When did December 25 become the date for Christmas?
When did December 25 become the date for Christmas? In the Winter 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, T.C. Schmidt argues for an early association of Jesus’s birth with December 25 in his article, “Calculating Christmas: Hippolytus and December 25th.” He explains why this date was selected. We also caught up with Schmidt later to ask him a few questions about his article.
Many readers will be familiar with the common refrain that December 25, Christmas, was originally a pagan holiday, perhaps corresponding to the Roman festival of Saturnalia or the feast of the sun god Sol. As the chorus goes, the date was chosen for the birth of Jesus to make Christianity chime with a polytheistic society already attuned to December 25 revelry. But is the old song true?
I myself used to sing this kind of anti-carol, but then, while translating a treatise of Hippolytus of Rome, I came across a passage stating that Jesus was born on December 25. Now, Hippolytus was a Christian author who wrote in the early third century AD, and Saturnalia and the feast of Sol were not celebrated on December 25 that early in Roman history; Saturnalia never was, and the feast of Sol only came to be later. So Hippolytus clearly could not have chosen the date to please pagan sentiments.
Schmidt goes on to explain why December 25 was selected for Christmas—if not to appropriate pagan festivities. He examines patristic manuscripts and an inscribed statue, which suggest an entirely different reason: The early church fathers’ calendrical calculations of Jesus’s conception resulted in the date.
The early church fathers believed that Jesus was conceived on Passover and born nine months later. However, they differed in their dates for Passover, which is calculated on the lunar calendar. This resulted in a variety of dates for Christmas, one of which was December 25.
To help readers understand their calculations, Schmidt analyzes an inscribed statue of Hippolytus, a third-century Christian theologian. Currently in the Vatican Library, the statue portrays Hippolytus seated on a chair. Inscriptions from 222 AD appear on the chair’s sides and back. One of the inscriptions includes a date for Jesus’s conception on April 2, 2 BC. Nine months after this date would situate Jesus’s birth in late December of 2 BC or early January of 1 BC. December 25 falls nicely within that range.
Even today, there is a variety of dates for Christmas. Catholic and Protestant churches celebrate it on December 25, but Orthodox and Coptic churches celebrate it on January 6 or 7. Some even celebrate it on January 19.
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