Return to Saturnalia
Sol Invictus and Christmas
"But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings."
The worship of the Sun (Sol) was indigenous to the Romans, who had a temple to Sol Indiges on the Quirinal that was said to have been established by Tatius, king of the Sabines, the first inhabitants of the hill who, after the rape of the Sabine women, reconciled with Romulus and ruled jointly in the eighth century BC (Quintillian, Institutio Oratoria, I.7.12; Varro, De Lingua Latina, V.10). There also was a temple to Sol (as well as one to Luna) in the Circus Maximus, where chariot races took place under the auspices of these deities (Tacitus, Annals, XV.74; Tertullian, De Spectaculis, VIII.1). The four-horse quadriga, for example, was consecrated to the sun, just as the two-horse biga was entrusted to the Moon (Tertullian, IX.3). The foundation dates, too, of the temples on the Quirinal and in the Circus both were in August (the ninth and twenty-eighth, respectively), when the heat of the sun was most intense.
After the great fire of AD 64, in which a large portion of Rome was destroyed, Nero erected a colossal statue of himself one hundred and twenty feet high (Suetonius, Life of Nero, XXXI.1), which Vespasian converted to one of Sol, placing a radiant crown on its head (Suetonius, Vespasian, XVIII.1; Pliny, Natural History, XXXIV.45). Vespasian also was the first emperor to display the image of Sol on imperial coinage. By the second century AD, this autochthonous deity was being eclipsed by an Eastern cult of the Sun, Invictus appearing as an epithet in an inscription in AD 158. Several decades later, Commodus became the first Roman emperor to appropriate the title for himself (Dio, Roman History, LXXIII.15.3).
Septimius Severus, who had command of Legio IV Scythica in Syria (Historia Augusta, III.6), married Julia Domna, younger daughter of the high priest of Sol Invictus Elagabal (Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, XXIII.2; Historia Augusta, III.9), whose son Caracalla also adopted the title Invictus. In AD 219, not long after Elagabalus arrived from Syria, where he had been the hereditary priest of the sun god Elagabal in Emesa, Sol Invictus (the Invincible or Unconquerable Sun) was introduced to Rome as its principal deity. Elagabalus enlarged the Temple of Jupiter Victor on the Palatine and rededicated it in AD 221 as the Elagabalium (Herodian, Roman History, V.5.8), where the rites of Jews and Christians were to be transferred "in order that the priesthood of Elagabalus might include the mysteries of every form of worship" (Historia Augusta, III.4). Indeed, the emperor, sought "to abolish not only the religious ceremonies of the Romans but also those of the whole world, his one wish being that the god Elagabalus should be worshipped everywhere" (VI.7).
"In every respect an empty-headed young idiot" (Herodian, V.7.1ff), Elagabalus, having impiously presumed to elevate a foreign god above Jupiter himself (Dio, LXXX.11.1), was killed by the praetorian guard and the cult of Sol Invictus suppressed. It was re-established half a century later in less contentious form by Aurelian, whose troops had been inspired by a "divine form" in the Battle of Emesa against Zenobia (Historia Augusta, XXV.3, 5) in AD 272. Victorious, he entered the city and went to the Temple of Elagabalus, where the apparition again appeared to him. Aurelian triumphantly returned to Rome two years later, after recovering the Gallic Empire, and was hailed as Restitutor Orbis, "Restorer of the World." A magnificent temple to Sol was erected, to which great quantities of gold and jewels were dedicated, and a new college of pontiffs established to serve the god, who was to be the supreme deity of Rome (Historia Augusta, XXV.6, XXXV.3, XXXIX.6; Victor, XXXV.7; Eutropius, Abridgment of Roman History, IX.15.1; Zosimus, New History, I.61).
