Continuing and concluding my series on the Winter Solstice, we now turn to the question of its relation to the date for Christmas.

The moment of the Winter Solstice generally occurs on 20-21 December in our current Gregorian Calendar. With Christmas set at 25 December, the relation between the two would appear merely coincidental. But there is a bit of history and controversy about the matter, obliquely referenced by today’s “Doonesbury” comic.[1]  This brief look cannot explore the full and complicated story; so, for the nerds I have supplied endnotes with clues to further information.


Roman Calendar Inscription (Menologium Rusticum Colotianum) with Zodiac, Festivals, and Agricultural Activities; © Institute for the Study of the Ancient World / Guido Petruccioli, photographer

The date of Jesus’ birth is not given by the Bible and cannot be known with any certainty. Many commentators have noted that late December is quite unlikely, given details in the gospels’ nativity accounts—but I will not go into that here. The earliest Christian writers give various speculative dates for the event, but none on 25 December.[2] The second-century church father Origen even decried birthday celebrations in general as a pagan practice (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 8)!

It was in the AD 330s that 25 December was first promoted as a feast day to celebrate Christ’s birth, but only in Rome. By the 380s the date as accepted in Asia Minor, and by the 540s in Egypt. Other churches, especially in the East, continued to observe 6 January, Epiphany, as the Nativity (even to the present).[3]

But why focus on 25 December and why did that date generally prevail? Conventional scholarly treatments argue that the choice was dictated by pagan practice, initiated by the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274. In that year, the argument goes, Aurelian decreed 25 December as the birthday and festival of Sol Invictus, “the unconquerable Sun,” and dedicated a new temple to the god with monotheistic overtones. What does all this have to do with the Winter Solstice? In the Julian calendar in use at the time, the solstice fell on 25 December. Christians then, it is argued, either: 1) began to celebrate the birth of Christ on 25 December under the cover of the pagan solstice holiday to avoid persecution; or 2) later declared Sol’s birthday to be that of Christ in order to usurp it and suppress pagan practice. The argument makes sense but is not as solid as usually assumed.

No text, for example, explicitly says Aurelian named 25 December as the nativity of Sol. Evidence that the date was in honor of Sol Invictus is extracted from the Chronography of 354, an illustrated calendar codex prepared for a wealthy Christian in that year. The original is now lost, but several manuscript copies have survived. In the calendar section, the day equivalent to 25 December indicates the birthday of Invictus (but without “Sol”) and that games (30 chariot races) were ordered/decreed. Elsewhere in the document, under a Chronicle of Rome, the entry for Aurelian includes (without dates), “He dedicated the Temple of Sol,” and “instituted the games of Sol.”[4]

December in the Chronography of 354 with 25 December highlighted; illustrated facing page from the Barberini MS; Calendar: CM = Circenses missus (‘games ordered’), N = Natalis (‘birthday’), LVDI = games, Senatus legitimus = Senate allowed, Dies Aegyptiacus = Egyptian days (unlucky days)

The assumption that Aurelian established a major cult festival for Sol Invictus on 25 December is based on combining the difference references with the Christian date in mind. While the connection is possible, perhaps probable, it is far from proven.[5] Indeed, scholarly arguments construct a “Christian versus pagan” atmosphere that may not have existed at all. The posited cultural struggle continues to play out today, as seen in several websites dedicated to “proving” that Jesus was really born on 25 December—one way to defeat the pagans.

I see a continuation of the manufactured conflict in contemporary debate about correct salutations of this time of year—thus the relevance of the “Doonesbury” cartoon cited above. The divisiveness present in American politics these days encourages me (rightly) to avoid dogmatic political statements. But for holiday greetings, I am at a loss. I tend to use “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings” interchangeably without thought, as I did in the 1960s and 70s. But even that has become (in my opinion) unnecessarily burdened. I resent that if I say “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” I am liable to the charge of paganism, or if I say “Merry Christmas,” I am accused of some attempt to impose my beliefs on others. <Sigh>.

Debates like this generally go nowhere when ideology directs argument, especially in religious matters. For the Winter Solstice and Christmas question, I suggest a practical, “real-life” examination. In popular religion—as distinct from “official” tenets and practice—much borrowing of ideas and imagery occur. Such borrowing does not imply doctrinal syncretism or usurpage as much as cultural trends or symbols of comfort. The depiction of angels in Christian art as winged children, for example, does not mean that the artists or admirers of the work were secret pagans with a thing for Eros!

Bet Alpha Synagogue: floor mosaic with Helios/Sol at the center of a Zodiac, with the four seasons (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Sol Invictus, the Greek Helios, is depicted in a fiery chariot with rays emanating from his head. Oddly, his image appears at the center of zodiac scenes on mosaic floors of several Jewish synagogues in Israel. Did the aniconic Jews suddenly become pagan idolaters? Certainly not. So, what’s with those mosaics in so many different synagogues? Maybe . . . they just liked it that way. Popular culture trends are often counter-intuitive and hard to explain. One view holds that the Helios/Sol image simply represents the sun as a symbol of order and not a deity; [6] much like smiling sun faces on grandfather clocks.

Sepphoris Synagogue: floor mosaic with Helios/Sol at the center of Zodiac

Perhaps the most interesting Helios/Sol image is found in a tomb in the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Mausoleum M contains an image, clearly of Helios/Sol, interpreted as representing Christ. Other details of the tomb are interpreted as Christian by Vatican scholars, obviously motivated to find Christianity in the necropolis containing the apparent tomb of St. Peter. They understand, however, that a Christian tomb depicting Christ in the manner of Sol Invictus does not threaten their theology nor invalidate the tomb owner’s faith.

Christ as Helios mosaic, Mausoleum M of the Vatican Scavi Necropolis below St. Peter’s

So, could early Christians have chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ—an actual date unknown to them—at the season when the gloom of winter begins to reverse and the sun’s warmth begins to make a comeback? I think they could; whether or not a Roman Emperor decided to mark the birth of Sol in the same season. I also hope they could use the situation to explain their own views in an inviting way, taking advantage of the halcyon days a holiday can bring.

And, I have decided that I can hear (or say!) “Seasons Greetings” and know why the season itself is special. And if I hear or say “Merry Christmas,” I will also think of why Jesus’ birth is celebrated in this season.

Seasons Greetings!

Merry Christmas!

Happy Festivus!

Thanks for looking! cropped-adicon_square.png


*If you get this reference, you are either pretty old or pretty cool (or both).

[1] I have read “Doonesbury” daily since my matriculation at Georgia Tech in September 1974, where the then-weekly student newspaper, Technique, published the week’s strips. I should add, in the spirit of this post, that I do not read “Doonesbury” out of a dedication to its evident political bias, but for its exploration of various elements of our popular culture. My other daily reads are: “Dilbert,” “Pearls Before Swine,” and “Calvin and Hobbs” (now in perpetual rerun).

[2] E.g., by the 2nd century AD Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 1.21. For a fuller discussion, see Steven Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” Mouseion (Series III) 3 (2003): 377, n. 2-3; this is an excellent article (full version here) for a deeper view of things discussed here.

[3] See Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” 378ff (and be sure to read the footnotes).

[4] For the Chronography of 354, see the excellent online version at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#Chronography_of_354.

[5] There are other dates more specifically associated with Sol Invictus; Sol is not named on 25 December, and it is not clear that the games instituted by Aurelian are the ones on that date.

[6] This is the view of Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,”

2 thoughts on “The Winter Solstice and Christmas, Or: How I Stopped Worrying [about How to Express Christmas Greetings] and Love the Season*

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