Christmas is celebrated on December 25th in most parts of the world. Supposedly, this was the date of the birth of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christmas is regarded as a celebration honoring that birth. However, various scholarly sources claim that Christmas either came directly from pagan festivals, or it was strongly influenced by them.
The festival that is most strongly connected to Christmas is the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a festival held from December 17th to the 23rd as a way of commemorating the Golden Age of mythology in which Saturn ruled as king.
This Roman festival ultimately came from the Greek festival of Kronia, which had basically the same meaning to the Greeks as Saturnalia had to the Romans. Saturn was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Kronos after whom the holiday ‘Kronia’ was named. The only difference was that Kronia was held in the summer, whereas the Romans celebrated Saturnalia in December.
Therefore, if Christmas really did come from Saturnalia, then we can say that Christmas ultimately has an origin in ancient Greek culture.
Could Christmas actually be the date of Jesus’ birth?
However, some scholars object to this idea. They claim that Christmas had nothing to do with those ancient non-Christian festivals. According to these scholars, Christmas emerged organically from purely Christian traditions.
There are different theories as to how December 25th came to be determined as the date of Jesus’ birth. One fairly popular hypothesis is that early Christians used the information in the Bible to come to this conclusion.
For instance, the Bible tells us that John the Baptist was conceived six months before Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:26-36), and John was conceived while his father, Zechariah, was serving as a priest at the temple (Luke 1:5-7).
Zechariah is described as offering incense in the temple. Therefore, it is assumed that the event being referred to was the Day of Atonement, which occurred around the autumnal equinox.
Since the autumnal equinox apparently fell on September 24th in the time of Emperor Augustus, this would mean that Jesus was conceived six months later. This would be around March 25th, which was the date of the spring equinox in the first-century Julian calendar.
In counting forward nine months to get to the birth of Jesus, December 25th would be identified as the date of his birth. This, of course, is when we celebrate Christmas nowadays.
John Chrysostom, an important Church Father of the fourth century, actually provided this exact explanation for the setting of December 25th as Jesus’ birthday. Therefore, some scholars argue that Christmas has no connection at all to Saturnalia and, consequently, no connection to the Greek festival of Kronia.
Problems with this explanation for Christmas
However, not all scholars agree that this was how the date of Christmas originated. Some scholars argue that this was a retrospective justification for a date that had already been chosen for other reasons. After all, there are some serious problems with this calculation.
The crucial problem is that there is not the slightest bit of evidence that John’s father, Zechariah, was serving during the Day of Atonement. The Bible makes no mention of the Day of Atonement in the passage about Zechariah. It simply describes him offering incense at the temple, which was done every single day of the year.
Therefore, the conclusion that John’s conception occurred on the Day of Atonement very likely was just an attempt at finding a way to make the December 25th date work in correlation with the Biblical account. There is truly no way of coming to that conclusion from the Biblical account itself. Hence, the date of Christmas cannot have originated from this.
Even more definitive evidence
Furthermore, the account in Luke actually tells us that Zechariah was ‘serving as priest in the assignment of his division.’ The priests were arranged into twenty-four divisions, each of which served for one week, twice a year. Any given division of priests would hence serve in the temple for a week, and then six months later, they would serve for another week.
Although the total number of these weeks is just forty-eight rather than the fifty-two required to fill up a whole year, there were several events throughout the year in which all the divisions served together. This filled up the extra weeks of the year.
How do we know that Zechariah was not serving during one of these events in which all the divisions served at the temple at the same time? This is because the account in Luke specifically says that he was ‘serving as priest in the assignment of his division.’
When did Zechariah serve?
Which division was Zechariah serving in? Luke specifically says that he belonged to ‘the division of Abijah.’ This was the eighth division of priests. The temple of Jerusalem at which Zechariah served was dedicated in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, roughly corresponding to mid-September to mid-October. It was then that the priestly services began (Ezra 3:6).
Therefore, the eighth division—Zechariah’s division—served in the eighth week after that. This would be in late November or early December. Zechariah’s division also served six months later in late June or early July. Those are the only two periods in which John the Baptist could have been conceived, according to what the account in Luke actually does say.
Remember that Jesus was born fifteen months after John was conceived. This information allows us to narrow down Jesus’ birth to only two possible time periods. He was either born in late-February to early-March or late-September to early-October. Neither of these periods match the date of Christmas.
Why was December 25th chosen?
As we can see, the Bible does not support the conclusion that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. There is no Biblical evidence that Jesus was conceived on March 25th. This claim evidently was a retrospective justification for the date of December 25th for his birth, as some scholars argue. But what is the real reason that the Church Fathers decided on December 25th for his day of birth?
No one can say for sure. One idea is that they wanted to associate the birth of Jesus with the winter solstice. In the first century and in the Julian calendar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th. There are some Old Testament texts which associate the Messiah with the Sun, and the winter solstice could be viewed as the ‘birth’ of the Sun. This is certainly a possibility. But did the early Christians genuinely believe that Jesus was born at the time of the winter solstice just because of some analogies in the Old Testament? This is not very convincing.
The other common suggestion is that the date was chosen specifically to fit in with the existing festivals at around that time. Saturnalia was extremely popular—much more popular than Kronia had been in the Greek world. It would therefore make sense that the Church Fathers would want to make it easier for pagans to convert to Christianity by adopting the most popular festival of the Roman world.
In all likelihood, the Church Fathers latched onto the few texts associating the Messiah with the Sun for this exact reason. They wanted to find a way of associating Jesus’ birth with the winter solstice. This was evidently so that they could ‘Christianize’ the existing festival of Saturnalia.
What about the festivities of Christmas?
However, there is something that is often missed in discussions of the origin of Christmas. Even if the early Church Fathers sincerely believed that Jesus was born on December 25th on the basis of Biblical tradition, this would not refute the scholarly conclusion that it originated from Saturnalia—and ultimately the Greek festival of Kronia.
Christmas is not a belief about when Jesus was born. It is a festival, a celebration. Yet, there is no mention of this festival in the Bible even if Jesus had been born on December 25th. So where did these festivities come from?
It is evident that, regardless of the origin of placing Jesus’ birthday on December 25th, the festivities of Christmas come from Saturnalia. This Roman festival involved all the key aspects of which Christmas is comprised. It was a festival of great joy and celebration. Just like Christmas, it was the season of goodwill. It was the time in which people feasted together, played, and exchanged gifts. People decorated their houses with wreaths and holly.
The fact that Saturnalia ended two days before December 25th makes no difference to this fact. It was celebrated at about the right time, and an adjustment of two days to make it tie in with the date of the winter solstice—to fit Christ’s associations with the Sun—would be a trivial change to make.
In conclusion, it is likely that the date of December 25th was chosen to get Jesus’ birthday to align with Saturnalia. This could only be done by associating it with the winter solstice. Regardless of the date, however, the festivities associated with Christmas definitely do go back to Saturnalia, and this Roman festival can ultimately be traced back to the Greek festival of Kronia.
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