Games were instituted as well, which are recorded in the Chronography of AD 354, an illustrated codex (the first in Western art) compiled that year in Rome as a gift to a Christian aristocrat. In the section known as the Calendar of Philocalus (after the calligrapher whose name appears on the dedication page), VIII Kal. Jan. (December 25) is annotated N INVICTI CM XXX. Although the dedication is uncertain (as there is no name attached to the epithet), the presumption is that Natalis Invicti refers to the birthday of the Invincible Sun, who is mentioned in the games of August 28, and the foundation date of his temple. Thirty races (circenses missus) were run in the circus that day. And every four years, thirty-six races were dedicated to Sol on the last day of games that extended from October 19-22, possibly to commemorate the earlier triumphal procession of Aurelian. These quadrennial games are mentioned by Julian (ruled AD 361-363) in his Hymn to King Helios (CLV), who refers to them as a "more recent" institution.
In another section of the Chronography commemorating the laying to rest of martyrs (Disposition of Martyrs, the earliest record of the Roman sanctoral), the liturgical year begins on December 25, and VIII Kal. Jan. is annotated natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae ("Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea"). In a section listing the consuls, there also is a note for AD 1: dominus Iesus Christus natus est VIII kal. Ian. These are the first references to December 25 as the birthday of Jesus. Since no martyrs are mentioned after AD 336, the first celebration of Christmas observed by the Roman church in the West is presumed to date to that year.
"Bruma is so named, because then the day is brevissimus 'shortest'....The time from the bruma until the sun returns to the bruma, is called an annus 'year'....The first part of this time is the hiems 'winter.'"
Varro, On the Latin Language (VI.8-9)
In the Julian calendar, December 25 marked the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, after which the days begin to lengthen, cf. Vitruvius, "This time from the shortness of the days, is called Bruma (winter) and the days Brumales" (On Architecture, 9.3.3). In calculating the seasons, Pliny, too, remarks that the days begin to increase immediately after the winter solstice (bruma) on a.d. VIII kal. Ian (XVIII.221). For Ovid, bruma was the first of the new sun and the last of the old (Fasti, I.163), as it was for Servius, who equates the new sun (sol novus) with the eighth day before the Kalends of January (Commentary on the Aeneid of Virgil, VII.720; also II.472, "Bruma, that is, winter")—and Censorinus, who in turn identifies the new sun with the bruma, "a novo sole, id est a bruma" (De Die Natali, XXI.13)
In 45 BC, it was decreed that public sacrifice should be made to celebrate the birthday of Julius Caesar (Dio, XLIV.4.4), a sacrifice that became obligatory after he later was declared a god (XLVII.18.5). The birthday of Augustus, too, was recognized in thanksgiving after his victory at Actium (LI.19.2), as were the birthdays of other Julia-Claudians. The dies natales of family and friends were celebrated, as well, with gifts and banquets. Horace remembered the birthday of his friend and patron Maecenas (Odes, IV.11), as was the birthday of Messalla by Tibullus (Elegies, I.7), Macrinus by Persius (Satires, II), Cynthia by her lover Propertius (Elegies, III.10), and Virgil by a reverential Silius (Pliny the Younger, Epistles, III.7.8).
Unlike the Romans, however, Jews and Christians tended not to recognize birthdays. Late in the first century AD, Josephus remarks that "the law does not permit us to make festivals at the births of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess" (Against Apion, II.26). Indeed, only two birthdays are mentioned in the New Testament: that of Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20) and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, whose marriage to his brother's wife Herodias had been denounced by John. When her daughter Salome danced before the king at his birthday feast, she was promised whatever she might ask—which, at the instigation of her mother, was the head of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:6ff, Mark 6:17ff; Luke 9:7ff; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.5.2).
That the gods themselves had birthdays was thought ridiculous as well. Writing about AD 296, Arnobius mocks pagans for anthropomorphizing them. "We men gather our vintages, and they think and believe that the gods gather and bring in their grapes; we have birthdays, and they affirm that the powers of heaven have birthdays" (Adversus Nationes, VII.34). Rather, it was the anniversary of one's death that should be remembered; indeed, "the day of death [is better] than the day of one's birth" (Ecclesiastes 7:1).
