Christmas day and the pagan "Sol Invictus"


It is very often claimed that the Christians co-opted the pagan Roman holiday “Sol Invictus” (unconquered sun), celebrated on December 25, as the birthday of Jesus. (It seemed to make sense–the pagans were celebrating anyway, and probably wouldn’t notice any change, right?) But there is no documentary evidence that this was the case. What happened is this: the Church first established the Feast of the Annunciation/Conception of Jesus as March 25. When the Church became interested in setting a date for the birth of Jesus, they counted forward 9 months. (Of course, many different traditions found their way into Christmas celebrations.)

If Christmas was pagan, would it matter?

The interesting question now is why March 25? Other than being near the spring equinox.


They wanted the same day as the Crucifixion. That was definitely in the spring, around the time of Passover. The exact date is unknown.

(Jon) #4

See here for details and a thorough takedown, including the arguments for Sol Invictus, Mithra, and Tammuz.

(Larry Bunce) #5

Pagan festivals were held to mark the solar solstice, and the Romans held the Saturnalia on Dec. 25th.
It was originally the 17th, but eventually got moved later as the Roman calendar was revised in 44BC. Another theory holds that the 25th was selected for the Sol Invictus because that was the first day the Ancients could determine for sure that the sun was heading back north, and would not keep on heading south, leaving the earth in darkness. (I personally would guess that a few years of watching the annual solar cycle would eliminate that fear, much as we don’t worry at sunset that the sun will not rise again.)
It doesn’t make any difference if the early Christians chose the date of a pagan holiday to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. We know the holiday as Christmas, and people no longer worship the pagan gods.
(Although some might argue that our modern commercial Christmas celebration seems more like a pagan festival than a religious holiday. That lets our non-Christian friends join us in the joy of the season, and is much better than our Puritan founders’ idea of treating Christmas as a fast day to bewail the fact that we are so sinful that Jesus had to come into the world to die for us. Talk about putting the worst possible spin on Christianity…)
Merry Christmas, everyone!


Thanks @Jonathan_Burke for providing a well documented answer to the question.

(George Brooks) #7

I think the article provides a good amount of details.

But I don’t think those details makes it possible to reach the conclusion so adamantly asserted in the first two paragraphs!:

“A long standing myth of Christian history is that the date and celebration of Christmas were based on a pagan date which was ‘Christianized’ by the church. This myth appears is reinforced by its appearance in standard reference works such as the New Encyclopedia Britannica, and Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions.”

"Current scholarship on early Christiantity, as well as on early Roman religion, has long since dismissed this myth. Long before December 25 was connected with pagan festivities for Sol Invictus or Mithras, Christian writer Julius Africanus suggested March 25 as the date of Christ’s conception, resulting in a date of December 25 for Christ’s birth.[3] [4] [5]

[3] ‘Sextus Julianus Africanus, before 221: 22 March = the (first) day of creation, 25 March = both the annunciation and the resurrection.’, Roll, ‘Toward the Origins of Christmas’, p. 87 (1995).

[4] ‘But a North African Christian named Sextus Julius Africanus had a different idea. He contended that the Son of God became incarnate not at his birth but at his conception, so if Mary conceived him on March 25, he would have been born nine months later on December 25.’ , Kelly ‘The Feast of Christmas’, p. 16 (2010).

[5] ‘. . . while the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas, and none that indicates that Aurelian had a hand in its institution.’, Hijmans, ‘Sol, the sun in the art and religions of Rome’, pp. 587–588 (2009)."

If we look at footnote [3], the logic of 22 March may seemn perfectly fine. But that isn’t the day that Africanus chose… he chose the 25th. If he was using the logic of the Spring Equinox, then Jesus would be born on December 22, not December 25th!

But the Equinox is not even on the 22nd… it’s earlier than that.

