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Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Plagiarism of the Date of Christmas

This presentation does not claim any originality. It is based for the most part on the dissertation of Steven Hijmans, which was written about twenty years ago and reissued in 2009, titled Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, having been further edited.

The Christian apologetic against the accusations of plagiarism of the date of Christmas (December 25) from the feast of the Sun or Sol Invictus, became more widely known after the publication of Hermann Usener's work, Das Weinachtfest (Bonn 1889), second edition. In this work Usener claimed that the transfer of the date of the Christmas feast to December 25 from January 6 was done for reasons of competition, i.e. to stop the ancient world from celebrating the corresponding pagan holiday and preferring to celebrate the birth of Christ. This excuse does not exist in any Christian apologist or Father of the Church, but is first encountered in Jacob Bar-Salibi,[1] a Syriac bishop of the 12th century, and to be more precise, it comes from an anonymous comment on the margins of a manuscript of his work, written by a different hand, published by Assemani in the Bibliotheca Orientalis II, Rome in 1721.[2] From there it was received by Paul Ernst Jablonski (1757)[3] and the Dutchman Jean Hardouin (1729) and they linked the choice of date with the feast of "sol invictus".[4]

It is part of a syncretistic and at the same time competitive interpretation of Christianity, which found suitable ground in the works of Franz Cumont [5] - he emphasized the dynamics of the Mithraic-Christian competition and his point of view was reproduced in Greece first by Nikolaos Politis -, Franz Joseph Dölger [6] et al. In recent years it has been hotly debated and discussions on the subject have turned research to the study of historical and archaeological sources to find not only the date of the transfer of the feast to December 25, but also the date of the start of the Christmas celebration [7], as well as for the reasons that led to its establishment.

The Date of the Birth of Christ

It is universally accepted that no one knows on what day Christ was born. However, already from the 2nd century AD some attempts were made to find the specific date. Clement of Alexandria states that the "curious" calculated the date on May 20, while he himself calculated that it took place on November 18.[8] Saint Hippolytus of Rome accepted April 2 as the correct date, but he also knew of December 25, "eight days before the Kalends of January".[9] Also, it is mentioned only for historical reasons, the arbitrary calculation of the anonymous author (pseudo-Cyprian) of De Pascha Computus, who, after initially accepting that the first day of creation was March 25 and thus the sun was created on March 28, based on Christ being called the "sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2) he concluded that His birth must have coincided with this day.[10] This, he says, was revealed to him by God himself (ab ipso Deo).

It is known that originally the Nativity of Christ was celebrated together with Theophany on the 6th of January. First, the Church of Rome separated the two feasts and designated Christmas to be celebrated on the 25th of December. It is not known when the new date was set. Solid historical evidence shows that in 336 AD the Roman Church was already celebrating the new date. There are, of course, several authors, such as Gottfriend Brunner,[11] Hans Lietzmann [12] and Massey Hamilton Shepherd [13], who cite a verse from Sermo 202 of Saint Augustine [14], where he says that the Donatists observed the feast before the Donatist schism (311), and concluded that in North Africa the separation of Christmas and Theophany had taken place earlier, perhaps with the beginning of the persecution of Diocletian.

Whatever the date of Christmas in North Africa, Rome inaugurated the new date shortly before 336 AD and Martin Wallraff suggests that this happened in 330.[15] There is a trap here. The followers of the theory of the influence of the feast of "sol invictus" on Christmas, unable to refute the historicity of the date 336, try to postpone it earlier, starting from 321 or at the latest in 325 AD, (they also connect the First Ecumenical Synod with the subject), aiming to prove that the immediate inspirer of the new date was Constantine the Great, and thus to conclude that at a time when he was still influenced by the worship of the sun, decided to link the two holidays.[16]

Their arguments are unfounded. First of all, there is no historical evidence to support the case for the placement of December 25 long before 336. Constantine the Great by then left Rome in 324 AD to settle in New Rome-Constantinople, after his victory over Licinius. He returned to ancient Rome for a few months in 326, left in September of that year and never returned. Therefore, if the transfer of the Christmas feast on December 25 was due to Constantine the Great, then the Church of Constantinople should have adopted the new date at the same time. This did not happen. In Constantinople, the Nativity of Christ was celebrated on December 25 after 380 AD and in Egypt after the Synod of Ephesus in 430 AD.[17]

The Date of the Feast of "Sol Invictus"

Proponents of those who believe that Christians copied the date of Christmas from the feast of "sol invictus" state that the latter began in 274 AD during the reign of Aurelian. There is absolutely no historical or archaeological evidence to support this view. It is proven that Aurelian built a majestic temple in honor of the sun at this time, that he elevated the priests of the temple to pontifices, but there is no mention of a feast of the sun on December 25 before 354 AD, and even this is questionable, as we shall see. Proponents of this theory suppose that since the Winter Solstice fell on this day, it is self-evident that such a feast existed. Well, nothing is self-evident unless it is testified by the sources.

