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Holidays and Observances

Christmas on the Sun's Birthday

Source:Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion New York: Longmans, 1931), pp. 150-153.

[p. 150] One of the dominant religious ideas of the second and third centuries was the belief in the divinity of the Sun.

This divinity is of especial interest for our inquiry, for his annual festival fell on the twenty-fifth of December and its relation to Christmas [p. 151] has been a matter of protracted discussion. Obviously the season of the winter solstice, when the strength of the sun begins to increase, is appropriate for the celebration of the festival of a sun-god. The day in a sense marks the birth of a new sun. But the reason for its being chosen as the day for the commemoration of Christ's nativity is not so evident [p. 152] The identity of date is more than a coincidence. To be sure the Church did not merely appropriate the festival of the popular sun-god. It was through a parallelism between Christ and the sun that the twenty-fifth of December came to be the date of the nativity [p. 153] Even Epiphanius, the fourth century metropolitan of Cyprus, though giving the sixth of January as the date of birth, connects the event with the solstice. Moreover, the diversion of the significance of a popular pagan holiday was wholly in accord with the policy of the Church. Of the actual celebration of a festival of the nativity, it should be added, there is no satisfactory evidence earlier than the fourth century. Its first observance in Rome on December the twenty-fifth took place in 353 or 354 (Usener) or in 336 (Duchesne). In Constantinople it seems to have been introduced in 377 or 378.


Christmas, on Winter Solstice, Sun's Birthday

Source: Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans (reprint; New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), pp. 89, 90.

[p. 89] A very general observance required that on the 25th of December the birth of the "new Sun" should be celebrated, when after the winter solstice the days began to lengthen and the "invincible" star triumphed again over darkness. It is certain that the date of this Natalis Invicti was selected by the Church as the commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus, which was previously confused with the Epiphany. In appointing this day, universally marked by pious rejoicing, which were as far as possible retained, ”for instance the old chariot-races were preserved, ”the ecclesiastical authorities purified in some degree the customs which they could not abolish. This substitution, which took place at Rome probably between 354 and 360, was adopted throughout the Empire, and that is why we still celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December.

The pre-eminence assigned to the dies Solis also certainly [p. 90] contributed to the general recognition of Sunday as a holiday. This is connected with a more important fact, namely, the adoption of the week by all European nations.

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