“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Luke 2:8. This is a part of the infancy gospels that are very familiar to us. The shepherds out in the fields with their flocks and being visited by the Heavenly Host and told to go find the Christ child. If this is indeed true, then this throws the date of December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth into shadow. The flocks were kept in corrals unwatched at night every season but lambing time, which took place in the spring. Only during lambing times were shepherds in the fields with their flocks to watch for any ewes about to give birth. Although some advocate argue sheep reserved for temple sacrifices would have grazed unfettered even in winter. So how did we settle on December 25 as the celebration of Christ’s birth? One word. Syncretism.
The early Church was not much concerned with the date of Christ’s birth as his death and resurrection were the main focus of their teaching. Some Church fathers even announced it was sinful to even try to figure out the exact date and celebrate it. It was compared to celebrating Christ’s birthday “as though He were a King Pharaoh.” However, as the infancy gospels gained popularity, so theologians tried to pin down the date and came up with a hodgepodge- January 1, January 6, March 25 and May 20. The first recorded mention of Christmas being celebrated on December 25 is in 336 during the reign of the Emperor Constantine. Due to his experience at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was busy making Christianity the main religion of the Roman Empire. He was facing some stiff competition.
Many religions have a main holiday on the winter solstice, which is right around December 25. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by James George Frazer describes rituals of the Egyptians depicting the new born sun as an infant and other cultures leaving their shrines on midnight of the winter solstice crying, “The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!” The Virgin in this case being a goddess not Mary. The famous Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia was also celebrated at this time. One of the main religions was the cult of Mithras. This cult originated in Persia and swept the Roman world in the first century BCE. Emperor Aurelian had even made it the state religion. Natalis Solis Invicti, or “Birthday of the Invincible Sun God”, Mithras was installed as state holiday in 274 CE. These were all popular and beloved celebrations. Constantine was facing an uphill battle to get people to give these up. Enter syncretism.
Syncretism is the merging or amalgamation of the customs of different religions or cultures. In short, Christianity plopped their new holiday of Christmas squarely on top of the existing celebrations. Many of the symbols were co-opted as well- Christmas trees from the Germans, mistletoe from the Celts, snowflakes from the northern climates. Early Christian writers did not refer to a conspiracy to take over pagan holidays. There was not “War on Yule” as it were. There seems to be an organic move to rebrand these celebrations that people liked into one which fit with the new Christian religion. We do not even get the hint that these celebrations were set deliberately over the old pagan ones until 12th century writings. Christmas trees and other traditions are also thought to have been borrowed at a later date. That does not mean that there was not more than coincidence that placed Christmas in December. In 661, Pope Gregory the Great sent a letter to missionaries in Britain recommending the local festivals be celebrated as the feasts of the Christian martyrs.
As with many things, it was probably a combination of calculation and coincidence. Because of it we have a lovely holiday to celebrate in the deep midwinter.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Sources available on request