The oldest Roman festivals in honor of the sun, ie the 8th or 9th of August, perhaps the 28th of August and the 11th of December, are evidenced by inscription material,[19] which is earlier than the first half of the 1st century A.D. and have no astrological association with equinoxes or solstices. From the first half of the 1st century A.D. until 354 there is no reference to a Roman festival of the sun, not even to the Feriale Duranum, a Roman military calendar from Dura Europos dating to 227 AD. What emerges from the silence of archaeological and historical sources for the period of three centuries, is that the worship of the sun had faded, if not eliminated, with the only attempts to save it were by Heliogabalus, who essentially introduced new worship from his homeland of Syria, and Aurelian. However, neither of them inaugurated a solar festival on December 25th.

It follows from the above that at the time when December 25th was established as the day of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ in Rome, there was no corresponding feast of the sun, and Saturnalia began on December 17th and ended on December 22nd or 23rd.

The Calendar of Philocalus [20] of 354 AD records the games that were instituted and were in force at the time it was written. Mention is made of games in honor of the sun and moon on 28 August (SOLIS·ET·LVNAE·CM·XXIIII), games in honor of the sun between 19-22 October (LVDI SOLIS·CM·XXXVI), and again games on the feast of Natalis Invicti on 25 December (N·INVICTI·CM·XXX). It is known that Aurelian set out to establish games in honor of the sun, as evidenced by the Chronica Sancti Hieronymi [21], and the Calendar identifies them with those that took place between 19-22 October.[22] Some authors [23] deny that Aurelian's games were identified with the games of October and claim that they took place in December. For their claim they rely exclusively on Julian the Apostate, who wrote in his hymn to the sun in 362, that the most majestic games were held at the end of December.

It has been proven that Julian the Apostate lied on several occasions. The first is this. The most majestic races in honor of the sun were those of October, because 36 chariots took part (the XXXVI we see at the end of the registration). In the races of August there participated 24 chariots (the XXIIII that we see at the end of the registration) and in the race of December there were 30 chariots (the XXX that we see at the end of the registration). Then, according to the Calendar of Philocalus, the December race was in honor of the birth of the Invincible (Natalis Invicti), but that does not mean it is in honor of the sun because then he would have to write Invicti Solis. So again only Julian the Apostate and those who follow him accept that it is a feast of the sun and the information is unreliable and late (362 AD). Finally, the games set by Aurelian were held every four years, which significantly reduces their importance in the festive life of Rome.

However, it is Julian himself who refutes what he writes, because at the end of the hymn he mentions games in honor of the sun and not a game, as it should be, if it were December 25th. In other words, he writes:

"If after this I were to mention that we worship Mithras, and celebrate quadrennial games, I should be speaking of more recent institutions; it is better therefore to confine myself to those of more ancient date in what I am going to add."[24]

What does he mean by "ancient"? Not this particular feast, but the fact that the Romans celebrated the New Year after the winter solstice.

"But our ancestors, from the time of that most religious King Numa, paying special honour to the god in question, cast aside the common practice, and as they were of superior understanding, they recognized this deity, and settled to hold the New Year's festival in the present season, at what time the Sun returns to us, leaving the extreme distance of the meridian, and bending his course around Capricorn as his goal, moves from the South towards the North; being about to give us our share of his annual blessings."[25]

So what Julian is saying here is not that the games in honor of the sun were set by the ancients, but the beginning of the new year. We ignore, of course, the nonsense about Numa. Below he talks about the game of December 25:

"The Saturnalia, being the concluding festival, are closely followed in cyclic order by the Festival of the Sun; the which I hope that the Powers above will grant me frequently to hymn, and to celebrate; and above all others may the Sovereign Sun, lord of the universe!"[26]

This may indicate that the feast of the Sun was established by Julian himself. It is clear that, as in the case of Heliogabalus and Aurelian, the cult of the sun has more personal value with Julian, [27] than can be seen as a broad cult, capable of overshadowing the existing ones. Especially for Julian, modern research suggests that he leaned more towards the worship of Cybele than towards the worship of the sun. The view is rejected which wants the worship of the sun as monotheistic with uniform synretistic tendencies.

Therefore, the introduction of the celebration of Christmas precedes the corresponding one of the worship of the sun which was placed on the 25th of December possibly by Julian and in place of the celebration of the Invincible, but not of the sun, which is recorded in 354 (this not being a later addition to the Calendar). So the Christians did not copy any previous pagan festival, much less a festival of minor importance, such as that of the sun. The opposite is likely to have happened, given Julian's competitive attitude towards the prevailing Christianity and his attempt to eliminate it.

