Christmas, the festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, is celebrated by a majority of Christians on December 25 on the Gregorian calendar. But early Christians did not celebrate his birth, and no one knows on which date Jesus was actually born, but references in the Bible show it most likely did not take place in winter.
The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. At about A.D. 200, a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to St. Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, St. Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of the Egyptian month Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Saviour suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”
Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized and now also celebrated as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.
The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday can be found in the writings of Hyppolytus of Rome, who explains in his Commentary on the book of Daniel ( A.D. 204) that the Lord’s birth was believed to have occurred on that day:
” For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.”
The reference to Adam can be understood in the light of another of St. Hyppolytus’ writings, the Chronicon, where he explains that Jesus was born nine months after the anniversary of Creation. According to his calculations, the world was created on the vernal equinox, March 25, which would mean Jesus was born nine months later, on December 25
In about 400 A.D., St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 A.D and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.
So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?
One extremely popular origin for the December date, is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The origin goes back to before the time of Christ when many ancient cultures celebrated the changing of the seasons. The Roman Empire, which at the time had not embraced Christianity, celebrated the winter solstice. This celebration was about dies natalis solis invicti: the day of the birth of the unconquerable sun, which took place on December 22nd. The winter solstice held the promise of the return of springtime and earthly renewal. In Roman history, this was the time of Saturnalia, honouring Saturn, the god of time and agriculture (The Dec. 25 festival of the birth of the unconquered sun, was decreed by the pagan emperor Aurelian in A.D. 274).
Each year during the summer, the god Jupiter would force Saturn out of his dominant position in the heavenly realm and the days would begin to shorten. In the temple to Saturn in Rome, the feet of Saturn were then symbolically bound with chains until the winter solstice when the length of days began to increase. It was this winter solstice that was a time of celebration and exchange of gifts as the hardness of winter began to wane and the days grew longer. It was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, a god of light and loyalty whose cult was at the time growing popular among Roman soldiers.
As the church in Rome first formally celebrated Christmas on December 25th in A.D. 336 during the reign of emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the effective religion of the empire, some have speculated that choosing this date had the political motive of weakening the established pagan celebrations. The date was not widely accepted in the Eastern empire, where January 6 had been favoured, for another half-century, and Christmas did not become a major Christian festival until the 9th century.