Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas someone will say: “Christmas is just a pagan holiday.” That statement casts doubt about the validity of Christmas, and for that reason it irritates me. This year I decided to determine if this claim was true. There’s a lot of detail involved, but I will summarize the support for Christmas not being a pagan holiday by first considering Simple Logic, then the Historical Data, and then the Astronomical Data.
Let’s first apply some simple logic to our modern birthday parties. If someone’s birthday is celebrated on December 7th,1 then isn’t it actually a celebration of the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Yet, also on that date, in 43 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman orator and politician, was assassinated, and in AD 185, the Chinese Emperor Lo-Yang saw a supernova. So, which of these events are people celebrating at the birthday party? The person’s birthday, of course.
Let’s state the obvious, regardless of anything else that happened in history on December 7th, we are celebrating that person’s day of birth. It’s that simple. Regardless of the celebration, we celebrate the object of our celebration and nothing else.
The basis for the claim that Christmas is pagan, is rooted in Natalis Invicti; the feast of the ‘unconquered sun’ that the Roman Emperor Aurelian inaugurated in AD 274. Aurelian was a worshiper of the Syrian sun-god Baal, and the feast to this god was to be held each December 25th. Detractors of Christmas want to convince us that we are unwittingly celebrating Natalis Invicti because it occurred first, and that the Church re-purposed the feast to celebrate the birth of Christ. Even if that were true, as stated above, we celebrate the object of our celebration and nothing else.
Yet, as we will see, the historical and astronomical data support the conclusion that Christmas predated Natalis Invicti, and that December 25th was the day the Church celebrated the birth of Christ.
The historical information contains a consistent witness that December 25th was the day Jesus’ birth was celebrated. I’ll just review the essential information for this post. First, let’s remember that Gabriel announced to Mary,2 and then later to Joseph3 that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Messiah’s miraculous conception had occurred.
Second, the shepherds knew about the Messiah’s birth. The angels appeared to them in glory with the announcement of the good news that, “Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.”4
Third, the magi, probably based on information provided by the prophet Daniel hundreds of year earlier, knew that the heavens declared the birth of the King of the Jews. They came camelling into Jerusalem because they had seen His star in the east and wanted to worship Him. When they asked King Herod where this newborn king was,5 Herod ordered the massacre of all male children two years old and younger, in an effort to kill the child. King Herod and all of Jerusalem would have remembered the day the magi’s arrived.
Fourth, the Roman census records. An official document of the Roman Empire was created when Joseph registered with the census takers in Bethlehem.
These above four sources would have remembered the events and passed them on to friends, relatives, and the early Church.
After the first century, between 155-157 AD, Justin Martyr wrote his The First Apology to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius explaining Christian beliefs. In chapter 34, regarding the birth of Christ, he encourages Antoninus to check the Roman records because the birth of Christ is verified in the census records. He writes:
“Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judaea.”6
Between AD 200-205, Tertullian also wrote of the census records’ existence:
“That census by Augustus, which most trustworthy evidence of the Lord’s nativity, the Roman archives hold secure,” and “But it is also certain that census enumerations made at that time in Judea under Augustus by Sentius Saturnius, by means of which his (Jesus’s) family descent could have been inquired into.”7
Later, in AD 386, Chrysostom preached a sermon in which he strongly asserts that, “Anyone may examine the Roman archives and verify the December 25th day for himself. This is the proof from the census.”8
During the first two centuries of the early Church, the celebration of the Nativity was decided by the churches in local geographical areas. There was communication and cooperation between all churches, but there was no one governing body. Consequently, the December 25th date was held in many areas, while in others Christmas wasn’t celebrated at all even though they knew the date, and in still others Christmas was combined with the celebration of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, and both were celebrated in early January. In Alexandria, Egypt, someone incorrectly translated the 9th month of the Roman calendar into the 9th month of their own calendar, resulting in a date of May 20th. A small number of churches came up with their own calculations that placed their celebration in April.
What we don’t see supported, is the assertion that at some time in history each day of the year has been proposed as the day of celebrating Christ’s birth. Instead, we see that in the 300’s, after Constantine ended Christian persecution, is an organizing of geographical church groups that unified the recognition and celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th. It’s important to note that December 25th is the day we celebrate when the magi celebrated Christ’s birth, not His actual birth date. Our own Nativity sets reflect this tradition because they always include the magi’s arrival.
The Astronomical Data
About a half dozen years ago, we watched the video The Star of Bethlehem (the written content of the video can be accessed from this link). The information in the video was compelling, but I wanted to verify the content myself before recommending it to others. I bought the Starry Night Pro software and began a three-month effort to determine if a December 25th date of the Nativity is supported astronomically. This is another big study which we can only summarize in this brief post.
The Star of Bethlehem video asserts, among many other things, that the Bethlehem star, the biblical Wandering Star, is Jupiter in retrograde motion directly above Bethlehem, as seen from Jerusalem.
Watching the planets, stars, and constellations, is like watching a baseball game. It is rarely exciting. In Starry Night Pro, I changed the year to 9 BC and as I watched, the planets predictably moved along their orbits against the static backdrop of the stars. Jupiter slowly shuffled along its twelve-year orbit, then Mars moved along its nearly two-year orbit, Venus flew by at its fast pace, and then Mercury manically zipped by faster than them all. The weeks and months and years passed on the software’s clock without much out of the ordinary happening. But then, the alignment of Jupiter, Venus and the star Regulus formed a nearly perfect conjunction and became the second brightest object in the night sky. This is the famous Christmas Star that planetariums are delighted to show every year, and that we see on Christmas cards. Then Jupiter started a triple retrograde around Regulus, and when its third retrograde ended, Jupiter visually stopped. The “wandering star” had stopped directly over Bethlehem. I looked at the date. It was December 25th, 2 BC.
The data is undeniable, and it’s more dependable than historical records because our solar system is just one gigantic clock. Think about it, we set our watches based on the Earth’s movement around the sun; not the other way around. Our watches, cells phones, and clocks are all based on the official time of atomic clocks, but those atomic clocks are kept accurate by the Earth’s position relative to the sun. The astronomical data supports both the historical data and the biblical accounts, and all these point to December 25th as the date of the Nativity. The date that the magi showed up to worship Jesus.
So, Christmas isn’t a pagan holiday after all. It’s the day the Church has celebrated the birth of Christ, the day the magi came camelling into Bethlehem following a wandering star to worship the One who was born King of the Jews, the Messiah, Emmanuel.
If a Grinch in your life mentions the whole pagan thing, just say, “Actually, it’s the other way around. Christmas came first.”
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Dr. Rob Oberto is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God” available from Amazon. ©2017 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved. #ischristmaspagan
2 Luke 1:26-38
3 Matthew 1:20-25
4 Luke 2:8-15
5 Matthew 2:1-12
6 The Church Fathers. The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection. (Kindle Locations 6412-6416). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.