Mark and Paul make no reference to when Jesus was born, and Matthew and Luke, although they include an account of Jesus' birth, do not mention the time of year. Nor were the early Christian fathers interested in establishing a calendar date. Origen admonished his listeners in Alexandria that "Not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday....the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse the day" (Homilies on Leviticus, VIII.3.2).
The Nativity is not mentioned among the "certain days" (Preparation Day, Passover, and Pentecost) that should be observed (Against Celsus, VIII.22). Nor is it included in the feasts recognized by Tertullian (On Baptism, XIX), who, writing in the last years of the second century AD, admonished Christians not to partake in the Saturnalia, or gift-giving at the New Year or midwinter, or "an idol's birthday" when "every pomp of the devil is frequented" (On Idolatry, X). "The Saturnalia and New-year's and Midwinter's festivals and Matronalia are frequented—presents come and go—New-year's gifts—games join their noise—banquets join their din!" (XIV). Just as the heathen does not celebrate the Lord's Day (Sunday) or Pentecost, so Christians should not partake in their festivals; rather, they have a festive day every week whereas pagans celebrate only once a year. "When the world rejoices, let us grieve; and when the world afterward grieves, we shall rejoice" (XIII).
If the birth of Jesus was not celebrated by the early church, it also was because there was not a consensus as to when it actually had occurred. Writing shortly after the assassination of Commodus on December 31, AD 192, Clement of Alexandria provides the earliest documented dates for the Nativity. One hundred ninety-four years, one month, and thirteen days, he says, had elapsed since then, which corresponds to a birth date of November 18 or, if the forty-nine intercalary days missing from the Alexandrian calendar are added, January 6. Moreover, "There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day" (Stromata, I.21), including dates in April and May, as well as another day in January.
Hippolytus, a younger contemporary of Clement, does state that the Nativity had occurred on December 25 (Commentary on Daniel, IV.23.3). And, although the statement may be a later interpolation, he reiterated several decades later (in AD 235) that Jesus was born nine months after the anniversary of the creation of the world, which Hippolytus believed to have been on March 25 (Chronicon, 686ff). The Nativity thus would be on December 25.
In about AD 221, Julius Africanus wrote the Chronographiae, the first Christian chronology. Although he does not specifically mention the Nativity, he believed that Jesus had been conceived on March 25. In AD 243, Cyprian is the first Christian writer to associate the birth of Jesus with the Sun: "O! The splendid and divine Providence of the Lord, that on that day, even at the very day, on which the Sun was made [March 28], Christ should be born" (De Pascha Computus, XIX). Creation itself was on March 25, the vernal equinox, and the Sun created on the fourth day, March 28. It followed, then, that the "Sun of righteousness," in Malachi's phrase, would be born on the same day.
On December 25, AD 380, Gregory of Nazianzus delivered a sermon in Constantinople in which he referred to the day as "the feast of God's Appearing, or of the Nativity: both names are used, both titles given to the one reality....The name of the feast, then, is 'Theophany' because he has appeared, but 'Nativity' because he has been born" (Oration XXXVIII.3). Then on January 6, AD 381, he preached on the Baptism (Oration XL), a date traditionally celebrated as the Theophany (the Feast of the Epiphany in the Western church, commemorating the visitation of the Magi in Bethlehem). Traditionally, the Eastern church celebrated the Nativity and Epiphany (the realization that Jesus was the manifestation of Christ) as a single Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. December 25 as the Nativity of Jesus (and a separate feast) was not agreed upon until the late fourth century AD.
The Nativity first was celebrated in Alexandria on December 25, AD 432, when Paul, Bishop of Emesa, preached before Cyril on Mary as Mother of God (Theotokos). Eventually, the time between the Nativity and Epiphany became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. John Cassian (d. AD 435), writes that the church in Egypt continued to celebrate both the Baptism and Nativity "not separately as in the Western provinces but on the single festival of this day" (Conference, X.2).