The Calculation of the Date of Christmas

Rejecting the theory of that the date of the feast of solis invicti was copied for Christmas, we must refer to the reasons which led first to the separation of the feast of Christmas from the feast of the Theophany and then to the establishment of the feast on December 25th.

To answer the first question, suffice it to say that the establishment of the feasts of the annual cycle follows the dogmatic teaching of the Church. Thus, the separation of the feast of the Nativity of Christ is placed in the context of the Christological disputes of the time in which it occurred. Although the feast of Theophany did not immediately prevail throughout Christian territory, its commencement in Rome immediately after the First Ecumenical Synod and its final universal acceptance after the Third Ecumenical Synod point in that direction. The fact that there are still monophysite churches, which still celebrate only on January 6, strengthens the position.

The special celebration of Christmas gave rise to the writing of discourses with similar anti-heretical content, such as Sermones 22, 23, 25 and 27 of Saint Leo I, Pope of Rome,[29] against the Arians. Oration 39 of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, titled On the Lights and uttered on the feast of the Theophany, states:

"At His birth we duly kept Festival, both I, the leader of the Feast, and you, and all that is in the world and above the world. With the Star we ran, and with the Magi we worshipped, and with the Shepherds we were illuminated, and with the Angels we glorified Him, and with Simeon we took Him up in our arms, and with Anna the aged and chaste we made our responsive confession. And thanks be to Him who came to His own in the guise of a stranger, because He glorified the stranger. Now, we come to another action of Christ, and another mystery."[30]

It follows that at this time (380) the Church of Constantinople began to celebrate Christmas separately from Theophany, immediately after the death of the heretical Emperor Valens and the restoration of Orthodoxy in Constantinople.

Likewise, Saint John Chrysostom in his discourse On the Day of the Birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, says that the feast of Christmas had just separated from the feast of the Theophany in Antioch, while in Thrace, meaning the region of Constantinople, the separation was made a decade earlier following the example of the West. And he explains the apologetic reasons for the separation by saying:

"Although it is not yet the tenth year, from when this day has become clear and well known to us, but nevertheless it has flourished through your zeal, as if delivered to us from the beginning and many years ago. Whence one would not be in error to call the day both new and old: new because it was recently made known to us; at the same time, old and time-honored because it quickly became of like stature as the older days, and reached the same measure in stature with them."[31]

Saint John Chrysostom did not dwell only on why the feast was separated, but already earlier in his speech he explained the choice of the day. Starting from the information of the Evangelists that Christ was born during the census of Caesar Augustus, he says:

"And it is possible for the one who desires to know exactly to read the original codices publicly stored at Rome and learn the time of the census. So what, someone says, is this to us-who are neither there nor present? But listen, and do not be unbelieving, because we have received the day from those who know these things accurately and who dwell in that city. For the ones living there, having observed it from the beginning and from ancient tradition, now have themselves transmitted the knowledge of it to us. Nor in fact did the Evangelist indicate this time randomly, but both to make the day clear and known to us, and to show the economy of God. For neither spontaneously, nor from himself did Augustus send out this edict at that time, but he did it because God ordered that even his soul inadvertently might serve the coming of the Only-Begotten."[32]

Therefore, because the census was kept in the public records in Rome, the Christians of the city learned the date of Christ's birth from it, and from Rome it began to be celebrated on December 25th. Then the other Churches followed the example of Rome, because they considered that the information and the establishment of the feast was reliable.

Of course, Saint John Chrysostom not only accepts the date, but confirms it with his own calculations. Starting from the fact that the angel appeared to Zechariah, when he was in the Holy of Holies, to which the high priest entered once a year during the feast of the tabernacles, he determines the time of the conception of Saint John the Baptist. The Annunciation of the Virgin took place six months after the conception of Saint John the Baptist and nine months later Christ was born. According to his calculations, Saint John Chrysostom ends up in the month of Apellaios, that is, in December:

"If therefore Elizabeth started to conceive after the month of Gorpiaios, as it has been shown, we must count from that month six months afterwards. So then these are the months: Hyperberetaios, Dios, Apellaios, Audonaios, Peritios and Dustros.  After this sixth month, accordingly, Mary first conceived, whence also counting nine months, we shall arrive at this present month. Therefore the first month from the conception of the Lord is April, which is Xanthikos, after which is Artemisios, Desios, Panemos, Laios, Gorpiaios, Hyperberetaios, Dios, Apellaios - and this present month, during which we celebrate the day."[33]

The above calculation is more reliable and more determinant than similar calculations, which try to determine the date of the Birth of Christ starting from the date of the Crucifixion.[34] Here we can also refer to the view of Dom Hieronymus Engberding that these calculations come after the confirmation of the already applied practice of celebrating Christmas on the specific date.[35] As can be seen from the discourse of Saint John Chrysostom, there were disagreements, perhaps due to the transfer of the feast from January 6th.

