There is so much mythology behind Christmas and Winter Solstice holidays generally that it is hard to decide where to focus one’s attention, but for this Christmas season I’ve decided to write about the holiday’s ancient origins. Specifically, I’ll discuss the mythology underlying why our Christian ancestors decided to celebrate Christ’s physical birth (the Nativity), as opposed to other potentially more significant dates such as his miraculous conception (as told in Matthew and Luke), the visitation of the Magi (eventually celebrated as Epiphany), or his baptism, all of which were contenders in ancient times, and also the related question of why we settled on December 25 as the date of his birth.
Our oldest Gospel, that of Mark, contains no account of the birth of Jesus. Rather, it starts off with his baptism by John the Baptist. In that scene the Holy Spirit descends as a dove upon Jesus and a voice from heaven announces, “You are my Son” (Mark 1:10-11). Mark considered the baptism the key moment, because apparently in his view this was when Jesus became the Son of God, and possibly became divine as well (Ehrman, pp., 237-38). St. Paul too, in his epistles written several years before Mark, never mentions the birth of Jesus, saying only that he was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3-4, here saying that he was declared Son of God only upon his resurrection (rather than at baptism)). These earliest writings suggest no awareness of any story of Jesus’s birth; they did not consider this important. The sole concern was when Jesus became the Son of God and thus divine; but in no New Testament writing did this happen at his physical birth.
By the time Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, however, the landscape had changed. These gospels were written approximately 10-15 years after the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, during which Jerusalem and its Temple were razed, after which most Jews had started to lose hope of restoring the kingdom of Israel and of the coming of the eschatological kingdom of God on earth that Jewish apocalypticists (including John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul) had in their time preached as being imminent. Even more than before, Christianity became oriented toward gentiles in the larger Greco-Roman world, and so Christians had to convince pagans that Jesus was an extraordinary and divine being worthy of their veneration, to the exclusion of all pagan gods.
For this purpose a baptism story was not good enough. In the Greco-Roman world, extraordinary humans who people considered divine or half-divine were thought to have had miraculous births and precocious childhoods. Such myths and legends were a stock motif in a genre of literature known as infancy narratives (Meier, p. 209). Such miraculous birth stories were circulated, for example, about humans such as Pythagoras, Plato, the Olympic champion Theagenes, Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, and Apollonius of Tyana, among others (Miller, pp. 133-53), as well as about legendary figures such as Aeneas (MacDonald, pp. 15-17), Theseus, and Heracles. If Christianity was to make headway in this kind of culture, it would be most helpful if the birth of Jesus were shown to be likewise miraculous. Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives were thus designed chiefly to demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus, in order to establish him among gentiles as worthy of their exclusive veneration. This approach seems to have had an impact, because arguments subsequently arose between early Church fathers such as Origen and Justin Martyr on the one hand and pagans and Jews on the other about whether the Christian birth story imitated the pagan templates (Origen, Against Celsus,1.37; Justin Martyr, First Apology, 21.1; 60.1).
In the thinking of many early Christian groups, however, any attention to Jesus’s birth was misguided because such groups held the body in low esteem. The Docetists thought that Jesus was not human but pure spirit, so in their view his physical birth was a mere appearance, not a reality. The Gnostics considered the material world and the physical body profane, and therefore viewed Jesus’s physical birth as unimportant and focused instead on the manifestation of his divinity. Some proto-Orthodox Christian fathers such as Origen simply opposed the celebration of birthdays because it was a pagan practice (Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 10.22).
So if one should not celebrate Jesus’s birth, then what? Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist was a Jewish affair that would not gain traction as a holiday among gentiles; also, this event was often taken to imply that John was superior to Jesus, an idea which Christians resisted. So a doctrinally satisfying manifestation of his divinity directly to gentiles would be more important. The gospels are thus replete with stories of gentile conversions during Jesus’s ministry, but the story of the veneration of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12) fit this need especially well, including for proto-Orthodox Christians, because the Magi were gentile astrologers/magicians/wise men coming from afar in connection with Jesus’s birth to recognize Jesus’s nature and pay him homage. Making the holiday not about the birth itself but about recognition of the child Jesus’s divinity avoided both internal Christian doctrinal controversies and resemblances to paganism. As a result, by the 3rd century the veneration of the Magi became widely celebrated as the feast of the Epiphany, on January 6 (Kelly, pp. 15-16).