"An equinox in astronomy is the event when the Sun can be observed to be directly above the Earth’s equator, occurring around March 20 and September 23 each year. On these dates, night and day are nearly of the same length and the Sun crosses the celestial equator (i.e., declination 0). "

I think @Jonathan_Burke’s article is important in showing how complex was the actual “evolution” in the popular mind of the supposed date of the Birth of Jesus. But that is far from what those introductory paragraphs are trying to say.

Let’s not forget that under the best of conditions, Jesus was almost certainly not conceived in March either. The dates presumed for conception, and for his birth, have zero to do with reality… and were all about the competition between various priesthoods for “capturing” or “affiliating with” established traditions.

Again, I do not challenge the dates and facts of the discussion . . . they look llike important observations of what actually happened… but I do challenge those two first paragraphs. The way numbers and dates were chosen was not purely random.


So with the date of Christmas established, Christians wanted to know the exact hour of Christ’s birth! And St. John Chrysostom thought he had found the answer in the apocryphal book “Wisdom of Solomon.”

According to the Rev. Joel Daniels, PhD,

John Chrysostom noticed that in the Wisdom of Solomon, Solomon says, “For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne.” (here) He took “midst of her swift course” to mean midnight and “thine Almighty word” to mean, well, the Word of God.

Once the BC/AD demarcation came about, popular piety liked the idea that Christ was born at exactly the moment the BC era became the AD era.

And that is why we sing, “It came upon a midnight clear”

What about Christmas Eve Midnight Mass?

It was in the mid-fifth century that the Church in Rome began to celebrate a Mass at midnight, informed by pilgrims who had visited Jerusalem.

(Jon) #9

Then you should write a paper correcting the current scholarship, and submit it for peer review.

(George Brooks) #10


Oh I suppose… when I get the time. But it might be like shooting fish in a barrel.

Look at this section:

"[1] Africanus did not even mention the date of Christ’s birth specifically, since his concern was the dates of the conception and crucifixion (even though his chronology leads directly to December 25 as the birth date),

[2] De Pascha Computus likewise does not mention the date at all (instead focusing on the date of the conception),

[3] Chrysostom dated the birth of Jesus to December 25 on the basis of a complicated calculation involving the service dates of the Jewish High Priest, assuming a specific date for the service of Zachariah (father of John the Baptist)."

Here we have three different paths to December 25 … yes… completely coincidental fixation on December 25! And yet, amazingly, having nothing to do with December 25? Oh brother. I really never appreciated your full capacity for “contrarian views” until seeing this December 25 apologia.

The irony is you could have written a great treatment … about how these Christian writers used exquisitely subtle framing in order to arrive at the not-arbitrary-date of December 25. And instead you play on the idea that it’s all just a coincidence.

How you put these sentences together without blushing I’ll never fathom:

“Various attempts have been made to identify the origin of the traditional Christmas date with the allged birth and resurrection of the Sumerian god Tammuz . . . In fact, this date was not connected with the Tammuz myth. Tammuz’s death and descent into the underworld was commemorated during the summer solstice (nowhere near December 25).
[27] [28]”

In your footnote 27, you again distract the audience by pointing out Tammuz descended into the underworld at the time of the summer solstice: “The rites of weeping for Tammuz, which took place around the summer solstice.’ Prosic, ‘The development and symbolism of Passover until 70 CE’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, number 414, p. 84 (2004).”

No kidding! The point of Tammuz was not that they died in the same month, but that they were brought back to the mortal sphere at the Winter Solstice!

You even pay your respectful homage to this truth in FN 28: " . . . ‘What is involved is a myth of a god descending to the underworld at the time of the summer solstice in Tammuz, and remaining in the underworld until the winter solstice six months later.’, Livingstone, ‘Mystical and mythological explanatory works of Assyrian and Babylonian scholars’, p. 257 (1986)."

But by this time, your Bible-reading audience has lost their bearings in all the colored gunpowder you have thrown into the campfire. Considering the importance of Footnote 28, you really shouldn’t have even denied the Tammuz connection. The connection is so obvious, even you had to confess it - - but, admittedly, in a dry sterile way that would minimize anyone’s comprehension of what it really meant.


