Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas
By Steven Hijmans
Mouseion, Number 47 (2003)
Introduction: It is well known that we do not know the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ. In most churches December 25 is celebrated as such, although the Armenian Church retains January 6 (Epiphany). But the fact is the date was not recorded. Many early Christians, or Origen indicates in AD 245, actually opposed celebrating birthdays altogether, including Christ’s, because it was deemed to be a pagan practice. All emphasis lay (and in the Orthodox church still lies) on the celebration of the passion and resurrection at Easter. In fact, the whole question of the exact date of Christ’s birthday appears to have arisen only when Christian chronographers began writing writing their chronologies.
Obviously the birthday of Christ had to be established in such chronologies, and numerous dates were proposed. In the late second century A.D. Clement of Alexandria refers to speculations (which he dismisses as superstition) which dated the birth on April 19 or May 20. Clement himself calculated it as November 17, 3 B.C. Other suggested dates included March 28 and April 2, but not December 25. None of the dates was influential or enjoyed any preference or official recognition. Their basis varied from learned calculations to pure guess-work. The De Pascha Computus, for instance, written in AD 243, argued that Creation began with the vernal equinox, ie March 25, and that the Sun, created on the forth day, was therefore created on March 28. This obviously meant that Christ, the new “Sun of Righteousness,” must have been born on March 28. To support these dates the author proclaimed explicitly that he had been inspired ab ipso Deo. It was only in the 330s, apparently, that December 25 was first promoted as a feast day celebrating the birthday of Christ. Initially this happened only in Rome, but by the 380s it is attested as such in Asia Minor as well, and by the 430s in Egypt. Nonetheless, other churches, as we have seen, continued to maintain Epiphany- January 6 – as the birthday of Christ, and do so to this day.
It is usually suggested that establishing a feast day on the birthday of Christ became important as a result of doctrinal disputes concerning human and divine natures of Christ. There had been numerous groups that argued for a strong distinction between the human and the divine. For example, in the second century the Basildeans taught that the divine Christ appeared on Epiphany to reside temporarily in the body of himan Christ. In their view, the date of birth of the human Jesus was of no interest, as he was only temporarily ‘host’ to the devine Christ.