Note. This discussion has now been superseded in many respects. See these follow-up pieces: on Yule (2018), on the nativity stories in the gospels (2020), more on Yule (2021), a four-part series on ‘the dates of Jesus’ (2021), on the construction of the Julian calendar (2022), and on the origins of Santa (2022).
The later pieces also correct a few errors made here. Notably: there’s no reason to reject the 25 December date found in Hippolytus as spurious; the date of the solstice in the Julian calendar isn’t quite as straightforward as I thought; and it turns out there is a 9th century source linking Pope Julius I to the 25 December date, though it’s almost certainly spurious.
Christmas ... blends elements including both the feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra.Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Roman religion’
Every year around Christmas, the world’s mythbusters love to remind everyone that Christmas is really a pagan festival, and that Christians plagiarised it by enforcing their own beliefs on a pre-existing set of customs. The choice of festival varies: sometimes it’s Saturnalia, sometimes the winter solstice, sometimes the birthday of Mithras, sometimes a Roman civic festival of Sol Invictus (‘the unconquered sun’). Often it’s a combo: for example, you may hear that Saturnalia was a solstice festival that the Christians corrupted.
Many Christians seem happy to accept this picture of things too, minus the hostile spin. After all there doesn’t need to be anything very sinister about using a well-known festival to hold a celebration of your own. It's happened to Christian festivals too: St Valentine's Day was a Christian feast day for a legendary martyr of the late 3rd century, now it's mainly a day for celebrating romantic love. No evil conspiracy, and hardly anyone actually minds. Why not adapt a pre-existing festival for new purposes?
Anyway, soon the mythbuster-busters come out to play too. They'll dutifully point out:
- There's no evidence to link Christmas to Saturnalia, and in fact Saturnalia continued to be celebrated by Christians, alongside Christmas for at least a century and probably longer.
- Sol Invictus (a) was a specific local cult associated with a specific temple in Rome, (b) there were numerous sun cults in Rome and Sol Invictus was just one of them, and (c) the festival of Sol Invictus on 25 December isn't attested any earlier than Christmas and is very likely the later of the two.
- Not only did Mithras' birthday have no influence on Christian thinking: Mithras didn't even have a birthday. He emerged from a rock.
- The solstice is not on 25 December, and any Greco-Roman armed with a gnomon would be able to tell that reasonably accurately.
In the early stages of researching this post I was firmly on the side of the mythbuster-busters. That's mostly still true: Christmas has absolutely nothing to do with Mithras or Saturnalia.
But not entirely. There is a bit of mythbuster-buster-busting to do here. The most important point, as it turns out, is that there almost certainly is a link between Christmas and the solstice. That, in turn, creates a fairly strong presumption that there is a link between the date of Christmas and the tradition of linking Jesus with sun imagery. But as we shall see, it does not follow that there was any kind of plagiarisation between Jesus and Sol Invictus, in either direction.
Let's do the mythbuster-busting first, then we’ll get onto the mythbuster-buster-busting. (This'll be a long post, in honour of the season: I'll change gear down after the new year.)
Saturnalia was a Roman festival of Saturn on 17 December. Celebrations continued after Saturnalia for several days, finishing sometime between 19 and 23 December depending on which century we're talking about. It may originally have been a farming festival; the evidence is unclear. It was associated with an overturning of various regulations and social norms: free citizens often wore a freedman’s hat, the pilleus, and played gambling games that were normally illegal; some enslaved people were permitted to dine with the people who enslaved them. People would exchange gifts of candles and clay figurines.
There's no link to Christmas. The date? No: they're not on the same date. (Hey, what’s eight days between friends? Well, it's the difference between corroboration and no corroboration.) The fact that Saturnalia might have had some chance to have an influence on Christmas isn't evidence that it did.
Christmas trees? Yule logs? Holly and ivy? No, none of those come from Saturnalia. Individual customs may have pagan origins in some cases -- the Yule log may possibly be based on a late mediaeval Anglo-French or South Slavic custom -- but that has nothing to do with the claim that Christmas is based on Saturnalia.
