The Joyce Hill Column
The Date of Christmas
Only Matthew and Luke tell us about the Nativity, and neither specifies the season of the year, never mind the date. So why is our celebration on 25 December? I’ve often heard it said that it was a Christian take-over of the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia. However, Saturnalia happened earlier in the month than Christmas does. It’s true that the sacrifice to Saturn was followed by a public banquet and then about a week of partying and private gift-giving. But if the partying and gift-giving that we associate with Christmas owe something to what went on at Saturnalia, cheering up the darker days of winter, it could only be seen as a transposition of pagan practice, not a take-over of Saturnalia itself. And in any case, the non-religious revelry that we go in for was not a significant feature of the celebration of Christmas at first. So where did the date of Christmas come from, and when was it adopted?
Christians initially focused on the Redemption, celebrating every Sunday as the day of the Resurrection, and then, from the second century, observing an annual celebration. The Nativity did not figure in the liturgy until the fourth century, when various theological controversies, in emphasising the human as well as the divine nature of Christ, drew attention to the narrative of his life, key events of which then came to be commemorated in a yearly cycle.
On a practical front, once the annual liturgical cycle started developing in ways which work through Christ’s life, then his birth needed to be celebrated ahead of his death — ‘ahead’, that is, in terms of the emerging church-year, which had a different time-frame from that of the secular calendar. With Easter already necessarily being a springtime feast, following the information in the Gospels that Christ was crucified at the Passover season, the Nativity had to go somewhere else, nearer the beginning of the church’s year. But there was more to it than that — and here we get into theological interpretation and symbolic calculations. Christ was seen as a Second Adam (as already signalled in the Epistles), and so there was something to be said, symbolically, for choosing 25 March, the first day of spring, as the date for commemorating beginning of Christ’s life and thus the New Life that was thereby opened up through the Crucifixion and Resurrection. But then, as a refinement of this, a north African scholar, Julius Sextus Africanus, proposed that this date could best be used for the conception itself (now celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation), with the result that the celebration of the birth follows nine months later, on 25 December. Another symbolic dimension was to say that, if Jesus died on 25 March (as some early scholars thought, fixing on a set date, for various reasons, as an approximate equivalent to the moveable feast of the Passover), and this was then also seen as the date of his conception, his life would have had a neat cyclical completion. This pattern, known as ‘integral age’, was symbolically associated in Jewish tradition with the life of the prophets, and was thought by many Christian interpreters to be equally applicable to Jesus, the greatest prophet of all. If that’s where you start, the Nativity still ends up being 25 December, nine months later. Since this was in the darkest part of winter for the then known world, it allowed for the development of evocative symbolism about the anticipation of new life, the coming of light into the world, and so forth.