on April 6th.  Thus the birth of Christ follows nine months later, December 25th in the West or January 6th in the East. 

Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome in a commentary on the Book of Daniel wrote in the early 3rd century,  “The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January.”  The Kalends was the first day of the month; it is also where we get the word calendar.  Eight days before the Kalends of January would be December 25th.

Both Clement and Hippolytus wrote before Aurelian created his festival for the winter solstice on December 25th in 274 the late 3rd century.  So which came first the celebration by the pagan’s of the winter solstice on December 25th or the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25th?  The Christian tradition of Christ’s birth on December 25th came first with Aurelian’s feast of the Unconquered Sun an attempt to create a pagan alternative.   

Blessed Christmas Season from
Lynn’s Timeless Treasures Catholic Gifts
Nativity - Rogier van der Weyden
Nativity - Giovanni Battista Tiempolo

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