25 December and Sol Invicta and all that!
25 December and Sol Invicta and all that!
One of our known unknowns is the birth date of Jesus: we simply do not know the date of his birth. But we celebrate his birth on 25 December. A much publicised story is that this date was chosen because it was the Roman festival of Sol Invicta: the sun, unconquered at mid-winter.
There is however another possibility. Even a possibility that the Sol Invicta festival date may have been chosen to try to outshine the feast of the birth of Jesus! The Roman festival was inaugurated in 274 by Emperor Aurelian. (Ireland was well ahead with Newgrange.) Before this, celebrations associated with Rome’s two temples of the sun were not linked in any way to solstices or equinoxes. It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion, by the Syrian Dionysius bar-Salibi, that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. Bible scholars in the 18th and 19th century latched onto this, and so we have the common story today.
The other possibility seems to have deeper roots. It goes back to a Jewish tradition that people specially chosen and blessed by God for a central role would die on the same date as that of their birth, in the fullness of years. In Deuteronomy 31 we have the story of Moses. He spoke to the people: “Today I am 120 years old and can no longer be your leader…” The number 120 years represents a “fullness of years”, symbolic of divine blessing. Moses then presented the Law in writing to the priests, and recited a long song. God then instructed Moses (32:48) that same day to climb Mount Nebo, where he would die. Operatically, Moses blesses the tribes, and goes to Mount Nebo for his death (34:5).
There is also a Jewish tradition that King David was born and died at the Feast of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks (7×7), what we call Pentecost, the day the Torah was given. The sermon of Peter as presented in Acts 2 quotes from Psalm 16 and Psalm 110, both of which are subtitled “of David.”
How does this relate to Christmas? It can get complicated with different calendars (Jewish, Greek, Roman) and calculations. Early Eastern and Western Christians had different concerns, and we still differ on the date for celebrating Christmas and Easter. We already know Jesus was born perhaps four to six years B.C.! It’s the symbolic value we look for rather than mathematical accuracy. Numbers in Scripture often have symbolic value: seven days of creation, ten Commandments, twelve tribes of Israel, forty years on Mount Sinai or in the desert (for Israel and Jesus), and David’s reign of forty years, 144,000 chosen.
Early Christians were concerned more about the date of the death of Jesus than his birth. By the time of Tertullian some second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa appear to have concluded that he died at Passover, 25 March in the years 29. We know this is not accurate, but consider the date: 25 March. If the death of Jesus occurred on the same day as his conception (they were well aware of the nine months gestation), this would lead directly to 25 December as the date of birth. If this is how it developed, then the date of 25 December arises from considering 25 March as the date of the death of Jesus, in the fullness of time when all is accomplished. This on a Friday, the sixth day of creation when heaven and earth were completed with all their array (Genesis 2:1). Jesus is laid to his Sabbath day of rest in preparation for the new creation at Easter. (Many older parishes have an octagonal Baptism font to symbolise this.)
If this be the case, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian (an opponent of Christians) on 25 December 274, was perhaps an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians, whose strength was growing at a time when the Roman empire was under threat.
The first evidence of Christians celebrating December 25th as the date of the Lord’s nativity comes from Rome some years after Aurelian, in A.D. 336, but there is evidence from both the Greek East and the Latin West that Christians attempted to figure out the date of Christ’s birth long before they began to celebrate it liturgically, even in the second and third centuries. We cannot at present be certain about this. Perhaps further investigation my cast more light on it, but it may be the case that our 25 December celebration was never an attempt to take over a pagan festival; rather, vice versa.
For some further symbolic diversion for the season:
Is there any visitor to the ACP website who is familiar with a tradition in Ireland (and elsewhere?) of praying the Hail Mary 4,000 times during Advent? I had not heard of it until recently, from a friend of mine. The best sense I can make of it is symbolic. James Ussher, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin 1526 to 1556, calculated the date of creation as 4004 B.C., so perhaps the 4,000 Hail Mary’s represent the years from the promise to Adam and Eve of the son of the woman, he who would crush the head of the serpent. It would not be my way of praying, but people have done it!
And a final item: does any visitor know of a tradition in Ireland or elsewhere of praying the following prayer 15 times each day from the Feast of St Andrew on 30 November until Christmas? The number 15 may arise from including the prayer as a “trimming” after each decade of the Rosary.
HAIL, and blessed be the hour and moment
at which the Son of God was born
of the most pure Virgin Mary
at a stable at midnight in Bethlehem
in piercing cold.
At that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee,
to hear my prayers and grant my desires
through Jesus Christ and His most Blessed Mother.
Now, you must be ready for Christmas!
My mother taught us the Hail and Blessed be the Hour and Moment prayer. We said it when lighting the advent wreath each evening during advent and when lighting the Christmas candle on Christmas Eve. I continued to say the prayer with my children when we lit the advent candles.
Two addenda to the above article:
Augustine (354-430 AD)writes of the tradition that Jesus died on the same date as his conception:
“He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since.” De Trinitate IV,5.
Tertullian (160-230 AD) writes of the death of Jesus “on the eighth day before the calends of April” (25 March). An Answer to the Jews, Ch. 8.
On the 4000 Hail Marys: Perhaps a simpler origin could be a connection with the Rosary. Advent as we celebrate it nowadays has between 22 and 28 days. If 15 decades of the Rosary (before the additions by John Paul II) are recited for 28 days of Advent, this amounts to 28×150 = 4200 Hail Marys!
Could it be that we simply celebrate the moment of Jesus’ birth, when the light shone in the darkness – “the people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light”? What better time, symbolically, to place the celebration of the event, but at the darkest moment of the longest night – midnight on the solstice?
Yes, there is an appropriate symbolism in the light overcoming darkness.
All I’m saying is that this does not appear to have been a factor in assigning the celebration of the birth of Jesus to 25 December. In the early years of the church, the overwhelming focus was on the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is how the gospel accounts probably started. It was the conclusion that Jesus died on 25 March that was the starting point. In the Roman Martyrology, on 25 March, after the Feast of the Annunciation , come various other celebrations, among which is:
‘Hierosolymis commemoratio sancti Latronis, qui, in cruce Christum confessus, ab eo meruit audire: « Hodie mecum eris in paradiso ».’
‘At Jerusalem, the commemoration of the good Thief, who confessed Christ on the cross, and deserved to hear from Him these words: “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”‘
The date of death of the good thief is the same as that of Jesus, even if they got the date wrong! It was this that led to setting Christmas at 25 December.
We can, of course, add on other symbolic connections which enrich our appreciation of the Nativity.