2017-12-25

Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?

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by Tim Widowfield

The Catholic Liturgical Year

While researching this post, I came upon an item from 2015 about the sad and untimely death of Acharya S. on Christmas Day. Readers of Vridar may have noticed that I’ve avoided writing about Acharya’s theories or writings, mainly because they did not and do not interest me, but secondarily, because I’d rather not tangle with her fans, many of whom take any critique of her brand of mythicism as a personal attack.

I must decrease

Recently, however, I recalled something I heard on a podcast featuring Robert M. Price and Acharya. I suppose we’re allowed to call her Dorothy Murdock now. Murdock was explaining to Price that the role of the Forerunner helped to determine when in the liturgical calendar to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist. She reminded Price that in the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is confronted by his disciples about what to do concerning this upstart Jesus fellow. He says:

[28] “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:28-30, ESV)

A typical reader would look at that last sentence and take it at face value. In other words, John the Baptist realizes his role must diminish as Jesus takes on the mantle of Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Savior of the World. The Baptist is signaling the winding down of his business, having fulfilled his purpose.

But Murdock said it was a mysterious thing to say, and that it had to do with the days getting shorter after the solstice. And this is precisely why John’s birth was commemorated near the first day of summer, while Jesus’ was celebrated near the winter solstice. When Christ is “rising,” I am “falling.” Hence, the notion that John was born on 24 June, six months away from Christmas.

The virgin . . . tomb?

At the time I did a little research, which fell by the wayside as other subjects took my attention. I recall coming across some early discussions about the incarnation and how some early Christians believed it had to have occurred on the same calendar date as the death of Jesus. For example, Augustine wrote:

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

Before reading this passage it had never dawned on me that the Christian legend required symmetry between the virgin womb and the “virgin” tomb. In a way, the virgin tomb became the site of a new birth, that of the resurrected body of Christ. I would argue that in the earliest traditions (namely, in Paul and Mark), his body was a perfected spiritual body, and not the reanimated corpse brought in later in order to disprove Docetism.

In any case, I hadn’t really thought about the question of the 25th of December until quite recently when I was joking on Facebook about putting Saturn back in Saturnalia and Sol back into the birth of Sol Invictus. It struck me that I was merely parroting what lazy mythicists have said over the years. Much of what they’ve written has turned out to be badly researched and simply not true. For example, the parallels of Mithraism to Christianity have been greatly overstated. But surely the whole Christmas on the 25th as a pagan holiday hostile takeover must be true, right?

Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Why the 25th of December?

It turns out that people over the centuries have celebrated the winter solstice for many reasons and in many cults, simply because it stands out on the calendar as one of the big four turning points in the year. And Christians could well have muscled in and taken over a pagan holiday. After all, we know of pagan gods who were converted into Christian saints. It’s all a part of Christian accommodation and expansion.

One of the compelling questions unanswered by the pagan take-over theory is the date of 6 January for Christmas in the East. What’s that all about? If the true reason for picking the date had to do with the “death” of Sol, “buried” for three days on the horizon, only to “rise” triumphantly on the third day, then the 6 January date simply makes no sense.

However, we do know that in the East at least some Christians believed the crucifixion happened on 6 April instead of 25 March. If those same Christians believed the incarnation happened on the same day as the crucifixion, then Christmas would be nine months from that later date — 6 January.

In Thomas Talley’s The Origins of the Liturgical Year, the author relates the work of Louis Duchesne, apparently the first modern writer to hypothesize that Christians believed Jesus was born on the 25th of December, because they believed the incarnation occurred on the same date as the death of Jesus.

Noting that March 25 was taken as the historical date of the passion, he suggested that that same date’s association with the annunciation was not based on computation backward from December 25 to the date of the conception, but was an aspect of the paschal date itself. We noted above . . . that the themes of Pascha included not only the passion and resurrection, but the incarnation itself, and quoted passages showing that theme in the Peri Pascha of Melito of Sardis. There, in all likelihood, the paschal date was April 6, and Duchesne suggested that such a paschal date (as noted for the Montanists by Sozomen) would put the nativity on January 6. As Duchesne put it, “fractions are imperfections which do not fall in with the demands of a symbolical system of numbers”; therefore the date of the death of Jesus would be taken as being that of his conception as well. (Talley 1986, pp. 91-92)

Duchesne admitted his theory unfortunately had no contemporaneous proof. No author from antiquity, so far as he knew, had ever mentioned this “calculation theory,” as it came to be called. Moreover, he freely admitted the likelihood that the commemoration of sol novus (new sun) or natalis invicti (birth of the invincible) had at least some bearing on the choice of the 25th for Christmas.

