Well then, why did the church choose December 25th for the birth date of Christ? Historians believe Christmas was set on that date by religious leaders who were influenced by the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice around that time of year.
Most ancient people worshipped the sun. They believed winter ended the sun god’s rule, allowing the evil powers of darkness to take over and kill things. As the days grew shorter and the nights longer, they feared the sun god would not return. Late December was a turning point, however. Days and sunlight grew longer and stronger. People held festivals to welcome the sun god’s return. They lit candles and bonfires to make the sun god stronger and drive winter away.
The winter solstice includes the theme of rebirth, so church officials incorporated the idea of Christ's birth into the existing celebrations. December 25th was thus chosen in order to compete with the pagan winter solstice festivals. It was not chosen because it is the correct historical date for the birth of Jesus.
The ancient tribes of Europe were very much “sky” worshippers. Perhaps one of the earliest evidences of this is Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. It is believed that a central slab of sandstone was used as a sacrificial altar during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods (that is, 1800-1400 BC). The ancient Europeans realised that the power of the sun’s rays gave life to the crops, which in turn sustained them. However, the harsh winter brought shorter days and much colder weather that disabled their farmlands. In northern Europe today, December 21st is the shortest day of the year (the winter solstice) but, before the calendar correction of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, the day with the shortest daylight hours was December 25th. The northern European tribes celebrated the “rebirth of the sun” as the days began to grow longer. This meant the coming of more light and heat, which in turn brought fertility and life. Every year, when winter began, the people believed that the sun god was on a journey. However, at the winter solstice, as the days started to get longer once again, they believed he was returning from his journey. Perhaps Elijah was referring to one of these so-called annual journeys during his clash with the priests of Baal (the Syro-Phoenician sun god) in 1 Kings 18:27. This day was also proclaimed as the birthday of the sun god. The winter solstice is therefore originally the supposed birthday of the sun god.
Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts and trolls. As the winter solstice approached, with its long cold nights and short days, many people feared the sun would not return. Special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the sun. In Scandinavia, during the winter months, the sun would disappear for many days. After 35 days, scouts would be sent to the mountain tops to look for the return of the sun. When the first light was seen, the scouts would return with the good news. A great festival would be held, called "Yule" or "Jol" (this is where the word "jolly" comes from), and a special feast would be served around a fire burning with the Yule log. Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun. In some areas, people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return. After the Viking invasion, people living in Britain also adopted this midwinter festival.
Sun worship was linked to agricultural productivity and fertility. It was basically a worship of the principle of reproduction in man and nature. Therefore, it is no surprise that sun worship always has a female "divinity" associated with it. In the worship of the goddess of reproduction, they chose an egg as a symbol of fertility. The rabbit was also chosen since rabbits are one of the fastest reproducing animals in the world. This is the origin of Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny. [Easter itself is named after Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, as is oestrogen, the female sex hormone!]
As the sun was the great god, the supreme lord, and as he exerted his most glorious powers in reproduction, it was held to be the most acceptable worship for his devotees so to employ themselves. Consequently, prostitution was one chief characteristic of sun-worship wherever it was found, and the sacrifice of virginity was the most acceptable offering that could be made in the worship of the sun.
The sun god was worshipped in several countries under different forms and names. Examples are Ra, Osiris, Baal, Shamas, Adoni, Tammuz and others.
The history of such festivals dates back over 4000 years. Indeed, many of our Christmas traditions were celebrated centuries before Christ was born. The 12 days of Christmas, the bright fires, the Yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals (parades) with floats, carollers who sing while going from house to house, the holiday feasts, and church processions can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamians.
Many of these traditions began with the Babylonian celebration of New Year. The Babylonians believed in many gods, and their chief god was Marduk. Each year, as winter arrived, it was believed that Marduk would do battle with the monsters of chaos. To assist Marduk in his struggle the Babylonians held a festival for the New Year. This festival was called Zagmuk, and it lasted for 12 days. The Babyloniaian king would return to the temple of Marduk and swear his faithfulness to the god. The traditions called for the king to die at the end of the year and to return with Marduk to do battle at his side. To spare their king, the Babyloniaians used the idea of a “mock” king. A criminal was chosen and dressed in royal clothes. He was given all the respect and privileges of a real king. At the end of the celebration, the “mock” king was stripped of the royal clothes and slain, sparing the life of the real king. [Does this remind you of anything? (See Mk. 15:17,20; Jn. 19:2,5).]
The Assyrians had a mother goddess by the name of Semiramis (goddess of the Moon and Queen of Heaven). She had a son called Tammuz (which means “the son who rises”) who was believed to be the incarnation of the sun. He was born on the winter solstice. Since “Yala” is the Assyrian word for “child” or “infant”, the winter solstice is also known as Yule Day, or the ‘Child’s day’ and the night which preceded it ‘Mother’s Night’. Tammuz was said to go into the forests and place a gift on a tree to honour his father Nimrod each year at the winter solstice. Trees and branches thus became symbols of Nimrod. Thus, Jer. 10:3-4 speaks of the “worthless custom” of the pagans going into the forest, cutting down a tree and decorating it. So the Christmas tree does not have its origin in Germanic customs, as most people think, but dates back to even earlier Babylonian practices!
The winter solstice was also sacred to the religion from Persia, Mithraism, whose followers worshipped the sun and celebrated its return to strength on that day. To them, it was the birthday of the Persian god “Mithra” or “Mithras”, the “god of light”. On that day, which they called “Shab-e Yalda”, the Persians celebrated the festival they called the Sacaea. Part of that celebration included the exchanging of places: the slaves would become the masters and the masters were to obey. Mithraism was one of Christianity’s main rivals at the time of the early Church. In fact, Mithras had attained such popularity and favour in the eyes of the emperors that the winter solstice became sacred not only to Mithraism but to the religion of the pagan Romans too, as is evidenced by the Emperor Aurelian proclaiming the cult of “Sol Invictus” (“the Unconquered Sun”) as the Roman Empire’s official state religion.
Even the Israelites fell for sun worship. In Ezek. 8:14 it is written that women were weeping for Tammuz (the Assyrian god). He was the equivalent of Adonis (an idol among the Greeks) and Horus (an idol of the Egyptians). The Israelite women cried at his death; shortly, they would rejoice over his returning to life. The priests were recorded as even partaking in the worship of the sun with their backs facing the Lord’s temple (Ezek. 8:16)! This was a great abomination to the Lord.
The ancient Greeks held a festival similar to that of the Babylonians' Zagmuk festival to assist their god Kronos, who would battle the god Zeus and his Titans. The winter solstice was also sacred to the Phrygian sun god "Attis" and observed in honour of the "god of harvest", Saturn.
The primitive people of Europe and Asia had celebrated, from time immemorial, the sun's rebirth at the winter solstice. The Romans also celebrated the winter solstice, which they called "the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun". The holiday came at the end of a week-long festival called "Saturnalia", which honoured Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, and for them, this took place on December 25th.
In order to understand why the winter solstice came to occur on December 25th (rather than any other date), it is necessary to take a diversion, as we look at the history of the Roman calendar.
Next page: The Roman Calendar >>