Half a century after the Philocalian Calendar had commemorated the first celebration of Christmas in the West, John Chrysostom delivered his homily on the feast day of Philogonius, bishop of Antioch, who had died some sixty years earlier. It was delivered on December 20, probably in AD 386. The day and month are confirmed by the fact that John is anticipating the Feast of the Nativity, which was to occur in five days' time (December 25). That was the day he delivered another homily, In Diem Natalem ("On the Birthday"), in which he remarks that it has been less than ten years since the festival had been introduced at Antioch.
"A feast is approaching which is the most solemn and awe-inspiring of all feasts....What is it? The birth of Christ according to the flesh. In this feast namely Epiphany, holy Easter, Ascension and Pentecost have their beginning and their purpose. For if Christ hadn't been born according to the flesh, he wouldn't have been baptised, which is Epiphany. He wouldn't have been crucified, which is Easter. He wouldn't have sent the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So from this event, as from some spring, different rivers flow—these feasts of ours are born."
John Chrysostom, Homily VI: On St. Philogonius (23-24)
And yet Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis who died in AD 403, continued to argue that January 6 was the date of Jesus' birth. "Greeks, I mean idolaters, celebrate this day on the eighth before the Kalends of January [December 25], which Romans call Saturnalia....For this division between the signs of the zodiac, which is a solstice, comes on the eighth before the Kalends of January, and the day begins to lengthen because the light is receiving its increase. And it completes a period of thirteen days until the eighth before the Ides of January [January 6], the day of Christ's birth" (Panarion, "Refutation of All the Heresies," IV.22.5-6; also IV.24.1: "For Christ was born in the month of January, that is, on the eighth before the Ides of January—in the Roman calendar this is the evening of January fifth, at the beginning of January sixth"). (Epiphanius is incorrect in understanding the Saturnalia to be on December 25; it was on December 17, although it eventually was extended to December 23.)
The winter solstice, which coincided with the Christian festival, still was recognized however. Leo I (AD 440-461) repeatedly was obliged to admonish the faithful not to honor the sun on the very doorsteps of the old basilica of St. Peter's in Rome, which was oriented to the east, so that the sun would illuminate the apse. Worshippers, as did Leo, faced east—ad orientem, "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be" (Mathew 24:27).
"From such a system of teaching proceeds also the ungodly practice of certain foolish folk who worship the sun as it rises at the beginning of daylight from elevated positions: even some Christians think it is so proper to do this that, before entering the blessed Apostle Peter’s basilica, which is dedicated to the One Living and true God, when they have mounted the steps which lead to the raised platform, they turn round and bow themselves towards the rising sun and with bent neck do homage to its brilliant orb. We are full of grief and vexation that this should happen, which is partly due to the fault of ignorance and partly to the spirit of heathenism: because although some of them do perhaps worship the Creator of that fair light rather than the Light itself, which is His creature, yet we must abstain even from the appearance of this observance: for if one who has abandoned the worship of gods, finds it in our own worship, will he not hark back again to this fragment of his old superstition, as if it were allowable, when he sees it to be common both to Christians and to infidels?"
Sermon XXVII: On the Feast of the Nativity, VII (Pt. IV)
And Origen, who was "not quite seventeen years old" when Septimius Severus began his persecution of Christians (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (VI.2.12), declared that "Of all the quarters of the heavens, the east is the only direction we turn to when we pour out prayer," although he confessed not to know the reasons for doing so, which "I think, are not easily discovered by anyone" (Homilies on Numbers, V.1.4).
But, even if in facing east Christians worshipped the creator of the sun and not the sun itself, there was concern that pagans would be mislead by the practice and confuse one religion with another. Leo certainly was aware, even in the fifth century AD, of the coincidence between the feast of the Nativity and the winter solstice, and that the honor that should be inherent in the former might be thought to have derived from the latter. (Several centuries earlier, in AD 197, Tertullian had contended shortly after his own conversion with the same accusations of worshipping the sun, praying to the east, and devoting Sunday to worship, Apology, XVI.9ff; also Ad Nationes, I.13)
"Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm in the Faith in which you are built: lest that same tempter whose tyranny over you Christ has already destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and mar even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art, misleading simpler souls with the pestilential notion of some to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honour, not so much from the nativity of Christ as, according to them, from the rising of the new sun. Such men's hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light: for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, and because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds, they pay divine honour to the luminaries that minister to the world. Let not Christian souls entertain any such wicked superstition and portentous lie."
