Did Christianity Steal the Date of Pagan Winter Solstice Celebrations?
Part 1: The Mis-use of the Church Fathers
This article builds on what was established in the first two articles in this series. Please remember that these articles are not trying to establish what day or year Christ was actually born. These articles are written to demonstrate when the Christian Church chose dates, and to rebut the accusations that these dates were chosen in order to embrace or suppress pagan idolatry.
The first article looked at the early date at which the Christian Church had through its own Biblical and Liturgical reasoning established a particular date on which to celebrate the Birth of Christ. The dates chosen were based on when the Church understood the Creation took place, when the Conception of Christ took place, and when the Crucifixion of Christ took place. And as early as before the year 200 A.D. the Church Fathers had settled on either December 25th or January 6th.
The fact that the early Church had established these calendar dates to celebrate the Birth of Christ by the close of the 2nd Century is important in understanding how and why from the time of the Reformation until now the modern efforts to discredit these dates by claims of pagan origins are false and misleading.
The second article looked at the particular case of the pagan holiday of Sol Invictus, “The Unconquerable Sun” or “The Invincible Sun” and showed from the actual historical documents and resources that this particular pagan holy day was a later invention dating from after the year 274 A.D. and probably even later than 354 A.D. We also saw that these sources may likely represent an attempt of pagans to usurp the Christian liturgical celebration of the Birth of Christ on the date of December 25th.
A very common method of argument is that Christian Church Fathers also prove that the Christmas celebration is really stolen from pagan solstice festivals.
Examples of this are:
- Increase Mather’s 1687 A TESTIMONY Against several Prophane and Superstitious CUSTOMS, Now Practised by some in New-England (ch. 3, par. 3) Increase Mather was a rabid anti-Catholic Puritan responsible for burning witches in Massachusetts.
- Paul Ernst Jablonski’s 1754 Institutiones historiae christianae antiquioris.
- Alexander Hislop’s 1858 The Two Babylons: or The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrodand His Wife. (ch. 3, section 1) Hislop’s work helped form the theology of the Seventh Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and strongly influenced several Millerite groups.
- Joseph Martin McCabe’s 1903 Augustine and His Age (pages 128ff) McCabe was a man who fell from faith in Christ and spent most of his life writing against Christ, Christianity, and the Church. He was interested in discrediting Christianity so people would lose faith in God.
- Will and Ariel Durant’s 1950 The Story of Civilization – vol 4 (The Age of Faith) (ch. 4)
- And others: like Hermann Usener and Bernard Botte.
The Church Fathers that are usually mentioned are Cyprian, Origen, Chrysostom, and Tertullian, and Augustine.
So, do the quotations from early Church Fathers prove that the Christmas celebration is really from pagan solstice celebrations? The quotations all these authors use, when they actually quote them, are very few. They are:
A text long thought to have been written by Cyprian is often quoted as linking Sol Invictus and the Solstice to the choice of December 25th. The text is titled De Pascha Computus (The Passover Computation). The authorship is unknown because text itself probably pre-dates Cyprian’s baptism. Some date it to 243 A.D. This dating would also put the text before Aurelian’s October Sol Invictus games and more than a century before the earliest recorded association of December 25th with the Sol Invictus celebration.
The passage is usually cited from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia‘s inaccurate translation:
“O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born.”
The ellipsis is significant. T. C. Schmidt points out a serious problem with this evidence. We’ll keep the ellipsis to show only the translational problem first:
O the splendid and divine Providence of the Lord, that on that day, even at the very day, on which the Sun was made [factus], … Christ should be born [nasceretur].
With the language corrected there is nothing in this passage that connects the Birth of Christ with either the Solstice or the celebration of Sol Invictus. More to the point, the words left out in the ellipsis demonstrate that whoever originally made this citation with the ellipses knew he was misleading the reader. Here is the full passage:
O! The splendid and divine Providence of the Lord, that on that day, even at the very day, on which the Sun was made, 28 March, a Wednesday, Christ should be born. For this reason Malachi the prophet, speaking about him to the people, fittingly said: “Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise, and healing is in his wings.” [Malachi 4:2]
The Latin text is from chapter 19, p. 266 of De Pascha Computus.
The Passover Computation places Christ’s birth on March 28, not the Winter Solstice. But more importantly, the day was Wednesday, the fourth day of the week. Wednesday is the day of the week that the Sun, Moon, and stars were created. “The very day” is “Wednesday” the fourth day of the week. Equating this with March 28 reflects the date of the year when the author believed the world was created.