Gift-giving? No: the magi may have given tribute to Jesus (traditionally at Epiphany, 6 January), but the modern custom of gift-giving at Christmas only goes back to the 16th century. That is when Luther introduced the Christkind in an attempt to discourage veneration of St Nicholas, who was associated with gift-giving on his feast day of 6 December. In late mediaeval Germany gift-giving had also been associated with the feast of the Holy Innocents, on 28 December. It's possible that Christmas charity from aristocrats to the poor goes back a bit further. But there's certainly no evidence to suggest continuity all the way back to when Saturnalia was still being celebrated.
And that brings us to the kicker: Saturnalia was still being celebrated, by Christians to boot, at least as late as the 5th century, alongside Christmas. By that time it was no longer a festival in honour of Saturn, in much the same way that Christmas has little to do with Jesus for modern atheists. But it'd be bizarre to conclude that Christmas, which was certainly being celebrated in the 4th century, was based on another festival that continued to co-exist with it for at least 100 years (and probably longer).
Mithraism was a popular cult in the western Roman world in the first few centuries CE. Very little textual evidence about Mithraism survives: we have to rely heavily on the archaeology of mithraea, underground churches of Mithras. And interpretation of that evidence is very often uncertain and controversial. Popular accounts are even worse — more games of speculation than anything else.
- No, Mithras didn’t have a virgin birth, and he wasn’t born on 25 December. Mithras wasn’t even born: he came out of a rock.
- No, three wise men did not visit Mithras at his birth. (a) He didn't have a birth. (b) This idea is entirely derived from a single 1864 book that seems to have mistaken Mithras’ attendants Cautes and Cautopates for ‘wise men’. There isn't a shred of ancient evidence for it.
- There is no good evidence of a concept of salvation through blood in Mithraism. This idea was based on a single inscription, but its reading isn't remotely clear-cut and it requires very heavy supplementation to get it to mean anything at all. (Here's what the inscription looked like in 1930; here’s the most recent professional sketch of it. Go on, you try deciphering it.)
- No, Mithras didn’t die on a cross. That’s completely made up.
- Mithras didn’t have twelve disciples, get buried and rise three days later, have a festival that coincided with Easter, and he didn't get called a ‘good shepherd’, ‘the way, the truth, and the light’, ‘logos’, ‘redeemer’, or ‘Messiah’. All of these things were made up by Dorothy Murdock, writing under the pseudonym ‘Acharya S’, in a series of books starting in 1999.
There’s no connection at all. Let’s just drop this one: it’s silly, and life is short.
3. How far back does Christmas = 25 December go?
The earliest explicit evidence for the 25 December date of Christmas is in a document known as the ‘Chronography of 354’, a compilation of histories and calendars compiled in the year 354. One calendar, a catalogue of martyrs' feast days, has the following as its first entry:
VIII kal. Ian. -- natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae.
Eight days before the kalends of January (i.e. 25 December): Christ born in Bethlehem in Judaea.
But 354 isn't when Christmas was invented, it represents the earliest explicit attestation of Christ's birth being celebrated on 25 December. The likelihood is that the choice of date was earlier; though it's arguable whether that means a couple of decades earlier, or a couple of centuries earlier.
Digression #1: false leads. A number of online sources claim that Pope Julius I instituted 25 December as the date of the nativity in the year 350. This is untrue. The source usually cited is 'Manual of Liturgical History, vol. 2 (1955)', a book which on further inspection turns out not to exist. Wikipedia instead cites the History Channel -- and we all know how reliable they are. Other sources cite Julius Africanus as evidence that the date was fixed by the early 3rd century; but the surviving fragments of Africanus contain no reference to this (see S. Hijmans, 'Sol Invictus, the winter solstice, and the origins of Christmas', Mouseion 3 (2003): 377-98, at 377 n. 3; cf. Wallraff's 2007 edition of the Africanus fragments).
