What makes history frustrating is that things you thought were settled fact may turn out to be very different the more people research it.
Case in point, Christmas, which I've known since forever was dated December 25 to coincide with some Roman religious celebration. Well, maybe not since forever, because I first saw this article by Andrew McGowan, How December 25 Became Christmas when it appeared in Bible Review back in December 2012 (link here is to Bible History Daily 12/02/2015).
The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.From Wikimedia Commons:
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. [my emphasis]
McGowan explains a theory which he clearly finds more plausible:
Detail of vault mosaic in the Mausoleum of the Julii. From the necropolis under St. Peter's Mid-3rd century Grotte Vaticane, Rome.
- Ceiling Mosaic - Christus helios, the mosaic of Sol in Mausoleum M, which is interpreted as Christ-Sol (Christ as the Sun).
Mosaic of the Vatican grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica, on the ceiling of the tomb of the Julii. Representation of Christ as the sun-god Helios or Sol Invictus riding in his chariot. Dated to the 3rd century AD.
"Early Christian and pagan beliefs are combined in this third century mosaic of Christ as a sun-god. The triumphant Christ/god, with rays shooting from his head, is pulled aloft by two rearing horses in his chariot. The Dionysian vines in the background become the vines of Christ."
- Title: Christ as Sol Invictus
- Late 3rd century
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.But, history is complicated:
In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.