Believe it or not, it took the Christian church at Rome over 300 years to begin celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, originally a pagan holiday. Only in A.D. 354, under the auspices of Liberius, bishop of Rome, did the city on the Tiber start to observe Christmas. Why did the church abstain from commemorating Christ's birth for so long a time? Why did the Christian church sanction and begin celebrating Christ's birth on a pagan holiday? This article gives you the startling answers. For centuries prior to the advent of Christianity, Rome indulged in the worship of many deities, of both sexes. As was common practice in that polytheistic age, each divinity had a birthday, commemorated annually by the people. During those days it was not customary for the masses to observe their own birthdays, but rather the day of birth of their particular deity. At that time, two celestial beings stood out as principal objects of veneration — Jupiter, whose birthday fell in September, and Saturn, who was honored in December. By the time of Christ, many of the religious practices surrounding the worship of Jupiter, Saturn, and the lesser divine luminaries appealed to the masses less and less. Although sanctioned by the state, the Roman populace had little desire to perpetuate the archaic religion of their forefathers. A new era required up-to-date religious concepts. The search for a new and more exciting religion was on. Here is what transpired. During the first three centuries of the Roman Empire, Eastern philosophers and mystics had preached the divine nature of the sun. In the East, the religion of the sun was most widespread in Syria and Persia. Immigrants brought this religion to the West. Roman soldiers, in carrying out their military duty in the eastern realm of the empire, also became acquainted with this sun worship and retained a special interest in this new religion upon their return to Rome. First-century Roman historian Tacitus describes that at the battle of Bedriacum in A.D. 69, the soldiers of Emperor Vespasian saluted the rising sun with loud shouts. In Tacitus' words, "A shout arose from the entire army, and the soldiers of the Third Legion, according to the Syrian custom, hailed the rising sun" (Histories, ch. 3, sect. 24). Procopius (mid fifth century) tells us that it was the custom among the Persians to prostrate themselves before the rising sun each day (Procopius I, iii, 20). In the temples, worshipers addressed prayers to the heavenly source of light three times a day — at dawn, midday, and at dusk — each time facing the sun. Native Romans became excited about the new solar divinity as well. With the passing of time, even the emperors' became excited over this new religious import from the Orient. Commodus (A.D. 180-192) and Severus (A.D. 193-211) were two emperors who took an early interest in the religion of the sun. When Elagabalus became emperor (A.D. 218), he realized that the time had come to oust Jupiter from his celestial throne and replace him with a statue of the Syrian sun god. This followed the emperor's visit to Syria where he had restored a temple of the solar god in Emesa. The emperor, who changed his original name earlier on to Elagabalus, bore the very name of the Eastern sun god, whose priest he had been. (Baal was the name of a well-known deity in ancient times as well, a god whose worship had corrupted ancient Israel.)
Solar Religion Established
The young emperor temporarily deposed Jupiter from his supremacy among Roman deities and raised the solar god to glory. But it was short-lived. Too many influential Romans retained a sufficient degree of loyalty to the old-fashioned religion, and so upon Elagabalus' death, the ancient Roman deity was temporarily restored to his rightful place. Fifty years later, Aurelian ascended Caesar's throne. Born around the Black Sea region where his mother was a priestess of the sun, Aurelian spent much of his time as emperor in the East in an attempt to solidify the conquered areas of his predecessors. In Syria he was attracted to the already familiar sun-worship religion. On a military campaign there he sought the help of the solar deity, and its ensuing intervention, the emperor felt, brought the Romans victory. In gratitude, Aurelian offered thanks in the temple in Emesa, built by Elagabalus 50 years before. Returning to Rome victorious, the emperor exalted the unconquerable sun — Sol invictus — above all the gods of Rome, including Jupiter. A college of pontiffs was created for the service of the new divinity, and in A.D. 273 a splendid temple was built and dedicated with pomp and ceremony on December 25 — the birthday of the unconquerable sun. Pagan Rome had been conquered by a solar divinity.
The First Christian Emperor
It was barely 50 years later when Constantine embraced Christianity. But acceptance of this new religion presented the emperor with a problem. What was he to do with the annual solar festival, now in full swing? How would the church deal with this awkward situation where the Roman emperor, having recently sanctioned Christianity as the state religion, ruled over an essentially non-Christian empire? It was one thing for the Christianized emperor to forego the purely pagan December festival himself. But to get the Roman populace at large to cease observing this solar festival upon admittance to the church was another matter. The religion of the sun, very popular as reflected by its ever-increasing number of adherents, was bound to challenge, even threaten the existence of Christianity. How would the Christian church cope?