There are a few earlier sources that can potentially be taken as pointing towards celebration of Christ's birth -- or the Incarnation, depending on the theological flavour of the source -- at an earlier date. They are:
The first two of these earlier references are uncertain and wrong, respectively, but the third and fourth are decidedly possible. The upshot is that 354 is the earliest uncontroversial date for an assignment of Jesus' birth to 25 December; but the date may well have been already decided at the time of the Quartodecimans in the mid-2nd century, 200 years earlier.
|Correction, Dec. 2023. (1) In fact the Hippolytos fragment appears to be genuine: see note at end. The Hippolytos fragment puts the 25 december date for Christmas back to around 220 CE. (2) The Chronography of 354 dates to 354 CE in its present form, but its content shows that the material was compiled in 336 CE. (Hippolytos is still earlier.)
4. The winter solstice
The winter solstice does not fall on 25 December. The ancients were capable of identifying the solstices to within a day or so using gnomon measurements; and it seems to have been absolutely routine to do so.
However, there’s more to this one than meets the eye. The Julian calendar was not as well calibrated as the modern Gregorian calendar, so the date of the solstice drifted with respect to the calendar date. Around the time of Jesus' birth, the solstice was on 23 December; by the time of the Chronography of 354, it was 20 December. (In 1580, just before the Gregorian calendar was introduced, it had drifted all the way back to 11 December!)
And yet Roman writers regularly quote the date of the solstice as the 25th of December. Here’s Columella, a 1st century CE agricultural writer, on the subject (De re rustica 9.14.12):
ab occasu Vergiliarum ad brumam, quae fere conficitur circa VIII kalendas Ianuarii in octava parte Capricorni ...
From the setting of the Pleiades to midwinter, which occurs roughly around the 8th day before the kalends of January (i.e. 25 December), at 8° in Capricorn ...
We find similar wording in Pliny the Elder, also 1st cent. CE (Natural history 18.221):
... omnesque eae differentiae fiunt in octavis partibus signorum, bruma Capricorni a. d. VIII kal. Ian. fere.
... and all these changes occur at 8° in the (zodiacal) signs, the winter solstice in Capricorn on roughly the 8th day before the kalends of January (i.e. 25 December).
Note the parallels: the use of fere 'roughly', and the reference to 8° in Capricorn (most Babylonian-Greek astronomers reckoned the equinoxes and solstices as occurring when the sun was in the centre of each sign, i.e. at the 8° mark within that sign). Servius, in the 4th century, quotes the date by itself without the other parallels (commentary on Aeneid 7.720).
(Here, by the way, are links to published editions: Columella, and Pliny. The dating of the solstice to the 25th obviously worried the translators of these editions: they both mistranslate the date. This doesn’t reflect any ambiguity over how to interpret Roman dates: there’s absolutely no doubt that a. d. VIII kal. Ian. means 25 December. The translators here are either slipping up or being dishonest.)
Digression #2: why do Roman writers report the date of the solstice as 25 December? The textual parallels between Columella and Pliny, and the fact that the date was already wrong by their time, suggest they are both based on an older source. A few pages earlier Pliny discusses three treatises by Sosigenes, who designed the Julian calendar (Nat. hist. 18.212). Sosigenes can’t be the ultimate origin of the date either: in his time, in 46 BCE, the solstice had already drifted to 23 December. But he’s fairly likely to be Columella’s and Pliny’s immediate source. Sosigenes must surely have been aware that the 25 December date was already inaccurate -- hence the fere 'roughly' in both Columella and Pliny. (It's likely that Sosigenes wrote in Greek, but fere could easily be a translation of φαύλως. And it’s not actually impossible that he might have written in Latin, working for a Roman audience as he was. [Additional note, 19/1/16: the fact that the sources that give the solstice as 25 December are in Latin, and that there are none in Greek, also tends to suggest that Sosigenes wrote in Latin. Pliny is our only source for Sosigenes.])
