Frequently Asked Questions About Christmas
1. Was Jesus born on December 25th?
Actually there is a possibility that Jesus was not born around December 25th, and that his conception occurred in March (see question 2 below). Ultimately, nobody knows, or can ever know, exactly when he was born. Some people use this doubt about the exact date to try to discredit Christmas. However, it shows a profound misunderstanding of what Christmas is about. In the Church, Christmas is a feast of the Incarnation, a day set aside to celebrate and remember that God became man to save us from our sins and redeem the world. That God would become a little baby, born to a human Mother, in our hostile world to deliver us from death and sin is quite a testament to his love. Christmas is not about dates on birth certificates, but about the love of God in becoming man.
2. Was December 25th chosen for pagan reasons?
Some put forth the idea that early Christians chose December 25th as Christmas day because this date coincided with a pagan feast. Thus, they say, Christmas is a “pagan” feast. This means that the date of Christmas has become a part of the “is Christmas pagan?” debate. First, the belief that Christians chose December 25th based on the date of a pagan festival is rooted in discredited 17th and 18th century scholarship. Second, as is mentioned below, Christians likely chose December 25th for Jewish reasons.
Here is what happened: Second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa tried to find the day in which Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian (d. AD 225) they had concluded that he died on Friday, March 25, AD 29 (incidentally, this is an impossibility, since March 25 in the year AD 29 was not a Friday). How does the day of Jesus’ death relate to the day of his conception? It comes from the Jewish concept of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets. This is the notion that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.
Therefore, if Jesus died on March 25, being a great prophet, he was also conceived that day. This means he was born nine months later on December 25th. The pseudo-(John) Chrysostomic work De Solstitia et Aequinoctia Conceptionis et Nativitatis Nostri Jesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae accepts the same calculation. St. Augustine mentions it as well. Also, there was a Jewish concept that the Messiah would be conceived around the time of Jewish Passover, and a March conception is certainly within the range of Jewish Passover.
Thus early Christians had good reasons to choose December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth which had nothing to do with paganism. We still can’t say for sure when Jesus was born, but the date of December 25th is based on faithful reasoning, not an infiltration of paganism into the Church. The Church celebrates Jesus’ conception on March 25th, with the Solemnity of the Annunciation.
3. Isn’t Christmas a pagan feast?
The problem with eliminating pagan influence is that it is impossible. If you live and breathe in the month of January, you are in essence acknowledging a pagan deity, because January is named after the Roman god Janus, the god of doorways. If you pray on Wednesday you are praying on Odin’s Day. What about Thursday? That is Thor’s Day. In fact, everyday of the week has some pagan connotations in the English language, and in most others too.
Wedding rings were originally pagan too. We don’t really make too big a deal of these facts. What a pagan did thousands of years ago doesn’t even really matter to the Church today, except perhaps to the historical scholar. God created every single day and they are all His. Thor doesn’t own Thursday, nor did he ever; he doesn’t even exist. Janus never guarded January, because Janus doesn’t exist either. Plus, when Christians scheduled their festivals on these days, they drained the pagan day of all of its former power, and dedicated the day to the true God, Jesus Christ. These “pagan” days, which God has owned all along anyway, have been transformed and dedicated to Jesus Christ by the Church.
Yes, some pagan customs remained intact in the Christian festivities; when these customs agreed with Christian teaching there was nothing wrong with using them. For example, the Christmas tree may have originally been pagan, but it has been given new Christian symbolism and meaning. The eternal life that Christ gives us thanks to the Incarnation is shown well by the symbolism of the evergreen in the midst of the death of winter.
“Christianizing” or “Judaizing” pagan customs has been done since the beginning. The Jews borrowed the idea of the resurrection of the dead from the Persians but that does not make it any less true. Many scholars trace the Jewish feast of Purim to a pagan ritual marking the beginning of spring. Again, this does not mean the Jews were celebrating paganism. No, they were celebrating a Jewish feast to the true God, which had fortunately replaced a feast to pagan deities.
In fact, C.S. Lewis would say that because the Persians and pagans both had slices of the truth of Christ, it makes the resurrection of the dead and the realities behind Purim more true. In conclusion, it is virtually impossible to purge yourself of all pagan influence. What really matters is what we celebrate today and the meaning behind our current celebrations.