By Tim Lambert

Why do we celebrate Christmas on 25 December? The Bible does not say which day Jesus was born on. But early in the 3rd century, two Christians Hippolytus (c.170-235) and Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) thought Jesus died on 25 March. They thought he must also have been conceived on 25 March because they thought the day of his conception must reflect the day of his death. If he was born on 25 March he must have been born on 25 December exactly 9 months later. Christians gradually accepted 25 December as the date of Christmas. A calendar written in 354 mentions 25 December as the birthday of Jesus. I should add that in the Roman Era birthdays were not considered important. Christmas was not an important festival as it is today. Easter was far more important.

You sometimes read that Pope Julius I fixed 25 December as the date of Christmas in the year 350. This claim is false. By the early 3rd century some Christians thought 25 December was the birthday of Jesus. The date was gradually accepted by the Church. This website debunks the claim in detail. You also often come across a claim that Pope Leo I fixed 25 December as the date of Christmas in 440. In reality, Christians were celebrating Christmas on 25 December long before Pope Leo I was born.

Myths about Roman festivals

You sometimes hear that Christians set 25 December as the date of Christmas to replace the pagan festival of Saturnalia. The Roman festival of Saturnalia began on 17 December. Originally it was only one day. Later it was extended to 3 days (17-19 December) and finally to 7 days (17-23 December). It did NOT include the date 25 December. It's true that Saturnalia was near to Christmas. But the Romans celebrated many festivals, throughout the year. If you had to choose a date for Christmas you would be hard-pressed to find a date that was not close to or on a pagan festival! There is no evidence that Christmas has any connection with the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Another often-repeated claim is that Christians fixed 25 December as the date of Christmas because it replaced the pagan festival of Natalis Solis Invictus. It means the birthday of the invincible Sun. But there is no mention of the festival of Sol Invictus until the year 354 by which time at least some Christians already believed Jesus was born on 25 December. Followers of the cult of Sol Invictus worshipped the sun. The cult was popularised in Rome by Emperor Aurelian. In 274 he dedicated a temple to the sun god, Sol Invictus. But the first mention of a festival of Sol Invictus was nearly 80 years later in the year 354. (By then at least some Christians were celebrating Christmas on 25 December). There is no evidence of any connection between the festival of Sol Invictus and Christmas.

This website thoroughly debunks the myth that Christmas is celebrated on 25 December because of a pagan Roman festival.

Myths about Saxon and Viking festivals

You sometimes hear that Christians nicked Christmas from a Northern European festival called Yule. But in Anglo-Saxon England Yule was not a festival. Yule was simply the Anglo-Saxon word for mid-winter (December and January). By the 9th century, Yule came to mean Christmas. The word Christmas (Christ-mass) was first recorded in the 11th century but the word yule continued to be used for long afterward. The custom of burning a Yule log was first mentioned in 1725. There is no evidence it has any connection with paganism.

It is true that in Scandinavia the Vikings did have a winter festival called Jol, which lasted several days and involved lots of drinking. There is some dispute about exactly when the festival was held but the earliest sources say it was in January. It began on either 13 or 14 of January and involved several nights of drinking. However, when the Norse people became Christians Jol was abolished and they began celebrating Christmas instead. The Viking festival of Jol obviously has no connection with Christmas. Christians were celebrating Christmas on 25 December long before they had any contact with the Vikings. Another myth is that Christmas trees have a pagan origin. In fact, the custom of decorating Christmas trees was first recorded in Germany in the 15th century. There is no evidence it has any link with paganism. Nobody really knows why the Germans started decorating trees at Christmas. Maybe it just looked nice.

Yet another myth is that kissing under the mistletoe is derived from a pagan custom. In fact, it was first recorded in the 18th century. In the Middle Ages and long afterward people used to decorate churches with flowers, if available, and with evergreen plants in winter. In the 17th century and 18th-century people decorated their homes with holly, ivy, and mistletoe at Christmas. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe was first recorded in 1784. Nobody knows how the custom began but again there is no evidence of any link with pagan religion.

A History of Christmas