R. Hannah, Greek and Roman calendars (2005) p. 151, suggests Hipparchus, in the 2nd century BCE, as the ultimate source. Pliny’s discussion of the periods between equinoxes and solstices in the surrounding passage appears to be taken from Hipparchos’ figures (94½ days from vernal equinox to summer solstice, etc.; see O. Neugebauer, History of ancient mathematical astronomy vol. 1 pp. 57-8 and p. 307, citing testimony from Ptolemy’s Almagest). However, Hipparchos still isn't early enough to get a solstice on 25 December. The last time the solstice actually fell on 25 December, using the retrojected Julian calendar, was in
So Eudoxus must be the ultimate source of the date. Here's how I suggest reconstructing the probable timeline:
|Corrections, Dec. 2023. (1) The role of Sosigenes is very overblown. The calendar revisions were the doing of Caesar himself, who explained himself in his lost work De astris (‘on the stars’). (2) The measurement of the solstice/equinox dates probably actually originates with Kallippos in the 4th century BCE: the Kallippan cycle gave the solar year an average length of 365.25 days, and was the basis for the Julian/Alexandrian calendar revisions in the late 1st century BCE. For more info on both these points, see this 2022 piece.
Even if you don’t buy my argument in the digression above about the ultimate origin of the date, Columella and Pliny leave no doubt that 25 December was popularly regarded as the solstice.
Saturnalia, as we saw, is off by eight days: that's mere coincidence. But when Christmas falls exactly on the traditional date of the solstice, it’s a bit more of a stretch to say it’s coincidence.
5. Jesus and solstice festivals?
Sol Invictus. Many modern readers see a link between Christmas and the festival of Sol Invictus, ‘the unconquered sun’. This is often combined with a claim that (a) this equates to a celebration of Mithras and/or his birthday; or (b) Christmas is derived from the cult of the emperor, who in certain periods was often depicted with sun iconography.
The ultimate basis for the idea is a section of the Chronology of 354 known as the Philocalian calendar, which lists off civic festivals and other occasions in the city of Rome. In December it lists the following item:
VIII -- N̅·INVICTI·C̅M̅·XXX
8th (day before kalends of January, i.e. 25 December) -- festival of the Unconquered: thirty games ordered
Here N̅ stands for natalis (‘festival’) and C̅M̅ stands for circenses missi (‘games ordered’).
The confusion with Jesus is encouraged by the fact that in Latin natalis comes from a word meaning ‘birthday’: so you will often hear that the birth of Christ was chosen to coincide with the ‘birth’ of Sol Invictus. That is not the meaning of natalis in the Chronology of 354: there it refers to any kind of celebration. Compare for example the entries for 25 January, a natalis for the arrival of the annual papyrus shipment; 21 April, a natalis of the city. (See also M. Salzman, On Roman time (California, 1990) p. 119 n. 12, p. 126 n. 22).
There are two other equally important objections to the idea that Christmas was derived from the festival of Sol Invictus.
- Priority. The festival is first attested in the Chronology of 354, exactly the same document that gives us the first attestation of Christmas on 25 December. There's no basis for ascribing priority to one or the other. The Invictus celebration may be linked to an important temple of the Sun god founded by emperor Aurelian in 294 CE, but that's no more solid than the arguments I offered above for earlier allusions to Christmas.
- Lots of sun cults. Sol Invictus was just one of many aspects of the sun that received cult in Rome. In the 354 Chronology alone we find three other festivals of the sun: 6 June, the crowning of the Colossus; 28 August, the [natalis] Solis et Lunae; 19-22 October, the ludi Solis. Out of the four, the June festival is the one most likely to be linked to the imperial cult; either the August or October festivals stand just as much a chance as the December one of being linked to Aurelian's temple. S. E. Hijmans, Sol: the Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome (diss. Groningen, 2009) pp. 483-7 lists off three other temples to Sol within Rome; at p. 485 n. 17 he opts for 19 October as the festival of Aurelian's sun-cult.
