25th December…why?

The Philocalian Calendar or Chronograph of 354 lists Rome’s consuls, bishops, and martyrs’ anniversaries from 255 to 352. It introduces Christmas. Martyrs start on December 25—Christ’s birthday—while consuls start on Friday, the fifteenth day of the new moon. The list of Roman bishops concludes with the two most recent bishops out of order, indicating that it was made before 336 and that the city was already honouring Christ’s birth as a festival. Before the Chronograph, only the Commentary on Daniel had proposed December 25 as Jesus’ birth and death date. The 325 Council of Nicaea shifted the winter solstice from December 25 to December 21.

In 274, Emperor Aurelian revived Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, and started the annual celebration. Christian academics use this pagan practise to justify Christmas on December 25. Hermann Usener connected 1889. Historians agreed with him that Christians should commemorate Christ’s birth over pagan ceremonies on that date. Bernard Botte’s 1932 work affected most. He showed that the Chronograph did not record Rome’s January 6 celebration until December 25. He didn’t confuse the pagan event with the Christian calendar change.

Religion’s history was disputed. Usener’s Origines du culte chrétien explained both dates, as did Louis Duchesne’s Calculation or at Computation idea. He cited several ancient authors who claimed Christ died on March 25 and concluded, without evidence, that because the symbolic number system does not allow fractions, Christ was thought to have lived for a whole number of years, with the annunciation on March 25 and the nativity nine months later on December 25. Some accepted his argument, but most academics kept studying the History of Religions.

Hieronymus Engberding’s 1952 idea revived Duchesne’s. Botte’s Latin tractate De solstitiis et aequinoctis supported his claims. John Chrysostom’s early fourth-century sermon used African and Syriac idioms. Botte’s History of Religions argument omitted Christ’s birth and death on March 25. Engberding said they occurred before liturgical practise. Article reviewer Botte doubted this theory. Later, August Strobel utilised rabbinic assumption that the patriarchs lived an exact number of years to support the Calculation hypothesis, but this didn’t explain why Christ’s death and conception dates were supposed to be the same.

Unproven. Germanic and Romance scholars favour History of Religions, while Anglo-Saxon writers prefer Calculation, according to Susan Roll. Tradition holds that December 25 and January 6 feasts occurred simultaneously and caused each other. This appears odd since Rome was founded on December 25th before 6 January. Could the absence of any equivalent feast on 6 January have led to the origin of Christmas in Rome in the fourth century, with the date chosen as a counter-attraction to the pagan festivities taking place at the time, independent of the initial justification for 6 January elsewhere?

Ancient Rome may have spread Christmas. When was it Westernized? Around 361-3, Bishop Optatus of Milevis preached during Donatist Christmas. Augustine will clarify at the end of the century that a ritual or ceremony is only a sacrament if remembered and revered. Optatus’ language likely resembled fifth-century Rome under Leo the Great. “God has appeared on earth and lived with men” on Theophany (Epiphany), Pascha, and Pentecost, Jesus said in his Pentecost speech. Gregory of Nazianzus’ lectures at Constantinople in 380-381 suggest that 25 December was already celebrated in Antioch, while experts disagree on whether he started the feast or not. 31 “Originator” or “presider” are Gregory’s titles. Cappadocia was famous in the fifth century, not Jerusalem, Egypt, or Armenia.

Christmas spread slowly over early Christianity. It took at least 40 years for Rome to embrace it and contest 6 January’s supremacy in other churches. Another possibility is that the Nicene party quickly appropriated the miraculous incarnation to defeat Arian opponents. Connell hypothesised that the feast’s tardy adoption may have been due to the Arian cause’s preference for the helpless child in a manger over the exalted Christology of the Son as “one in being with the Father.” Literature reviewer Roll admitted ambiguity. John 1 and the Lucan account celebrate Christ’s birth in Roman liturgy.

Northern Italy’s early December 25 acceptance is uncertain. Ambrose of Milan’s 378 “De virginitate” celebrates his sister Marcellina’s 353 or 354 virginity vow before Liberius, Bishop of Rome. A common Christmas quarrel line. “You demonstrated your profession by changing your cloths at the Church of St. Peter on the birthday of the Saviour,” Ambrose said before reading Liberius’ sermon on the miracles at the wedding at Cana and the feeding of the throng. Rome celebrated Christ’s birth before Christmas, according to the sermon’s Epiphany themes. Ambrose’s supposed recall was influenced by his sojourn in Milan, where Christ’s birth was celebrated on January 6, not December 25. Martin Connell noted that Ambrose’s John commentary mentions Christmas but not Luke. Roll suggests that Milan held a Christmas feast based on Ambrose’s hymns, especially Intende qui regis Israel, which Pope Celestine mentioned in 430 as needing to be sung at Christmas. Connell is correct to distrust mediaeval Spanish Christmas.

