the date of Christmas comes more from Easter than the winter solstice

Christmas can be enjoyed as a much needed vacation day, a cheery cultural pageant, or a profound spiritual observation. For my part, I’ll take generous helpings of each. As it is a widely shared holiday, the first question is where to put it on the calendar. Thanks to Julius Caesar and his calendrical reforms, and to their enthusiastic adoption by the early Christian Church, we possess a clear date for Christmas.

Because it is based on the solar calendar, there are none of the lunar uncertainties associated with many other pre-modern holidays. The specific solar date we know as December 25 can be found proposed in writings from the early 200’s. But, why did the eventual consensus settle on that date? Accounts vary, and it is a curious mystery. Nobody claims that the date was written on a Bethlehem birth certificate. There is no such document, and if there had been, the date would have been expressed as a lunar date from the ancient Jewish calendar. I think our solar date is equal parts historic reconstruction, arbitrary convention, and high art.

The best web page I’ve seen on the origin of the December 25 date for Christmas is this one by David Bennett. Bennett recounts several plausible theories, and debunks some popular ones, notably that ancient Christians somehow shot themselves in the foot by co-opting one or more pagan holidays.

Bennett’s article describes two biblical lines of evidence (known of course to the ancients) that indicate that Mary became pregnant some time in March. This underlies the traditional celebration of the Annunciation on March 25. Add nine months gestation, and you get the traditional celebration of Jesus birth.

Apart from historical truth, I think it is fitting in these days to remember that the historic Church has reckoned the Incarnation as beginning at Christ’s conception, even though the most visible celebration of it is tied to his birth. The respect Christians have for the unborn Christ (which is biblical: see Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary) is no small part of the Church’s traditional aversion to abortion.

I personally incline toward William Tighe’s theory that the early Church assigned the Annunciation date to the conventional estimate of Jesus’ death date, March 25. (The ancients were trying unsuccessfully to refer to the historic Passover date; see Tighe’s Touchstone article.) This is all conventional, but when data is lacking, a celebration requires some such convention. It’s not a stretch given that real historical data places the Annunciation some time in March, and the Crucifixion some time in March or April.

Doubly identified with both conception and crucifixion, March 25 can prompt both deep sorrow and great joy. A few years ago when Easter fell near March 25, a Catholic Eastern Rite liturgy I went to recognized Jesus’ incarnation and death in one remembrance. It was powerful. My point here is that a proper understanding of Christmas in the calendar points not only back to the Annunciation but also forward to the Crucifixion. As some carols point out, the little Babe was born to die.

In any case, given the conventional meaning of March 25, December 25 is a simple corollary, and the proximity to the winter solstice is not man’s invention but a humanly unintended consequence. If so, the link of Christmas to the rebirth of the Sun, like that of Easter to the festival of Passover, is best understood as a creative flourish of divine poetry.

Christmas blessings,
John Rose

Comments:

I read the linked page by David Bennett, but I can't seem to find the text wherein he "debunks" theories of coopting pagan holidays.

Rather, he expends the first paragraph on how no "day can be pagan", and then presents various historical deliberations over a specific day, rather than the origin of the notion of a winter festival.

Lots of Christian holidays are coopted pagan holidays. Easter is a fertility festival - why the obsession with eggs for a human birth? Saturnalia was in the middle of winter too, a welcome festive break from the dreariness of the dark and cold. Samhain, the autumn harvest festival of my home country, Ireland, predates Christianity on that island, but has been coopted for All Hallows (aka Halloween, All Saints).

Whether the exact Gregorian, Julian or lunar-relative calendar day is chosen is pretty irrelevant - it's the seasonal timing that matters. It's nothing to be ashamed or bothered about. (Though for the record, I am atheist.)

Posted by Barry Kelly on December 08, 2008 at 04:07 PM PST #

Human death, rather, not human birth - making it even more perverse.

Posted by Barry Kelly on December 08, 2008 at 04:10 PM PST #

I'm curious: what historical data do you have in mind?

Posted by John Cowan on December 09, 2008 at 01:17 AM PST #

John: The data for March that I'm referring to is mentioned on Bennet's page; look for the stuff about Zechariah. This can be roughly dated (and was so dated in ancient times by Chrysostom) via rabbinic records. Lots more about Zechariah-based dating here: http://pursiful.com/?p=180

Barry: 1. You probably noticed that some of the arguments summarized on Bennet's page give reasonable grounds for thinking Christmas is dated from events that took place in March. To the extent that the Annunciation can be dated to March, that is the root cause of 12/25, not co-option.

2. Even if 12/25 was chosen, among ~30 other dates 9 months after March, in order to co-opt an earlier holiday (a sort of target of opportunity), this should not be cited as the sole reason for the date.

3. Co-option by Christians is not necessarily a bad thing. I think you, I, and Bennet all agree on this--check my phrase "shot themselves in the foot" in the blog entry. Some say the Church harmed themselves by landing (through whatever means) on a day that has other meanings. I don't. In fact, I personally suspect it was fated, "divine poetry".

4. Co-option like any fair play goes both ways. (After all, nobody has exclusive rights to any particular calendar day.) Aurelian, when he instituted Sol Invicta on 12/25, probably had one eye on the Christians. Read Stark, _Rise of Christianity_, ch. 1 for a reasonable model of the yeast-like growth of Christianity in the first four centuries. (And remember that the 12/25 date is mentioned by Christian writers decades before Aurelian.) By Aurelian's time (late 200's, when Constantine was a baby) it must have been an elephant in the room. So I don't believe the accounts which try to make it go the other way, deriving Christmas from Sol Invicta.

5. Regarding Easter, it is neither perverse nor pagan to us Christians. Yes, the Christian Easter (called Pascha by eastern Christians) may have directly co-opted elements of fertility festivals. More fundamentally, it certainly incorporates (in common with pagan festivals) symbols of Spring. (Can we co-opt Spring? I guess God can; more divine poetry.) But, "Easter is a fertility festival" is at best a too-facile reduction. (Whatever its etymological history, Easter is the standard western term for Pascha. But if you fancy celebrating rebirth after death in the natural realm, I'll be glad to share the bunny-egg-flower part with you, and I'll understand if you call it Easter.)

It is far more accurate, based on the original accounts of what Christian Easter celebrates, to say that Easter is a derivative (but not a co-option) of Passover. Its date is anchored in the reality of Passover which in turn celebrates freedom, and only incidentally (like Passover) does it celebrate spring. Most simply, it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus.

Posted by John Rose on December 10, 2008 at 04:25 PM PST #

As far as Christmas:

Jeremiah 10:1-4 talks specifically about what Christians do with Christmas trees. Notice that in verse 2, Yahweh tells us NOT to learn the way of the heathen.

As far as Christmas being the date that Yehoshua was born, that is not accurate. The months that Christians use, for instance, December is not in Yahwehs calendar. the Gregorian calendar is based on the sun. Yahweh's calendar is based on the new moon.

The actual date that Yehoshua was born is at the Feast of Tabernacles.

Well, that's all I am going to say for now. A word of warning: You better know what you are talking about before you say something that you will regret later.

Posted by Steven M. on April 11, 2009 at 01:13 AM PDT #

Hi, which historical data you are talking about?

Posted by origin of christmas on December 03, 2009 at 05:36 PM PST #

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John R. Rose

Java maven, HotSpot developer, Mac user, Scheme refugee.

Once Sun and present Oracle engineer.

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