A Remarkable Transformation
The church at first tried to influence Constantine to abolish this solar religion with its December 25 festival. Constantine - a born sun worshiper himself — refused, claiming that the festival was too popular among his yet unconverted subjects to eradicate outright. Further consulting with Constantine, the church pressured him to pass a law by which all slaves in Rome would be given their freedom if they would accept Christianity. This inducement resulted in the masses lining up for baptism into the Christian religion. It was hoped that such a measure would prevent these baptized heathens from observing pagan festivals, particularly the December 25 festival dedicated to the solar divinity. The scheme backfired. The heathen element within the church continued to adhere to its own Sol invictus religion. The masses still joined the heathen element each December 25 in celebrating the festival of the unconquerable sun. It was just too popular.
The First Christmas
The church found itself in a dilemma. It obviously was not willing to give its carte blanche approval to a festival dedicated to a heathen deity. On the other hand, the church did not wish to appear ungrateful to Constantine for his endorsement of Christianity as the official religion of the empire. With the passing of time, a compromise was reached. The Romans were allowed to continue celebrating their December 25 festival minus the solar deity. Instead, Christ was substituted for the unconquerable sun. It was an attempt to transfer the devotion of the masses from the heathen sun god to the true sun of righteousness, Christ. The solar winter festival was given a Christian dressing. The Sol invictus was "deposed" and Christ was now "honored" on that day. Beginning with A.D. 354, the December 25 date now belonged to Christ alone. Once Rome had accepted the December date for Christ's "birth," the festival quickly spread to the rest of the Roman Empire. Constantinople accepted the Christmas festival in A.D. 380, parts of Asia Minor in 382, Alexandria, Egypt, around 430, and Jerusalem about 440.
The Early Church and Christ's Birth
The early Christian church had always been against celebrating the birthday of its Savior. Although there was speculation as to the time of the year Jesus was born — especially in the third century — the celebration was never kept as a church-sanctioned festival for the first 300 years. Two basic concepts prevented the church from commemorating the birthday of its founder for so long a time. The exact date of Jesus' birth is nowhere revealed in the Bible and so was probably never known to the church. The New Testament nowhere records that Jesus observed his own birthday or that his disciples observed it. The second reason why the Christian church refrained from observing Christ's birth was their belief that it was wrong, even sin, to do so. In A.D. 245, the church father Origin felt that it was a sin even to think of keeping Christ's birthday. In pagan Rome, festively commemorating the day of one's birth was an exclusive right reserved for the gods, although sometimes mere mortals took this prerogative upon themselves, as in the case of some of the early Roman emperors. Since the Romans indulged in the keeping of birthdays for whatever deity they worshiped, the early Christians understandably shied away from observing birthdays. But this aversion in keeping a birthday festival to Jesus lessened as the centuries rolled by — until circumstances in the fourth century prevailed upon the church to reluctantly observe Christ's "birthday." The Roman bishop responsible for introducing the first ever Christmas in Rome was Liberius.
The Inevitable Compromise
It was always inevitable that the popular December 25 festival of the non-Christian Romans would receive ecclesiastical sanction. Here is how it developed. Once the New Testament apostles had left the scene, the Christian church of the second century no longer observed the biblical festivals that Jesus, his disciples, and the apostle Paul kept. These festivals were labeled as Jewish and discarded by the church, which, especially during the second century A.D., observed no strictly biblical festivals whatever. This action placed the Christian church of later centuries in a dilemma, leaving it vulnerable to heathen elements entering the Christian religion. As the masses gained entrance into the church, particularly after Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, they were not content to limit their religious fervor LO a belief in Christ alone. The new converts were used to annual festive occasions, which the Christian church lacked. The church leaders could offer new members no meaningful festivals in exchange for the outright heathen ones they were used to observing. Unwilling to return to the biblically sanctioned holy days, especially since the rift between the Jews and Gentiles had widened appreciably by the fourth century, the church at Rome capitulated and allowed the pagan festival on December 25 to be observed — with one exception, however. Christ was to be worshiped on that day instead of the sun god. Thus a pagan festival received a Christian dressing. The fact that the Christian world commemorates the birth of Christ on December 25 is not due to any divine sanction nor by New Testament authority. The first Christmas in Rome owes its origin to the prevailing circumstances of the fourth century, which forced both the Roman emperor and bishop of Rome to compromise with the heathen populace. Rome, not the New Testament church, sanctioned a December 25 festival to "honor" Christ. If you would like more information regarding the seven annual festivals sanctioned by the Bible, here is a link to our free booklet on the subject. Pagan Holidays - or God's Holy Days - Which?