Historians disagree on when Antioch began celebrating December 25. Chrysostom says Christ’s birth date has only been known for a decade to promote the celebration. Only Theophany (Epiphany), Pascha, and Pentecost were addressed in his Pentecost speech that year. For the first time, Christmas may have been celebrated there. Gregory of Nazianzus’ lectures at Constantinople in 380-381 suggest that 25 December was already celebrated in Antioch, while experts disagree on whether he started the feast or not. Gregory “of Christmas in Constantinople” denotes “originator” or “presider.” Cappadocia, not Jerusalem, Egypt, or Armenia, became famous in the fifth century.

Early Christianity spread Christmas quickly. Instead, at least 40 years passed between its sanction in Rome and the earliest signs of it opposing the primacy of the 6th of January among other churches already commemorating that feast day. The Nicene celebration celebrating the divine incarnation as a weapon against Arian opponents is also unlikely. Roll noted the feast’s Christological ambiguity in her literature review, and Connell speculated that the apparent delay and resistance to its widespread adoption may have been due to the fact that the story of the helpless infant in a manger would not have promoted the high Christology of the Son as “one in being with the Father” but would have been more hospitable to the Arian cause. John 1 is as important to later Roman liturgical texts celebrating Christ’s Incarnation and Nativity as the Lucan narrative.


1. For the Latin text, see Theodor Mommsen, ‘Chronographus anni CCCLIIII’ in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctorum Antiquissimorum 9/1 (Berlin 1892 = Munich 1982), pp. 13–148. For the lists of martyrs and bishops, see below, pp. 176, 190.
2 See further Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, Liturgia condenda 5 (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos 1995), pp. 83–6.
3 Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, pp. 79–81.
4 Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, pp. 65, 113–14.
5 Hermann Usener, Das Weihnachtsfest (Bonn: Cohen 1889; 2nd edn 1911; 3rd edn 1969).
6 See Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, pp. 128–39.
7 Bernard Botte, Les Origines de la Noël et de l’Épiphanie, Textes et Études liturgiques 1 (Louvain: Abbaye de Mont César 1932), esp. pp. 54, 62.
8 Louis Duchesne, Origines du culte chrétien (Paris: Thorin 1889), pp. 247–54.
9 See below, pp. 135–6.
10 ET (from the third French edition): Christian Worship: Its Origins and Evolution (London: SPCK 1903), pp. 263–4.
11 Botte, Les Origines de la Noël et de l’Épiphanie, pp. 88–105.
12 Botte, Les Origines de la Noël et de l’Épiphanie, p. 92.
13 Hieronymus Engberding, ‘Der 25. Dezember als Tag der Feier der Geburt des Herrn’, ALW 2 (1952), pp. 25–43, here at p. 34.
14 Bulletin de théologie ancienne et médiévale 7 (1955), pp. 198–9.
15 August Strobel, ‘Jahrespunkt-Spekulation und frühchristliches Festjahr’, Theologische Literaturzeitung 87 (1962), pp. 183–94, here at p. 193; August Strobel, Ursprung und Geschichte des frühchristlichen Osterkalendars, Texte und Untersuchungen 121 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1977), pp. 128–33.
16 Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (New York: Pueblo 1986; 2nd edn, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press 1991), pp. 81–3, 91–5.
17 Gottfried Brunner, ‘Arnobius ein Zeuge gegen das Weihnachtsfest?’, Jahrbuch für Liturgiewissenschaft 13 (1933), pp. 178–81.
18 Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, pp. 86–7, 89–90.
19 Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, pp. 87, 103; Leonard Fendt, ‘Der heutige Stand der Forschung über das Geburtsfest Jesu am 25.12 und über Epiphanie’, Theologische Literaturzeitung 78 (1953), columns 1–10, here at 4, picking up a point expressed by Hieronymus Frank, ‘Frühgeschichte und Ursprung des Römischen Weihnachtsfestes im Lichte neuerer Forschung’, ALW 2 (1952), pp. 1–24, here at pp. 14–15; Martin F. Connell, ‘Did Ambrose’s Sister become a Virgin on December 25 or January 6? The Earliest Western Evidence for Christmas and Epiphany outside Rome’, SL 29 (1999), pp. 145–58, here at pp. 153–5. 20 Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, pp. 96, 147–8. A recent exception to that general trend is Hans Förster, Die Feier der Geburt Christi in der Alten Kirche, Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 4 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2000); Hans Förster, Die Anfänge von Weihnachten und Epiphanias, Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 46 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2007).
21 See Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, pp. 195–6.
22 Augustine, Ep. 55.2.
23 Leo, Sermones 26.1, 4; 27.6. See also Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, pp. 212–14.
24 Ambrose of Milan, De virginitate 3.1.1.
25 Thomas Michels, ‘Noch einmal die Ansprache des Papstes Liberius bei Ambrosius, de virg. III 1,1ff’, Jahrbuch für Liturgiewissenschaft 3 (1923), pp. 105–8.
26 Connell, ‘Did Ambrose’s Sister become a Virgin on December 25 or January 6?’, pp. 146–9.
27 Connell, ‘Did Ambrose’s Sister become a Virgin on December 25 or January 6?’, pp. 151–2.

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