And, in case it needs to be pointed out, the 25 December festival has nothing to do with Mithras. Mithras was depicted with sun iconography too, and was regularly called Sol Invictus Mithras or Deus Sol Mithras, but Mithraism was a mystery religion practised underground all over the empire; the 25 December festival was an official civic festival observed at a specific temple in Rome by the city of Rome.
Brumalia. Contrary to popular belief, solstice festivals were not a dime a dozen in antiquity: we have evidence of midsummer festivals from the Greek world, since that was the new year in Greek calendars; but not for the Romans. Brumalia is a rarity, as a clear case of a genuine winter solstice festival. In fact we're not even told explicitly that it was a solstice festival: we have to infer that, from the fact that bruma is the Latin for 'winter solstice', derived from an archaic word meaning 'shortest (day)'.
Christmas isn't based on Brumalia either. Brumalia isn't of any great antiquity: it's first attested in Tertullian (On idolatry 10.3), in the late 2nd century CE. It's fairly obscure, and we don't know very much about it: we do know it involved athletic games and gift-giving (but as we saw above, gift-giving wasn't introduced to Christmas until the modern era). Like Saturnalia, it continued to be celebrated long after Christmas was in place, and by Christians: in the 6th century, emperor Justinian organised a civic festival of Brumalia from which a celebratory oration by one Choricius of Gaza survives (Oration 13 ed. Foerster and Richtsteig; not in Boissonade's 1849 edition); by that time it had absorbed some elements of Saturnalia, both of them pagan festivals.
The solstice as a purely astronomical event. So it seems likely that Christmas is related to the solstice. But there's no particular reason to see it as linked to any pagan festival: we've firmly discounted Saturnalia, Mithras, and Brumalia, and there's only a potential case for Sol Invictus.
The most likely situation is that both Christmas and the Invictus celebration were assigned to 25 December because that was the traditional date of the solstice. That is, one wasn't borrowed from the other in any sense: they were sibling festivals, cognate rather than derivative. Note that we have evidence for the traditional date of the solstice 300 years before our earliest explicit evidence for the date of either festival. For Christians the motivation would be that early Christians already thought of Jesus as the 'sun of righteousness' (Malachi 4.2), as we saw above.
However, note well the discussion above of the relationship between Jesus' death-date and birthday: the death-date was primary, and the birthday calculated from that. That is, the important thing about 25 December wasn't that it was the traditional date of the solstice: it was exactly nine months after the traditional date of the vernal equinox, on 25 March. If that is indeed the basis for the date of Christmas, it's not because Jesus was understood as the sun returning light after a season of darkness: it's because his death and resurrection were believed to be represented by the centre-point of the sun's waxing, and therefore central in a cosmic sense too -- in the middle of life's journey, so to speak.
- Hijmans, S. 2003. ‘Sol Invictus, the winter solstice, and the origins of Christmas.’ Mouseion 3: 377–398. [DOI]
- Hijmans, S. 2009. Sol: the sun in the art and religions of Rome. Diss. Groningen. See esp. chs. 5 and 9. Also published 2023 by Brill. [Rijksuniversiteit Groningen | Brill]
- Mosshammer, A. A. 2008. The Easter computus and the origins of the Christian era. Oxford.
- Roll, S. K. 1995. Towards the origins of Christmas. Kampen.