From the above it is clear that both the separation of the feast of Christmas from the feast of Theophany, and the choice of December 25 as a day of celebration, were made for pragmatic ecclesiastical reasons and not for reasons of copying or competing with pagan standards.


[1]  Ramsay Mc Mullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale University 1997, p. 155.

[2] See B. Botte, Le origins de la Noël et de l’ Epiphanie, Louvain 1932, 66.

[3] De origine festi navitatis Christi, ed. I. G. te Water, in Opuscula Jablonski, Lugduni Batavorum 1809, vol. III 317ff. Jablonski was an Egyptologist and in this work is the first reference to Constantine the Great syncretizing Christmas with the worship of the sun.

[4] Leonhardt Fendt, "Der eutige Stand der Forschung über das Geburtfest Jesu am 25.XII und über Epiphanias", in Theologische Literaturzeitung 78.1 (January 1953), col. 1.

[5] "La théologie solaire du paganisme romain", in: Mémoires présentés par divers savants à l'Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres de l'Institut de France 12,2, 1913, S. 447-479,

[6] Sol salutis. Gebet und Gesang im christlichen Altertum, Münster 1920, 2. Aufl. Münster 1925 (Liturgiegeschichtliche Forschungen 4/5).

[7] Complete bibliography can be found in F. Heim, Solstice d’hiver, solstice d’été dans la predication chrétienne du Ve siècle. Le dialogue des évêques avec le paganisme, de Zénon de Vérone à saint Léon,  Latomus 58 (1999), 640-660

[8] Stromata Ι.21.145.6 {GCS 15(1906), 90}.

[9] On Daniel IV.23 {GCS 1 (1897), 242}.

[10] De Pascha Computus XIX (CSEL 3, p. 266).

[11] Gottfriend Brunner, "Arnobius ein Zeuge gegen das Weinachtsfest?", in Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft 13 (1936) 178-181.

[12] Hans Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church III. From Constantine to Julian, Cleveland-New York 1953, p. 317.

[13] Massey Hamilton Shepherd Jr, "The Liturgical Reform of Damasus I", in Kyriakon Festschrift Johannes Quasten II, p. 854, does not put forward the argument from the work of St. Augustine. 

[14] PL 38.1033-1034.

[15] Martin Wallraff, "Christus verus Sol. Sonnenverehrung und Christentum in der Spätantike", in Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum, Erg.-Band 32 (Münster 2001).

[16] For example, see Oscar Cullmann, The Origins of Christmas in The Early Church, London-Philadelphia 1956.

[17]  Thomas J. Talley, "Constantine and Christmas", Between memory and hope: readings on the liturgical year (Maxwell Johnson), The Order of St. Benedict Inc, Collegeville, Minesota, p. 265 κ.ε.

[18] Steven Hijmans, Sol: The sun in the art and religions of Rome, p. 588.

[19] Degrassi 1963, p. 493 for 8-9 of August, p. 503 for 28 of August και pp. 535-6 for 11 December.


[21] Chronica Sancti Hieronymi, ed. Rudolf Helm, Berlin 1956, p. 223; also Chronica Urbis Romae, ed. R. Valentini-G. Zucchetti, Rome 1940,  279.4.

[22] Κατά τον εκδότη του Καλανδάριου Theodor Mommsen, CIL I p. 355.

[23] S. Berrens, Sonnenkult und Kaisertum von den Severn bis zu Constantin I, Stuttgart 2004, pp. 107-9.

[24] 156C, ed. W. C. Wright (Loeb Classics 1913), p. 424.

[25] Ibid. p. 426.

[26] Ibid. p. 428.

[27] P. Αθανασιάδη-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism, Oxford 1981.

[28] R. Smith, Julian’s Gods. Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate, London-New York 1995.

[29] Antoine Chavasse, "Sancti Leoni Magni Romani Pontificis Tractatus Septem et Nonaginta", Corpus Christianorum Scriptorum Latinorum 138 (Turnhout 1973), 91-92 & 120-121.

[30] PG 36.349

[31] PG 49.360.

[32] PG 49.354.

[33] PG 39.358.

[34] Susan K. Roll, "The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question", Between memory and hope: readings on the liturgical year (Maxwell Johnson), The Order of St. Benedict Inc, Collegeville, Minesota, p.273 κ.ε.

[35] Engberding, H. “Der 25. Dezember als Tag der Feier der Geburt des Herrn", Alw 2 (1952), 25-43.

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