Sermon XXII: On the Feast of the Nativity, II (Pt. VI)
Three centuries later, the papacy still was confronted with these vestiges of pagan custom. In AD 742, Boniface, apostle and archbishop of Germany, reproached Zacharias, complaining that his attempt to convert the heathen there was being thwarted by the behavior of Christians in Rome.
"Because the sensual and ignorant Allemanians, Bavarians and Franks see that some of these abuses which we condemn are rife in Rome, they think that the priests there allow them, and on that account they reproach us and take bad example. They say that in Rome, near the church of St. Peter, they have seen throngs of people parading the streets at the beginning of January of each year, shouting and singing songs in pagan fashion, loading tables with food and drink from morning till night, and that during that time no man is willing to lend his neighbour fire or tools or anything useful from his own house. They recount also that they have seen women wearing pagan amulets and bracelets on their arms and legs and offering them for sale. All such abuses witnessed by sensual and ignorant people bring reproach upon us here and frustrate our work of preaching and teaching. Of such matters the Apostle says reprovingly: 'You have begun to observe special days and months, special seasons and years. I am anxious over you: has all the labour I have spent on you been useless?' [Galatians 4:10]" (Letter of Boniface to Pope Zacharias on His Accession to the Papacy).
In seeking to determine the date of Christmas, critics have tended to discuss the matter in one of two ways. Those who would calculate the date seek to demonstrate that the Nativity of Jesus can be determined by the chronology of the liturgical calendar. Proponents of an historical approach, on the other hand, tend to interpret Christmas as a substitution for the annual birth of Sol Invictus on December 25.
In the Julian reform of the Roman calendar, December 25, the eighth day after the Kalends of January (VIII Kal. Jan.), was recognized as the winter solstice. Nine months earlier, March 25 was the vernal equinox, the eighth day before the Kalends of April (VIII Kal. Apr.), which marked the beginning of spring. This tradition of assigning the equinoxes and solstices to the eighth day before the Kalends (the first day of the month) later was embraced by the church in its calculation of the birth date of Jesus.
Rabbinic scholars had understood the births and deaths of the Old Testament patriarchs to have occurred on the same day. Because Jesus was deemed to be perfect, his life was thought to be complete as well and to comprise a whole number of years. March 25 (the eighth Kalends of April) was believed to be the date of his conception (Annunciation) and, exactly nine months later, December 25 (the eighth Kalends of January) his Nativity. The date of Jesus' conception and crucifixion, therefore, were thought to have occurred on the same day of the year: March 25 (the eighth Kalends of April) (Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, VIII.17; Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel 4:23; Augustine, On the Trinity, IV.5; Dionysius Exiguus, Argumenta Paschalia, XV). Fittingly, this also was the day on which the world itself was believed to have been created.
In correlating the conception of John the Baptist with the birth of Jesus, the author of a fourth century AD tract erroneously attributed to John Chrysostom (De Solstitiis et Aequinoctiis, "On the Solstices and Equinoxes") calculated that Elizabeth (the mother of John) must have conceived on the Day of Atonement, September 24 (the eighth Kalends of October) on the mistaken assumption that her husband Zechariah then served as high priest in the Temple (cf. Luke 1:26, where she is "in the sixth month" of her own pregnancy when Mary conceives). John's birth, therefore, was presumed to be June 24 (the eighth Kalends of July) and that of Jesus six months later on December 25. The one-day discrepancy between the two dates can be attributed to how the Roman calculated the days of the month. There is one less day in June than in December, as there is when counting the six months between June 24 (VIII.Kal.Jul.) and December 25 (VIII.Kal.Jan.).