Endnote: pseudo-Hippolytus on the date of Christmas and Easter
Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel 4.23.3 (M. Lefèvre, Hippolyte: Commentaire sur Daniel, Sources chrétiennes vol. 14, Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1947):
ἡ γὰρ πρώτη παρουσία τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν ἡ ἔνσαρκος, ἐν ᾗ γεγέννηται ἐν Βηθλεέμ, ἐγένετο πρὸ ὀκτὼ καλανδῶν ἰανουαρίων, ἡμέρᾳ τετράδι, βασιλεύοντος Αὐγούστου τεσσαρακοστὸν καὶ δεύτερον ἔτος, ἀπὸ δὲ Ἀδὰμ πεντακισχιλιοστῷ καὶ πεντακοσιοστῷ ἔτει· ἔπαθεν δὲ τριακοστῷ τρίτῳ ἔτει πρὸ ὀκτὼ καλανδῶν ἀπριλίων, ἡμέρᾳ παρασκευῇ, ὀκτωκαιδεκάτῳ ἔτει Τιβερίου Καίσαρος, ὑπατεύοντος Ῥούφου καὶ Ῥουβελλίωνος.
For the first advent of the lord among us in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, took place on the 8th day before the kalends of January (i.e. 25 December), a Wednesday (lit. 'the fourth day'), in the 42nd year of Augustus' reign, in the 5500th year from Adam; and he suffered in his 33rd year, on the 8th day before the kalends of April (i.e. 25 March), a Friday (lit. 'day of preparation'), in the 18th year of Tiberius Caesar's reign, in the consulship of Rufus and Rubellio.
Even if this were authentic, it would be either terribly corrupt or terribly incompetent. The year numbers make no sense. Augustus ruled only 40 years, so the birth date makes no sense unless the author thought Augustus' reign began in 44 BCE, immediately after Julius Caesar's death: in that case he would mean 1 BCE; that year 25 December fell on Saturday by modern reckoning, or within a day or two of that by Roman reckoning (Roman reckoning was not fully in synch with modern reckoning until 8 CE): certainly not a Wednesday. On the death date: the 18th year of Tiberius' reign began in September 31 CE, but the consulship of 'Rufus and Rubellio' (errors for C. Fufius Geminus and L. Rubellius Geminus) was in 29 CE. March 29 CE was in the 15th year of Tiberius' reign. Yet the consuls' names imply that the writer means the year 29 CE, and 25 March did fall on a Friday that year. A suggestion appears dotted around a few early sources that the sky darkening at Jesus' death (Mark 15:33) may be linked to a solar eclipse over Jersualem in 29 CE -- but the eclipse was in November of that year, not March/April. [Note, 19/1/16: just as a by-the-way, some modern enthusiasts instead link the report of darkness at Jesus' death to a solar eclipse in March 33 ... but that eclipse was over the southern Indian Ocean, and was certainly not visible in Jerusalem!]
|Correction, Dec. 2023. In fact there’s no reason to reject the Hippolytos fragment, as I explain in this 2021 piece. Kellner rejected it as spurious in 1901, because (1) the quoted year disagrees with Hippolytos’ paschal table, and (2) the use of multiple calendar era systems is characteristic of 9th–10th century computistic research. Roll follows Kellner without going into the evidence in detail, and at the time I wrote this in 2015, I followed Roll. However, both of Kellner’s arguments are flat-out wrong. Ancient figures like Julius Africanus and Eusebius clearly illustrate the careful (and frequently erroneous) work done in antiquity on synchronising era and regnal year systems. Hippolytos’ flaky figures are entirely in keeping with 3rd–4th century Christian chronography. As a result Hippolytos, writing around 220 CE, stands as our earliest source for the 25 December date. See further this 2015 article by Thomas Schmidt.
Incidentally, we do not have adequate evidence to tell in what year 14 Nisan (Hebrew) might have been considered to correspond to 25 March (Julian). Modern reckoning is no use, as the Hebrew calendar at the time was observational; modern reckoning developed over the course of the 1st millennium CE.
[Note, 19/1/16: I've altered the wording and flow in a few passages to make my writing slightly less contorted. I've left annotations in the places where I've changed the content.]
[Note, 24/12/23: I’ve become aware that some people are still looking at this to get there information. Ongoing investigation reveals new information, though, and I now know that some of what I wrote in 2015 is inaccruate. I’ve added a note at the top to redirect readers to better information.]