As we approach Christmas day this year, it sometimes raises the question: why is Christmas celebrated on December 25? As it turns out, not everyone agrees how the date was decided upon.
The holiday, which commemorates the birth of Jesus, is observed on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, but no one knows which date Jesus was actually born. The Bible does not mention Jesus’ exact birthday, so there are only clues to go on.
One possible theory? The Roman Empire, before it recognized Christianity, celebrated the rebirth of Sol Invictus (Roman god of the sun) on December 25, a date which coincided with the Roman festival Saturnalia, when people feasted and exchanged gifts. Many believe Christmas celebrations on December 25 were intended to coincide with these festivities.
This theory is only speculation, however. Many theologians claim that ancient Christian writings of the time don’t seem to point to an intermingling of Christian celebrations with pagan festivals.
Under Emperor Constantine, the Church in Rome began celebrating Christmas on December 25 in 336. Some say the date was chosen to outshine the Sol Invictus and pagan celebrations. But there’s much doubt around whether Christians had been trying to steal Sol Invictus’ thunder.
Another reason for the selection of December 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of Jesus’ crucifixion. As Christians developed the theological idea that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date, they set the date of his birth nine months later.
To create even more doubt about the date of Jesus’ birth, Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus was born six months after the birth of John the Baptist. Tradition has it that John was born at the time of Passover which can be any time between late March and late April. Six months later would make it between late September and late October.
No matter what the official reason was, church officials ultimately settled on December 25 at the end of the third century.
The world will likely never know how Christmas arrived at its selected date, but one thing’s for sure: It remains as popular as ever.