It seems that the Culture Wars in the US are the only place this really makes a difference. Some people have insisted that the only reason there are celebrations around the Winter solstice is because Christians invented it, and they go wild when someone says “Happy Holiday’s” to them at Walmart.

Does it really matter? Does a Christian’s faith or eternal soul hang on the reality of Christmas being the absolutely accurate date of Jesus’ birth, or an original idea thought up by Christians? If it does, perhaps they need to rethink their theology. Is it really a big deal of early Christians did decide to celebrate Jesus’ birth around the same time as Winter solstice celebrations found in other cultures? We might as well be arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.


So very true. Instead of thanking God that they live in a free country and can worship as they please, they lose their crap over the latest Starbucks cup. And “holiday” means “holy day” so what’s not to like?

(Jon) #13

It isn’t a complete fixation on December 25. Africanus never even mentions the date, and nor does De Pascha Computum. Chrysostom does, and takes a completely different route to the other authors.

This is not a contrarian view or apologia, it is the scholarly consensus. Remember you’re the one who thinks that there’s merit to the idea that the gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus set as a Homeric epic by a highly literate Greek writer for a highly literate Greek reading audience, despite the fact that this apparently obvious fact was undiscovered by anyone for around 2,000 years.

I am simply reporting what the scholarly consensus says. If you don’t like it, write a paper challenging the consensus. I know you won’t do this, because it’s one thing challenging the scholarly consensus on an internet forum, and quite another challenging the scholars themselves; you dont’t want your ideas subjected to that kind of scrutiny.

You clearly didn’t read what I wrote. I’ll repeat it and place important parts in bold.

Additionally, there is virtually no evidence for any commemoration of the god’s return;[29] whether or not there are any references to the ‘resurrection’ (not ‘rebirth’), of Tammuz, at all, is a matter of scholarly dispute.[30] [31] [32] [33]

You didn’t pay any attention to any of those five footnotes, which make the point that there is no evidence for the resurrection of Tammuz or commemoration of this resurrection, at the winter solstice or any other time… Where is the evidence for your claim of Tammuz’ being resurrected on December 25, or this resurrection being commemorated on December 25, and where is your evidence that Christians were prompted to date Jesus’ birth on December 25 as some kind of hijack of Tammuz’s resurrection?

That footnote is saying that what is involved with Tammuz is completely different to what is involved with Jesus.

This is the complete opposite of the truth. I am making the point (fully referenced), that there is no connection with Tammuz. I say this explicitly, and quote several sources for this fact.

(George Brooks) #14


I don’t understand your point here… are you really this obliging to the ancient sources?

You say they never mention the date, but they mention the date in Spring which, exactly months later, lands them on December 25?

I have to think you have never raised children. You’d be an easy mark for most any 6 year old convincing you that he never once saw the cookies - - up on the 4th shelf, next to crackers - - and since he never saw the crackers I can’t tell you what brand they were.

If it were plausible that Jesus was actually born in the middle of winter, I could see the point of all these gymnastics, @Jonathan_Burke. But when all these varting methods are used to get the audience to the exact same “false” date - - why would you even think about accepting their rationalizations for how they arrived at the date?

Next: Scholarly Consensus?
Do you have some sort of geiger counter that starts making noise when you get near the scholarly consensus?

Yes, I would agree with the Scholarly Consensus that all these folks used every method they could find to justify the date of December 25 (without mentioning the date of December 25).

The one sentence to which I object, and which - frankly - sounds more like your voice than “Scholarly Consensus” is the last sentence of these three:

"[1] A long standing myth of Christian history is that the date and celebration of Christmas were based on a pagan date which was ‘Christianized’ by the church.

[2] This myth appears is reinforced by its appearance in standard reference works such as the New Encyclopedia Britannica, and Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions.

[3] Current scholarship on early Christiantity, as well as on early Roman religion, has long since dismissed this myth."

So what exactly is the myth? What is the obvious fiction? That the Church “Christianized” pagan holiday?