An unexpected find

But as Talley explains, four years before Duchesne’s death, a homily in Latin surfaced that seems to confirm his hypothesis. Referred to as De solstitiis et aequinoctiis or De sostitiis in the literature, this homily appeared in a collection falsely ascribed to John Chrysostom. Its actual provenance remains uncertain, but certain clues point to a semitic origin.

A semitic background (however imprecise the author’s treatment of Jewish liturgical times) could, perhaps, have contributed to a feature of De solstitiis and of Duchesne’s “computation hypothesis” that has seemed to many to be contrived, namely, its setting the beginning and the end of Christ’s earthly life on the same day. We have seen above that rabbinic thought had a tendency to set the births and deaths of the patriarchs on the same day, either Passover in Nisan or Tabernacles in Tishri. Still, De solstitiis represents a significant departure from that rabbinic habit of fixing the beginning and end on the same festival. Here all the four seasons are valorized in relation to the conceptions and births of the Forerunner and the Redeemer. The coincidence is not of Christ’s birth and death, as with the patriarchs, but of his conception and death. The birth of Christ is nine months after that spring equinox, on the winter solstice. (Talley 1986, pp. 93-94, emphasis mine)

We’ve come back around to John the Baptist. The author of the homily finds important clues in Luke’s gospel. Zechariah, he notes, receives his message from Gabriel concerning Elizabeth’s pregnancy while burning incense in the sanctuary. He claims this must coincide with the festivals in the month of Tishri. Working forward from that, he calculates that the Forerunner must have been born in June.

This sets the conception of the Baptist at the autumnal equinox, and that is the “historical” anchor of the entire scheme. That autumnal conception places the birth of John at the summer solstice. However, since Gabriel at the annunciation to Mary announced that Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy (Luke 1.36), the conception of Jesus was six months from the Baptist’s conception, that is, at the spring equinox. The birth of Jesus, therefore, was nine months later, at the winter solstice. (Talley 1986, p. 94)

Hence:

  1. Autumnal Equinox: John’s miraculous conception.
  2. Spring Equinox: Jesus’ even more miraculous conception.
  3. Summer Solstice: John’s birth.
  4. Winter Solstice: Jesus’ birth.

Evidence for astrotheology?

I don’t wish to imply here that the Calculation Theory is the consensus explanation. On the contrary, it seems to be the consensus that early Christians simply didn’t care much about Jesus’ birth as any sort of date worth noticing until comparatively late. Nor is it clear at all when the 25th became the common day for celebrating Christmas.

What we may have is a combination of reasons — dates, numerology, liturgical calendar fun, along with Constantine’s association with Sol Invictus. However, I must insist what we do not have is a confirmation of astrotheology. In Murdock’s Christ in Egypt, she cited Herbert Junius Hardwicke, MD, in a book from 1884:

Thus John, or Aquarius, the baptiser, comes in January, preaching a change, that is that the days are growing longer instead of shorter; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, or in other words, the time of the sun’s power and glory is at hand or drawing near. His nativity is fixed by the Catholic church at June 24th, at the first moment of which day Aquarius rose above the horizon, to pursue his course along the ecliptic ; and thus is accounted for the passage ” he must increase, but I must decrease,” which means that John’s days become shorter from June 24th to Dec. 25th, when Jesus is born; after which the days grow longer. At midnight on Aug. 28th and 29th Aquarius was seen at Alexandria above the southern horizon, travelling along the ecliptic with his head above the equator, as though it had been cut off (Matth. XIV. 10). On that very day the Church keeps the anniversary of John’s death. In the fourth gospel we find the same personification of Aquarius depicted . . . (Hardwicke, The Popular Faith Unveiled, p. 195)

Unfortunately for those who would argue for astrological origins in the gospels, absolutely no contemporary evidence supports Hardwicke’s musings. It is sheer speculation.

We do find numerological musings and an interest in the liturgical calendar. We do find allegorical interpretations of the scripture. Early Christians scoured the OT for prophetic references to Jesus. Consider, for example, discussions about the birth of the sun as being closely intertwined with the birth of Jesus — chiefly because of the prophecy in Malachi 4:2.

But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. (KJV)

Many English translations insist on capitalizing the word Sun, because Christians assume the verse relates to Jesus. However, the relationship is not based on the zodiac, but on the connection between the source of physical light and the source of spiritual light.

In fact, we have an important text that associates Malachi 4.2 with the birth of Jesus from the time before the establishment of Aurelian’s festival. This is the opusculum De pascha computus spuriously ascribed to Cyprian. The work, which seeks to correct the paschal tables of Hippolytus, was issued in 243, probably in North Africa. As did Hippolytus, the author takes March 25 to be the historical date of the passion, a Friday that was also the fourteenth day of the moon. That date being Pascha (and also the spring equinox), the author takes it to be also the first day of creation. It was only on the fourth day, however, that the sun and moon were created; therefore, the incarnation, assigned to Wednesday, March 28, coincides with the creation of the sun.

