Where did Christmas come from?

Was it a pagan holiday?


Christmas got off to a rocky start among the early Christians. In fact, they did not celebrate it at all.  Early Christians were more interested in the Resurrection than the birth of Jesus thus Easter was their highest holy day. Over the next hundred years or so, however, the eastern part of the Roman Empire (Turkey, Syria, Palestine, etc.) gradually developed a new Christian feast day called Epiphany, celebrated on January 6.  This feast remembered Jesus’ birth, but also included His circumcision, the visit of the Magi, His baptism, and all the events up through His first miracle at Cana.  Epiphany wrapped these events into one celebration of “appearance” or “manifestation” (i.e. “epiphany”).  Thus, the first Christmas was on January 6th and commemorated Jesus’ birth through His first miracle.


Meanwhile in the early 300s at the Western end of the Roman Empire, Christmas emerged as a separate holiday from Epiphany. The first actual mention of “December 25” as a Christmas celebration was in 354 in Rome, though that probably reflects practice as early as 336. <[1]>


As we now exchange gifts the eastern and western church exchanged holidays. Epiphany (January 6th) spread west to Rome while Christmas (December 25th) spread east from Rome. Soon Christians in both halves of the Empire celebrated both Christmas and Epiphany—and of course the “twelve days of Christmas” in between. 


So, why did they pick December 25—was it a pagan holiday?

Jesus was probably not born in December.  The “shepherds in the fields” probably indicates another season.  So, why did the Christians select December 25 as Christ’s birthday?  There are two theories:


The calculation theory comes up with December 25 by assuming Jesus died on March 25.  Then by a complex set of calculations and traditions they may have figured that Jesus was also conceived on March 25 (following an ancient idea that one dies on the day of their conception). So if Jesus was conceived on March 25 then he must have been born nine months later on December 25.  Some first century Jews proposed such fanciful theories, so perhaps the early Jewish Christians followed this notion to select December 25. If you don’t want December 25th to be an adopted pagan holiday this is your best choice. But the other theory is probably more likely in my opinion.


The pagan adaptation theory suggests that the Roman Christians simply decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on a day that would intentionally compete a pagan feast.  In 272, the Emperor Aurelian had established a feast for the “Commemoration of Emesa,” dedicated to the Syrian sun god.  It was on this day—the winter solstice—that the sun was at its lowest point on the horizon, from which it would be “reborn” to return throughout spring.  (The Julian calendar by this time was four days off the actual winter solstice, thus explaining the December 25 date.)  Christians missionaries for the next thousand years would practice a similar means of evangelism—competing with pagan feasts by breathing Christian meaning into the same day (and sometimes the pagan practices). I suppose it would be like our similar practice of doing this with our own pagan holidays like Thanksgiving, the 4th of July or maybe even the Super bowl. Of course these are not days dedicated to competing gods<[2]> but the idea is similar—anointing a secular day to make it holy, eventually hoping to displace the competition.  


As we now know, the Christmas won the competition.  The pagan feast has mostly disappeared, and in America the whole nation celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25th.


The Christmas Season

What started as a single day (Epiphany), became two days (Christmas and Epiphany), and then eventually developed into a full-blown season.  The advent we now call Advent. This season was established by 380, requiring everyone’s attendance during the three-week Advent season from December 17 through January 6 as a law.  


Christmas Eve

So where did Christmas even come from? Many of the first Christians accepted the Jewish notion that a new day started the evening before.  This tended to dedicate the evening before a holy day also a celebration; hence, the significance of Christmas Eve.  Christmas Day was followed by the “first Sunday after Christmas,” then by New Year’s Day[3] and the following days until the season finished up with Epiphany, extending the season of Advent through to include a recollection in the following days of Christ’s presentation at the Temple, the visitation of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism, and His miracle at Cana. The whole season would come to be a time of celebration, rejoicing, gift-giving, elaborate crčches, musicals, processions, children’s programs, cantatas, pageants, and plays. 


So, is Christmas a pagan holiday?

It was once. But this purely pagan day was converted by Christians so that it eventually became fully Christian.  At least for a long time. However modern pagans have made significant headway in taking back the day. Even unbelievers and ant-believers celebrate Christmas now with a whole new set of secular legends and myths including elves, reindeer, and a secular Santa Claus that makes the day purely a family and friends day.


It’s ironic isn’t it—what started our as a pagan holiday became Christian and now is in process of reverting back to paganism. I suppose we should be bothered when secular governments paganize Christmas than when Christians do so. Family is good but Christmas is about more than family. Santa Claus is cute but Christmas is about more then Santa. So what can Christians do to “keep Christ in Christmas?” What do you do?


So what do you think?


During the first few weeks, click here to comment or read comments


Keith Drury   December 23, 2008





[1]  “And moreover it is not yet the tenth year since this day has become clearly known to us…And so this day too, which has been known from of old to the inhabitants of the West and has now been brought to us, not many years ago, has developed so quickly and has manifestly proved so fruitful…And the star brought the Magi from the East.”   John Chrysostom, Sermon Preached at Antioch, December 25, 380 AD. Trans. Albert D. Alexander, cited by White in DCW, 30.


 “Let them [slaves] rest on the festival of His birth, because on it the unexpected favour was granted to men, that Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, should be born of the Virgin Mary, for the salvation of the world.”

Apostolic Constitutions, VIII, 33 (about 375). Trans. James Donaldson, ANF, VII, 495.


[2] However, the 4th of July may be an exception—it is in some ways the highest day of the year for today’s competing god of “civil religion.” But American Christians, especially evangelicals, have done an admirable job of merging the two religions so that they do not seem to compete any more but are one and the same religion.

[3] New Years day, a purely secular holiday has also been sanctified by Christians, especially New Year’s Eve where we eventually established a “vigil” or “watch-night service” the best known one being Charles Wesley’s adaptation of the Puritan’s “Covenant Renewal Service”.