Do you make this claim because you don’t believe the Church ever Christianized a pagan holiday? You do know that Rabbits don’t lay eggs, right? Do you think Current Scholarship dismisses the Easter Bunny as well?

You do know that the title “Pontifex Maximus” was a Pagan title that was retrieved from disuse and “Christianized” as one of the Pope’s new titles?

We all know the term “Yule” refers to Christmas. The “Yule Log” is a special log burned during the season. But we also know that the word is older than Christmas, so the term had to have been Christianized:

Yule: “Christmas, the Christmas season, or Christmas festivities; (in combination): yuletide”

When we look at the word’s Origin: “Old English geōla, originally a name of a pagan feast lasting 12 days; related to Old Norse jōl, Swedish jul, Gothic jiuleis”

As I said before, your article is perfectly interesting in the details that scholars have uncovered. But you haven’t provided any refutation for the obvious motivations behind the saintly intelligentisia of the age wanting Jesus to be born on December 25.

If there was general agreement that the First Noel is correctly depicting the season of Jesus’ birth, then you would have an ounce of a chance of being convincing:

Hum along with me if you like:
"The First Noel the angel did say. Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep, On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

Yep… that’s when the shepherds are outside, sleeping in the snow, or in the freezing cold at the very least - - intentionally - - so that the song writer will have something interesting to sing about !

But, in fact, all these creative ways of getting Jesus born on the Wrong Day, and on a day (and its 3 day pause) that is Astrologically notorious for Pagan associations and interpretations (including Tammuz) - - all these competing explanations frankly shout to the world that Christians wanted Jesus born on December 25, but wanted to have a better reason than because it was a Pagan Holiday . . .

(Jon) #15

Do you understand what the scholars I quote say about these sources?

Of course it does. But you are missing the point made by the scholars I quoted. The Christians who dated Jesus’ birth in spring were concerned about establishing a theologically significant date for Jesus’ conception. They show no interest at all in establishing a theologically significant date for his birth, which is why they didn’t mention the date of his birth, even though a perfect nine months after the birth date, would land on December 25. The question you are avoiding is “If it was so vital for Christians that Jesus’ birth date be December 25, and this day was so important, and it was supplanting a pagan festival, then why did those early Christians not actually mention the date and not describe any pagan festival which they were supplanting?”.

Yes that’s exactly it. I have cited a range of scholarship saying exactly this. There was no pagan holiday on December 25 (or near that time), which was “Christianized” to make Christmas. Please read the sources I quoted.

No. So all your “easter bunny” (no “Easter” is not from “Ishtar” or “Astarte” or “Ēostre”, and there is no evidence of Christians celebrating an “easter bunny” until the seventeenth century), and “pontifex maximus” (yes adopted by the papacy), and “yule” stuff (not associated with Christmas until about the seventeenth century, but never mind), is totally irrelevant. It’s just an attempt to get away from the topic under discussion.

You have missed the point that scholars have demonstrated there is no evidence for the early Christians wanting Jesus to be born on December 25 at all. See the beginning of my post. If you think there is such evidence, please present it along with the details of the pagan festival which you think Christmas was supplanting.

What are you talking about? Of course “The First Noel” isn’t accurate. This is precisely my point.

What pagan holiday? What is this mysterious pagan holiday on December 25 to which you keep alluding but never quite manage to name? And where is the evidence that it was “notorious for pagan associations” with Tammuz?

(George Brooks) #16

This is the crux of your defense, @Jonathan_Burke?

These early Christians want Jesus’s birthday to be on December 25 because it was true! - - not because they were copying the truth of a pagan holiday.

Give it a rest, @Jonathan

(Jon) #17

Is this what you are claiming, or is it what you think I am saying? Because I am not saying anything like that. I have already pointed out there is no evidence that those early Christians wanted Jesus’ birthday to be on December 25, and no evidence that they were trying to replace a pagan holiday. I have said very clearly that there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25. That’s the opposite of saying it’s true.

