Was Jesus Christ really born on the so-called Christmas Day? Probably not! So, why do we celebrate every year the birth of Christ on the 25th December? The obvious answer would be that what actually matters is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ independently of how accurate the date really is; the date is not the matter, the celebrated fact is.
We have no record whatsoever of the date of Christ’s birth, and the texts offer us no secure clues (even the year of His birth is still uncertain). So the question rises: why do we celebrate the birth of Christ on this particular day? For the answer, we need to travel back to pagan Rome.
Rome was a deeply religious society; every aspect of the life of the Romans, both private and public, was marked by religion, and, as such, much of their civic life was organized around major religious festivals. One of such festivals was the Saturnalia.
The Roman Saturnalia and the birth of the Sun god
The Saturnalia were an official religious festival in honour of the god Saturn which took place yearly in Rome around the time of the Winter Solstice. The duration of these festivals changed during the ages. By the late Republic period they lasted for a week or so. The first day of the Saturnalia fell ante diem xvi Kalendas Ianuarias, that is, 16 days before the 1st of January, but to determine with precision which day that actually was is something rather difficult to do before the calendar reform carried out by Julius Cesar in 45 BC. According to the Julian calendar, however, the Saturnalia commenced on the 17th of December and finished by the 23rd of the same month. The festival itself involved many inner smaller festivities, such as the Sigillaria on the 19th December, when the Romans gave gifts to their children, relatives, friends, and even to some of their slaves.
Another important festival happening around the time of the Saturnalia was the Nativitas Soli, that is, the birthday of the Sun god. In the Julian calendar this festival was held on the 25th December after the Saturnalia had finished. In its origins the Nativitas Soli was probably celebrated on the day immediately after the Winter Solstice, when the hours of daylight begin to increase again. This daylight increase foretells the rebirth of nature in the Spring and the annual return of the much needed crops with their first fruit in the Summer; without sunlight life is impossible and therefore the god Sun was seen as the giver of life.
Now, the Winter Solstice takes place on the night of the 21st to 22nd of December which makes the date of 25th somewhat problematic to be taken as the day after the Solstice. We would have to assume that at some point, before the introduction of the Julian calendar, the Winter Solstice had been celebrated around the 24th December. This is not unreasonable if we take into account that the Roman calendar prior to the Julian reform underwent several changes, mainly by the addition of extra days to some months, in order to adjust itself to the solar calendar. At some point the Nativitas Soli must have been fixed on the 25th, despite the fact the actual date of the Solstice may have been readjusted afterwards.
Christ, the New Light of the World
The first account we have of Christ’s birth being commemorated on the 25th December is in the Calendar of 354, an illuminated manuscript of the 4th century.
The Edict of Milan had granted freedom of worship to the Christians back in 313, and as a direct consequence of that Christianity begun to take over all aspects of Roman life. As the pagan religion faded away in favor of the new religion, which in 380 would finally become Rome’s state religion, the birth of Christ replaced the festivity of the birth of the god Sun. But why should the commemoration of the birth of Christ replace this particular pagan festival? Essentially because Christ was identified as the light of the world, the symbol of a new beginning and the source of life; this was particularly meaningful to the new converts of Rome who were experiencing the beginning of a new life and looking forward to be the first fruits of the salvation that Christ’s birth brought into the world. The association between the birth of Christ and the yearly rebirth of the pagan god Sun at the Solstice would have been quite natural for the new converts from paganism who had up until recently seen the Sun god as the giver of life.
The Word “Christmas”
The word Christmas is the modern day version of the Anglo-Saxon form Crīstesmæsse which translates Mass of Christ(’s birth). When St Augustine of Canterbury, an Italian Benedictine missionary was sent to the British islands by Saint Gregory the Great in 597, the language spoken in what is today England was Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language from which Modern English is derived. This is the language used by Bede and the language which St Augustine had to learn in order to evangelize the British peoples. According to tradition St Augustine baptized more than ten thousand Anglo-Saxons on Christmas day in the year of 598.
Under the direct guidance of the Pope St Gregory the Great, St Augustine made use of some of the pagan elements found there in order to make Christianization easier and faster. Pagan Germanic Britain celebrated in mid-December the gēola festival or yuletide, originally in honour of Odin. This festivity was also celebrated around the Winder Solstice and it could be considered the Germanic equivalent of the Roman Saturnalia. On the night of the 24th to the 25th of December the Anglo-Saxons celebrated Mōdraniht, or Mother of the Night. Because the birth of Christ was celebrated on that same night but with a Mass, the festivity begun to be called the Mass of Christ, that is Crīstesmæsse, modern day English Christmas. Old-English also had the word Nātiuiteð, derived directly from Latin nātīvitās, meaning ‘birth, nativity’, from where also Spanish derives its Navidad. With the arrival in Britain of the Normans, after the 11th century the word No(w)el was also adopted for Christmas. This word comes from the Old French noël or naël, derived in turn from Latin Natalis (dies) ‘birthday’, from where also Portuguese Natal and Italian Natale are derived.
Even though we do not actually know when Christ was born, knowing that ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν, ὃ φωτίζει πάντα ἄνθρωπον, ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον (John 1:9) “He was the true light which cometh to enlighten all men coming into the world” seems to be a good enough reason for replacing the sun’s birthday with his.