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Why December 25?

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Question: What month and day was Jesus born? Answer: December 25, right? Wrong! Actually no one knows the date of our Lord's birth. The Bible nowhere gives his birthday. Then why do we celebrate Jesus' birthday on December 25?

First, what we know. We do know that around the middle of the fourth century A.D. Christ's birth was being celebrated on December 25 in the Church of Rome. The earliest extant record of Christ's birth being observed on December 25 is the Chronography in 354 A.D. This document was based upon a calendar that dated to about 336 (Herman Wegman, Christian Worship in East and West, New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1985, 103).The Chronography was a document of the Church of Rome that listed the various martyrs' feasts for the year. By the time that Chrysostom was Bishop of Constantinople (398-404), Christ's birth was being observed on Dec. 25 throughout Christendom, though the Church in Armenia observed it on January 6.

But how did it happen that the early Christians began observing Christmas on December 25? Why this date? There are two theories about why December 25 was chosen.

(1) The first theory holds that after careful research, Julius (337-352), Bishop of Rome, determined that Christ had been born on December 25; or at least he determined that December 25 was the best authenticated date in the Tradition. John Chrystostom states this in one of his writings (John Chrysostom, Homil. Diem Natal., 2; PL, 49, 552ff.). Chrysostom claims that Julius, after he had been requested by Cyril of Jerusalem, had the official records of the Roman census examined and determined that December 25 was the correct date. As Weiser points out, however, there is no evidence to back this up; in fact, "it was expressly stated in Rome that the actual date of the Saviour's birth was unknown and that different traditions prevailed in different parts of the world" (F. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs - New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1958, 61.).

(2) The second theory states that the Church of Rome deliberately chose December 25 as the date of Christ's birth to turn people away from a pagan feast that was observed at the same time. Since the time of the Roman Emperor Aurelian (270-275) the empire had celebrated the feast of the sun god (Sol Invictus - the Unconquered Sun) at what they thought was the winter solstice. December 25 was observed as "the birthday of the sun." Because the sun god was identifed with Mithra, a very popular god at the time, pagan celebrations occurred throughout the empire (see Clement A. Miles, Christmas, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912, 23). The Church at Rome seems to have chosen this date to counteract this pagan feast of the sun god and turn people instead to the "Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings" (Malachi 4:2; Luke 1:78). Or put another way, Julius chose December 25 so that the Son of God rather than the sun god would be worshiped. Though there no direct evidence that proves that the Church of Rome deliberately chose December 25 so that Christ's birth would replace "the birthday of the sun," we do have sermons from fathers of the church who soon after this used this line of reasoning. For example, Augustine (354-430) in his sermon 202 and Leo the Great (440-461 -- PL 54 Sources chrtiennes 22) gives this line of reasoning.

Therefore, the second theory seems to be the probable one. December 25 was chosen not because it had somehow been proven from extra-biblical sources that Christ was definitely born on December 25. Rather the date was chosen to counteract a very popular pagan holiday that had already been occuring on this date.