Now, back to the questions you haven’t answered. "If it was so vital for Christians that Jesus’ birth date be December 25, and this day was so important, and it was supplanting a pagan festival, then why did those early Christians not actually mention the date and not describe any pagan festival which they were supplanting? What is this mysterious pagan holiday on December 25 to which you keep alluding but never quite manage to name?

(George Brooks) #18


I am saying that the intention was obvious, circumstantially compelling, and telling people what they were actually doing would make their task harder.

In 20 years, they wanted people to happily associate the Winter Solstice with the rising of the King … King of the Jews, King of the Universe.

What better way to do it than to use every other reason for Jesus coincidentally being born on the most important celestial winter event of the Earth’s northern hemisphere?

Honestly, @Jonathan_Burke, you sound like my teen age son, explaining why he had no intention of causing trouble with the boy up the street…

When a pickpocket is reaching into your pocket or purse for your goods … do you think they pause for a moment and tell you - - “please note, I’m only going to be in your budget for a moment or two…”

I strongly encourage you to be satisfied that you have collected a very impressive catalog of how some early Christians rationalized the Birthday of the God of the Universe. Be content. Sing a carol. Go a-wassailing !

“Later, in the twelfth century, Danish-speaking inhabitants of England turned “was hail”, and the reply “drink hail”, into a drinking formula, a toast, adopted widely by the indigenous population of England.[7][5] In recent times, the toast has come to be synonymous with Christmas.”

Notice that wassailing is an accidental or unintentional development of a non-Christian sentiment into a Christian one.

And the wonderful detail of your article shows that the adoption of December 25 was not accidental at all. There was practically a generational rivalry for who could come up with the best rationalization for why Jesus was born on the most important Winter day of the year!

Jonathan, they really didn’t have a choice. If Jesus is God of the whole Cosmos… they couldn’t just let the Pagans have the high holy winter day all to themselves.

They had to put Jesus in the thick of it … and they had to come up with non-pagan explanations for it.

And your article shows they did a very credible job of doing just that.

Merry Christmas! And Good Health to you!

(Jon) #19

[quote=“gbrooks9, post:18, topic:37400”]
I am saying that the intention was obvious, circumstantially compelling, and telling people what they were actually doing would make their task harder.

In 20 years, they wanted people to happily associate the Winter Solstice with the rising of the King … King of the Jews, King of the Universe.[/quote]

So in order to associate the birth of Jesus with December 25 and replace a pagan holiday with a memorial of Jesus’ birth, they decided to write about Jesus’ conception and not mention the date of Jesus’ birth, and not mention the pagan holiday they were replacing, and not suggest memorializing Jesus’ birth on December 25. What a cunning plan! Don’t tell people the date on which you want them to do something, don’t tell them to do anything on that date, don’t tell them anything about the pagan holiday on that date, and you’ll end up with Christmas! Can you see how absurd that sounds?

Can you present any evidence that December 25 was considered the most important celestial winter event of the earth’s northern hemisphere?

No, there’s no evidence for that at all. It’s clear that for the first few centuries of Christianity there was no real interest in December 25 at all, and a range of different dates were proposed for Jesus’ birth. Again, you’re just ignoring what the scholarship says.

If they really didn’t have a choice, why did so many Christians come up with dates for Jesus’ birth which were not December 25? And again, please tell me specifically which pagan holiday was celebrated on December 25? What is this “high holy winter day” to which you keep referring?

(George Brooks) #20


If the “logic” of my proposed explanation escapes you … you would probably make a poor pick pocket as well.
Or anything involving salesmanship.

In the early centuries, Pagan writers were very quick to criticize Christianity for “immitating Pagan ideas”. . .

so it seems especially likely that these various Christian “salesmen” trying to carve out a place in the Winter
Solstice for our own King of the Universe would do whatever they could to emphasize Christian or Judeo-Christian
logic - - and, indeed, avoid anything that looked or smelled like “copy-cat city”.