“O how admirable and divine is the providence of the Lord, that on that day on which the sun was made on the same day was Christ born, the fifth of the kalends of April, the fourth day of the week, and so rightly did the prophet Malachi say to the people: ‘the sun of righteousness shall rise upon you, with healing in his wings.'”

The author does not tell us the source of that March date for the nativity, but it is clear that he sees it already as natalis solis iustitiae [Birth of the Sun of Righteousness], over three decades before the establishment at Rome of the natalis solis invicti [Birth of the Invincible Sun]. (Talley, pp. 90-91, emphasis mine)

In this example, we see that Christian interest in fixing the date of Jesus’ birth is both late and derivative. As with so many other aspects of Christianity, the argument above depends heavily on an interpretation of prophecy in the Old Testament. Note the contrast between the constant and pervasive interest in pesher and “making the numbers work” versus the complete lack of interest in, say, whether the head of Aquarius was cut off when viewed from Alexandria on a given day.

Conclusion

No matter which day you celebrate Christmas, or even if you don’t celebrate it at all, I hope this 25th of December finds you all happy and in good health. Cheers!

For more recent discussions on the Calculation Theory, both for and against, see:

7 Comments

  • Bob Jase
    2017-12-25 18:41:16 UTC - 18:41 | Permalink

    This would all be cleared up if Jesus would release his original birth certificate.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2017-12-25 18:46:59 UTC - 18:46 | Permalink

      Only if it’s the “long form.”

      • Bob Jase
        2017-12-26 18:27:33 UTC - 18:27 | Permalink

        In Roman numerals everything is long form.

  • Blood
    2017-12-26 18:45:19 UTC - 18:45 | Permalink

    Murdock was always more concise and impressive in interviews than she was in her writing. She was a critical thinker, but not a good writer. I always recommend people seek out interviews with her rather than read her books. One thing that I think she was right about: the older scholarship needs to be consulted, too. A lot of it has been superseded by later work, yes, but a lot of it is still very relevant and important today. On several occasions, she pointed out that some issue being raised as it were a new thing in today’s scholarship was already brought up 150 years ago.

  • decades
    2017-12-27 20:34:42 UTC - 20:34 | Permalink

    I’ve been reading more about the Jesus myths being based on the sun/astrology and I think there’s something there. I think it’s supported by scholars that Hercules and his 12 labors are related to the sun and the zodiac and the Egyptian books of the Amduat and Book of Gates are about the sun god going through the 12 hours of night and being reborn or resurrected at dawn so I find it hard to believe that Jesus and the 12 disciples has nothing to do with that.

    http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/amduat.htm
    http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/bookofgates.htm

    Also, this website goes through the gospels and shows how they are telling the story of the sun going through the 12 months/zodiac signs of the year.

    http://www.solarmythology.com/lessons/startyear.htm

    I know this isn’t scholarly but what do you think?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-12-27 21:02:03 UTC - 21:02 | Permalink

      I have not read the linked pages yet so I am responding with my first-thoughts only.

      Yes, there are a good number of what we might call literary and cultural and literary tropes or “memes” (I hate that word, actually) found throughout ancient writings, including the gospels, that bring to mind all sorts of different stream of consciousness associations. It would be surprising if that were not the case. The authors of the gospels shared in a very wide and diverse cultural environment.

      So yes, we can see echoes of a story of Heracles in the gospels, say, but that observation alone does not prove that the gospels were written in imitation or emulation of Heracles. By itself, such shared concepts may mean nothing more than that the evangelists naturally drew upon shared concepts that were found “in the air”.

      It is also very easy, or at least can be in the right places, to find parallels when we diligently look for them. Many years ago I’m a little embarrassed now to admit that I used to draw up people’s horoscopes just for fun. It was surprisingly very easy to find matches in the planetary positions etc and some personality trait in the subject. Of course what we were doing was nothing more than an exercise in confirmation bias. We were not “proving” astrology to be true at all.

      I think when reading any hypothesis that seeks to explain the gospels we need to be conscious of both these pitfalls: that a proposed explanation may in fact be subject to alternative proposals and needs to be tested, not just accepted because it sounds plausible in its own right; and confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret the evidence to support what we are looking for — without asking if there is any actual evidence or control to prove that we are not simply finding parallels without actually finding a means to prove that that’s what the author really intended. In other words, are there other, and more substantiated, explanations for the details we are studying?

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