Schmidt also points out that there is a small question as to whether nasceretur means “born” or “conceived.” But this is not really important to the issue here. Though there were many different dates that the early Church looked at, by the time this document was written, December 25th/January 6th were already widely established. What is important is the fact that this document does not support any claim that Cyprian/Pseudo-Cyprian thought that Christmas was based on the Solstice or the “birth of the sun.”
It is often stated that Tertullian had to assert that Sol was not the God of the Christians, as if this means that there was rampant solar worship that Christianity was competing against.
The references given start with Tertullian’s Apology 16. In his Apology Tertullian contrasts Christianity with all kinds of different forms of paganism in the world. In the 16th chapter he refutes Tacitus’ claims against Christianity, for example; the cross is wood, so Christians therefore worship wood/trees; Christians face east to pray, therefore Christians worship the sun; Christians worship on the first day of the week, therefore they worship the sun. To this Tertullian replies:
 Others, again, certainly with more information and greater verisimilitude, believe that the sun is our god. We shall be counted Persians perhaps, though we do not worship the orb of day painted on a piece of linen cloth, having himself everywhere in his own disk.  The idea no doubt has originated from our being known to turn to the east in prayer. But you, many of you, also under pretence sometimes of worshipping the heavenly bodies, move your lips in the direction of the sunrise.  In the same way, if we devote Sun-day to rejoicing, from a far different reason than Sun-worship, we have some resemblance to those of you who devote the day of Saturn to ease and luxury, though they too go far away from Jewish ways, of which indeed they are ignorant.
The implication is that sun worship is a foreign thing to Roman north Africa, that it was typically thought to be a Persian notion. Further, Romans thought this facing east during prayer and praying on the first day of the week implied that Christians followed the Persian notion of sun worship. But using that particular day was no different than taking Saturday off for the Romans.
There is really nothing here to show that Christianity borrowed pagan sources for the celebration of Christmas. In fact, if the arguments that Mather and the others make were to be valid, Tertullian would have to be made to say that Christians cannot worship on Sunday because it is a pagan day dedicated to Sol. No where do we find anything like this until the time of the Puritans—who did away with day names for precisely this reason.
Next is Tertullians Against the Nations chapter 13, where he addresses the false charge that Christians worship the sun. There he states the same as in the Apology.
The fact that Tertullian or other Fathers of the Church had to defend the Church against the charge of worshiping the sun does not demonstrate that celebrating Christmas on December 25th is wrong. It says nothing about the solstice.
Origen is often enlisted as support against the celebration of Christmas. We saw in the first article in this series that Origen’s predecessor, Clement of Alexandria, had already shown that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th or January 6th was known in Alexandria. The claim is that Origen wrote against celebrating Christmas in his 8th Homily on Leviticus. Christmas is a celebration of a birthday. Therefore, Origen is made to oppose the celebration of Christ’s birth (Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, column 495 ).
In his 8th Homily on Leviticus Origen interpreted Leviticus 12 and 13, discussing purification after childbirth with the sacrifice of the two pigeons or two turtledoves for the newborn child. This sacrifice was necessary because of the sin of the newborn. Origen argued that no saint in Scripture rejoiced in the birth day of a son or daughter because of the need to purify the newborn from sin. In the Scriptures he could only find sinners like Pharaoh and Herod celebrating their births. And both of those men stained the celebration of their births with bloodshed. Origen argues further that the saints, like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14–18), Job (Job 3:1–3), and David (Psalms 51:5) cursed the day they were born. These men uttered these words by the power of the Holy Spirit, so therefore baptism is absolutely necessary for the newborn.
Origen’s recollection about birthdays in Scripture was not as accurate as it could have been. Abraham and Sarah both rejoice at the birth of the promised son, name him “laughter” both in admission to their own initial doubt of God’s promise, and for the joy God had given them. They celebrate the birth and the weaning of that son (Genesis 21:1-8). Leah rejoicing at the birth of Judah (Genesis 29:35). Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz rejoice at the birth of Obed (Ruth 4:13-17). Hannah rejoices at Samuel’s birth and gives an annual gift for Samuel in thanks for his birth (1 Samuel 2:1-11, 19). The Angel tells Zechariah that the birth of John the Baptizer will be a cause of joy to his parents and to many, including those who were there to celebrate his birth(Luke 1:14, <57-58).
Besides the rejoicing over those births recorded in Scripture are the many times God draws a parallel between the joy of birth and the coming of God’s kingdom and God’s steadfastness from our birth: Psalm 71:4-6; Isaiah 46:3-4; 66:7-11; Micah 4:10; John 16:21.