In parallel, however, St. Paul’s idea that Jesus was the new Adam who undid the original sin of the first Adam (the first Son of God) took hold. For many early Christians, this made the creation of Jesus important, and to them it made sense that Jesus came into being on the anniversary of the original creation of the world. Because of the traditional mythological symbolism of spring as a time of creation, the creation of the cosmos was thought to have occurred in the spring, with the first day in the Genesis 1 creation myth occurring on what would be the spring equinox (even though the sun did not exist until the 4th day!), then considered to be March 25 (Kelly, p. 16). But the Church father Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160- c. 240 CE) argued that it was Jesus’s conception that occurred on March 25, which meant that he was born 9 months later on December 25. It was this idea which took hold and endured. But why?
This idea conveniently put Jesus’s birth right on the winter solstice (in the Roman world thought to be on December 25th). The ancients considered this day the birthday of the sun, because it is from that day that it grows stronger each year (Kelly, p. 17). Solar symbolism played a role in the nativity feast catching on, and on that date. Solar imagery of Jesus was fueled by scripture. For instance, Christians considered that he was the “sun of righteousness” referenced in Malachi 4:2 who would arrive to overthrow the forces of evil in the world, Matthew 17:2 said that Jesus’s transfigured face shone like the sun, and Revelation 1:13-16 said that the Son of Man’s (i.e., Christ’s) face was like the sun shining. Jesus had acquired the traits of a solar hero. A mosaic in the necropolis under St. Peter’s at the Vatican that antedates the emperor Constantine portrays Christ as Sol (or Apollo-Helios) wearing the radiate crown and driving a chariot, thus adopting the old mythological motif of the sun crossing the sky in a chariot (see Illustration).
Then there was a fortuitous development in the Roman empire itself: Sun worship became popular. The emperor Elagabalus (reigned 218-222 CE), a Syrian who had been a priest of the Syrian sun god, Sol Invictus, established this deity’s cult as the chief cult in Rome. After Elagabalus was assassinated, attempts were made to suppress the cult, but it survived. The emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-275 CE) furthered the cult of Sol Invictus, in 274 proclaiming Sol to be the single official divine protector of the empire and the emperor; Aurelian was also the first emperor to have declared himself a god while still alive, rendering himself a roi soleil (Roll, p. 113). Scholars traditionally have held that Aurelian formally established December 25 as the birthday of Sol Invictus and instituted a festival of the god on that day, but in fact there is no record of him doing so, and so some scholars challenge that notion (e.g., Hijmans, pp. 384-85). Be that as it may, on a Roman calendar from 354 CE we do see this god being celebrated by chariot races on December 25 of that year, which is also where and when we see the first mention of the Nativity also being celebrated on December 25, although it was probably celebrated well before then.
As Christianity grew and Rome declined, the feast of the Nativity took over as the December 25 winter solstice holiday in Europe, with the characteristics of the Roman and Christian celebrations becoming combined. While it is popularly claimed that the Christians simply took over a pagan holiday and there is some truth to this, the reality was more complex. As mentioned above, the Christians already had their own good theological/mythical reasons for celebrating the Nativity on December 25, including even their own solar symbolism based in scripture. What eventually brought about the syncretism seems to stem from the actions of the first Christian emperor, Constantine (reigned 306-337 CE). Whereas Aurelian had sought to unify the empire under a universal religion of the sun, Constantine now sought to achieve the same through Christianity. Thus, in a happy coincidence, it became easy for both the rulers and their Christian subjects to utilize solar religion and symbolism in the Christian cause. The Romans were embracing Christianity and its symbols as much as Christians were copying pagan themes. It also helped that the god Mithras was considered a son of the Sun and his holiday was also on the solstice, and that the Saturnalia festival was held on December 17-23, both of which the Christian Nativity festival also subsumed.
Our celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25 thus came about as a result of ancient creation and solar mythologies rooted in both biblical and pagan traditions being affixed to the figure of Jesus.
Note: The mythology underlying Christmas is covered in more detail in my new book, The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae.
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Sources Cited and Bibliography
Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne (2014).
Freed, Edwin. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction. Sheffield, United Kingdom: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).
Hijmans, Steven. “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” Mouseion, Series III, Vol. 3 (2003), pp. 377-98.
Kelly, Joseph. The Feast of Christmas. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press (2010).
MacDonald, Dennis. Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield (2015).
Meier, John. A Marginal Jew, Volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person. New York: Doubleday (1991).
Miller, Robert. Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press (2003).
Roll, Susan. Toward the Origins of Christmas. Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House (1995).
Copyright Arthur George 2015