John was understood to be preparing the way for Jesus (cf. John 3:30, "He must increase, but I must decrease"), just as the sun begins to diminish at the summer solstice and eventually increases after the winter solstice. Here, then, the Christian feasts were aligned with the four traditional turning points of the solar year: the birth of Jesus on the winter solstice (December 25), the conception (and death) of Jesus on the vernal equinox (March 25), the birth of John the Baptist on the summer solstice (June 24), and the conception of John on the autumnal equinox (September 24). The same liturgical calculation was used by the eastern church, which also believed that Jesus was conceived and died on the same day, April 6—and therefore must have been born exactly nine months later on January 6.
Hijmans presents a critical re-evaluation of the history of religions hypothesis and the notion that the early church incorporated the feast of Sol Invictus into its own liturgy, positing instead that the pagan festival was "'rediscovered' by pagan authorities in response to the appropriation of the winter solstice by Christianity." The festival of Sol Invictus, in other words, may not have been identified with December 25 until after the first Christmas had been celebrated on that day. Nor, he argues, should the cosmic symbolism attached to the winter solstice, which may have led the church to adopt December 25 for its feast of the Nativity, be confused with a cult of Sol on that date.
The winter solstice, when the light of day finally begins to lengthen, would have a natural association with the "Sun of righteousness." Indeed, Tertullian writes that "It is therefore due to a want of heed and reflection that many are offended by the mere fact that heresies have so much power. How much would they have if they did not exist?" (On the Prescription of Heretics, I). Here, the paradox is that the absence of heresy would confound the predictions of Scripture, as when one is admonished to "beware of false prophets" (Matthew 7:15).
Like the cult of Sol Invictus, Mithraism was introduced from the East and perceived by the church to be sufficiently similar to Christianity that it was considered a threat. In the second century AD, for example, Justin Martyr wrote of the Eucharist, "Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn" (First Apology, LXVI). The mysteries of Mithra, he insisted, were distortions of the prophecies of Daniel and Isaiah, contrived that "the words of righteousness be quoted also by them." (Dialogue with Trypho, LXX)
Tertullian, too, was obliged to acknowledge similarities between Mithraism and Christianity but, rather than admitting that Christianity might have adopted certain rites, disparages them as diabolical counterfeits. "Let us take note of the devices of the devil, who is wont to ape some of God’s things with no other design than, by the faithfulness of his servants, to put us to shame, and to condemn us." (De Corona, "The Chaplet,'" XV).
He also was an apologist for charges that Christians worshipped the sun.
"Others, again, certainly with more information and greater verisimilitude, believe that the sun is our god. We shall be counted Persians perhaps, though we do not worship the orb of day painted on a piece of linen cloth, having himself everywhere in his own disk. The idea no doubt has originated from our being known to turn to the east in prayer. But you, many of you, also under pretence sometimes of worshipping the heavenly bodies, move your lips in the direction of the sunrise. In the same way, if we devote Sun-day to rejoicing, from a far different reason than Sun-worship, we have some resemblance to those of you who devote the day of Saturn to ease and luxury, though they too go far away from Jewish ways, of which indeed they are ignorant (Apology, XVI.9-11).
Tertullian repeats the argument in Ad Nationes ("Against the Nations"), adding that "you who reproach us with the sun and Sunday should consider your proximity to us. We are not far off from your Saturn and your days of rest" (I.13). He also seems to reject Hijmans' notion that pagans might have appropriated December 25 because of its renewed importance to Christians. Tertullian, at least, has no qualms about being mistaken for a heathen. Even if the heathen does not celebrate the Lord's Day or Pentecost for fear of being thought Christian, so Christians need not be apprehensive about the Saturnalia, or New Year's or Midwinter, for such festivals occur but once a year, whereas Christians celebrate every eighth day (Sunday).
"Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the Christians for itself! Not the Lord's day, not Pentecost, even it they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians. We are not apprehensive lest we seem to be heathens! If any indulgence is to be granted to the flesh, you have it. I will not say your own days, but more too; for to the heathens each festive day occurs but once annually: you have a festive day every eighth day. Call out the individual solemnities of the nations, and set them out into a row, they will not be able to make up a Pentecost" (On Idolatry, XIV).
