Did Christmas Begin as a Pagan Holiday?
You’ve probably heard the old saw that December 25, Christmas, began as a pagan holiday. The most commonly cited connections are that it began as the Greco-Roman festival of Saturnalia, or else that it began as the Roman feast of the sun (Sol, or Greek Helios) at the winter solstice. The truth is, neither of these is correct.
Saturnalia was a Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn. It had origins in the Greek holiday of Kronia, which celebrated the god Kronos. However, Saturnalia was never held on December 25. The old Greek holiday was held in late July or early August, and the Roman version was moved to December 14. Eventually the Roman holiday was moved to December 17 when the calendar was revised in the days of Julius Caesar, but it never overlapped December 25.
The Roman festival of Sol, on the other hand, was held on or about December 25. However, this was a relatively late tradition. It was not established as an official Roman holiday until the reign of the Roman emperor Aurelian, who ruled from AD 270-275. This is important, because the Christian tradition associating the birth of Christ with December 25 is earlier.
Hippolytus of Rome was a Christian theologian and author of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. He was born around AD 170 and died around AD 235. In his work called the Chronicon, Hippolytus calculates that Jesus was conceived on March 25, the vernal equinox of the Roman calendar, which was also the Jewish Passover. Adding nine months to this date produces the birth date of Jesus, December 25, which also happens to be the Roman winter solstice.
This same sort of calculation was held by other early church fathers, including Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-215). To be fair, their main concern was not with the birth date of Jesus, but rather with his date of conception, which was thought to have taken place during Passover. Those who calculate a birth date do not all land on December 25; calculations ranged from late December to early January, based on their calculation of the date of Passover. This seems to indicate that they had no ancient tradition that provided a fixed date for the birth of Jesus. For the question at hand, however, this is largely irrelevant. Calculations for the birth of Jesus on or about December 25 predated the institution of the Roman festival of Sol, and thus cannot have been made in order to accommodate or take over a pagan holiday.
This information is adapted from the fine article by T.C. Schmidt, “Calculating Christmas: Hippolytus and December 25th,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Winter 2022, 50-54.