Also, God’s Word points out specifically that the Birth of the Messiah would be a cause for celebration and joy: Psalm 87; Isaiah 9:1-7; Micah 5:2-5, Zechariah 2:10; The Wise Men of Matthew 2—with their gifts; and the Angels and the Shepherds of Luke 2.
So with Origen we can say these things: 1) he was not writing about the date of Christ’s birth but about the necessity of baptism for naturally born sinners as exampled in Leviticus 12 and 13. 2) Origen may have thought birthday celebrations were to be avoided—but he did not stand on solid biblical grounds for that opinion.
In any case, the example from Origen does not demonstrate that the date of Christmas came from the Roman Solstice. Nor does it demonstrate that the practice of celebrating the Birth of Christ came from pagan solstice practices.
This particular quotation is often referred to, very seldom quoted, and only from one source available now: The 1911 Catholic Encyclopediaarticle on Christmas. The title given in the article is “del Solst. Et Æquin.” meaning “Concerning Solstices and Equinoxes”. The source for the article is given as “(II, p. 118, ed. 1588)”, which means nothing. The Opera Omnia of Migne’s Patrologia Graeca does not list this document.
Chrysostom wrote in Greek. The quotation from this unnamed 1588 source is in Latin with several parts missing:
“Sed et dominus noster nascitur mense decembris . . . VIII Kal. Ian. . . . Sed et Invicti Natalem appelant. Quis utique tam invictus nisi dominus noster? . . . Vel quod dicant Solis esse natalem, ipse est Sol iustitiæ.”
“But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eight before the calends of January [25 December] . . ., But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”
If someone could find this document, I would greatly appreciate it. As it stands, at best it can only demonstrate that some people had started to talk about the “Birthday of the Unconquered” some years after Aurelian’s Sol Invictus games of 274 A.D. and after the Pilocalean Calendar of 354 A.D. The dates for the celebration of Christmas had already been selected long before Aurelian.
From what is quoted the writer is not arguing that Christianity took the date of Christ’s birth from the “Birthday of the Unconquered.” Nothing is mentioned about a solstice. And with so much missing, it is hard to know what this document is addressing.
Augustine is usually referred to with the following:
“(Tract xxxiv, in Joan. In P.L., XXXV,1652) denounces the heretical identification with Sol” (from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, same work as above).
This tractate on John 8:12 “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” The English translation is at CCEL. But in this context it is not the false god “Sol” that Augustine names, but the Manichaean false doctrine:
The Manichæans have supposed that the Lord Christ is that sun which is visible to carnal eyes, exposed and public to be seen, not only by men, but by the beasts. But the right faith of the Catholic Church rejects such a fiction, and perceives it to be a devilish doctrine: not only by believing acknowledges it to be such, but in the case of whom it can, proves it even by reasoning. Let us therefore reject this kind of error, which the Holy Church has anathematized from the beginning. Let us not suppose that the Lord Jesus Christ is this sun which we see rising from the east, setting in the west; to whose course succeeds night, whose rays are obscured by a cloud, which removes from place to place by a set motion: the Lord Christ is not such a thing as this. The Lord Christ is not the sun that was made, but He by whom the sun was made. For “all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.”
So, again, the evidence enlisted from the Church Fathers to prove that Christianity stole pagan solstice worship for Christmas comes up dry.
Roger Pearse points out: “In 401 AD, on Christmas day, Augustine (PL 46, 996) preaches a sermon discussing pagan customs on the same day:
“Stop these latest sacrileges, stop this craze for vanities and pointless games, stop these customs, which no longer take place in honour of demons but still follow the rites of demons … Yesterday, after vespers, the whole city was aflame with stinking fires; the entire sky was covered with smoke! If you make little of the matter of religion, think at least of the wrong that you do to the community. We know, brothers, that it is kids who have done this, but the parents must have let them sin.” [thus far Pearse’s quote]
Notice that Augustine is focusing on the destruction of property, vandalism, and endangering lives with fire and smoke. Augustine’s argument is: Even if you don’t do these things to honor false gods/demons anymore, these vandalisms are still reckless and dangerous to life and property. They must stop.
There are other Church Fathers that are also enlisted in the effort to prove that Christians ought not to celebrate Christmas on December 25. But the Church Fathers discussed in this article are the most often cited. By seeing the quotations in context we can understand how little these writings have to do with the choice of date for Christmas, the pagan solstice, or with any Christmas festivities that we have inherited today.