Rather than juxtapose the notions of calculation theory and history of religions as mutually exclusive alternatives or argue whether Christians or pagans were the first to appropriate December 25 as the natal day of their respective god, the winter solstice, when the light of day first becomes ascendant, would seem the natural birthday of both the Invincible Sun and the "Sun of righteousness."
In AD 312, as Constantine was about to fight the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he perceived a sign, a "a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun" (Eusebius, Life, I.28) to which he attributed his victory. It was Constantine who decreed in AD 321 that, with an exception for farmers, Sunday was to be a day of rest. "On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed" (Codex Justinianus, III.12.2). The resurrection of Christ also was said to have occurred on a Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath (cf. Mark 15:42, 1 Corinthians 15:3). And in AD 386, Theodosius decreed Sunday to be holy (Codex Theodosianus, II.8.18). It was a natural association, therefore, to identify the birth of Jesus, the "Sun of righteousness," with that of the Sun itself (cf. Cyprian, The Lord's Prayer, XXXV, where he is identified as "the true sun").
The conflation of Sun and Son can be seen as well in the Christmas hymn "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" where in the fifth stanza is the verse "Hail the Sun of righteousness! / Light and life to all he brings." Originally written in 1739 by Charles Wesley (the brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church) as a Hymn for Christmas-Day, it was changed by George Whitefield to "Hail the Son of Righteousness!" In 1753, Whitefield also altered the first line of the hymn from "Hark how all the welkin rings" to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," which, although an improvement, doubtless must have irritated Wesley, who believed that heaven (the meaning of "welkin") rang with joy. He also understood the angel (and a multitude of the heavenly host) in Luke 2:13-14 to be "saying, Glory to God in the highest," not singing the words.
In the Preface to his 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, which did not include the hymn by Charles, John Wesley beseeched those who would alter his lyrics (or those of his brother) to "let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse; or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page; that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men" (VII).
The picture above, the head surrounded by a radiant crown or nimbus, is a detail from a marble altar dedicated to the sun god. From Palmyra (Syria), it dates from the second half of the first century AD and now is in the Galleria Lapidaria (Capitoline Museums, Rome). The first line reads "Sacred to the most holy Sun." The accompanying eagle was thought to be the messenger of the god.
References: A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (1890-1896) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis (1987, 1994) translated by Frank Williams; On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity (1990) by Michele Renee Salzman; Toward the Origins of Christmas (1995) by Susan K. Roll (who translates the seventh sermon of Leo; "The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question" by Susan K. Roll, in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (2000) edited by Maxwell Johnson); A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1758) by George Whitefield (this is the seventh of thirty-six editions); Aurelian and the Third Century (1999) by Alaric Watson; John Chrysostom (1999) by Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen; Homilies on Leviticus 1-16 (1990) translated by Gary Wayne Barkley; "Birthday Rituals: Friends and Patrons in Roman Poetry and Cult" (1992) by Kathryn Argetsinger, Classical Antiquity, 11(2), 175-193; Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution (1889/1903) by L Duchesne; The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Sturm, Leoba and Lebuin, Together with the Hodoepericon of St. Willibald and a Selection from the Correspondence of St. Boniface (1954) by C. H. Talbot; Gregory of Nazianzus (2006) by Brian E. Daley; The Cult of Sol Invictus (1972) by Gaston H. Halsberghe; On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity (1990) by Michele Renee Salzman; "The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research" (2012) by C. P. E. Nothaft, Church History, 81(4), 903-911; The Works of the Emperor Julian (1913) translated by Wilmer Cave Wright (Loeb Classical Library); Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History (2012) by Gary Forsythe; The Origins of the Liturgical Year (1986) by Thomas J. Talley; Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religion of Rome (2009) by Steven Ernst Hijmans (PhD dissertation); "Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas" (2003) by Steven Hijmans, Mouseion, 3, 377-398; Divus Julius (1971) by Stefan Weinstock; Origin: Homilies on Numbers (2009) translated by Thomas P. Scheck. The online blogs of Tom Schmidt and Roger Pearse also present important discussions.
Return to Top of Page