This article analyzes the origin of the Feast of Nativity (Christmas) in the early Church. Based on the writing of some church fathers in the second Century, there seemed to be no uniformity in a date celebrating the nativity of the Lord–if at all there was a celebration. However By the early 4th Century, two different days were prevalently believed to be the dates of the birth of Christ–January 6th and December 25th. By the end of 4th Century, December 25th prevailed as the day to commemorate the birth of Christ in almost all the churches–East and West.
The fact that there was no uniformity or agreement on the exact day of the Lord’s birth by the 2nd Century, is evident from the writing of Clement of Alexandria.
Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, Book I, Chapter 21)
And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon [May 20]. And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. And they say that it was the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, the fifteenth day of the month Tubi [January 10]; and some that it was the eleventh of the same month [January 6]. And treating of His passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the sixteenth year of Tiberius, on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the nineteenth of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi [April 21 or 22].
In the above excerpt, Clement mentions that some believed the day to be on January 6. This was the case for the Churches of the East. For the Church of Alexandria, among other Churches both the Nativity and Epiphany were initially celebrated on January 6th. (This would change to December 25th by the early 5th Century in Alexandria. More on this later). The Armenians have held on to the January 6th tradition to this day, as they currently celebrate both the feast of Epiphany and the feast of Nativity on January 6th.
The 6th of January has in its favor an older tradition (according to Epiphanius and Cassianus), and is sustained by Eusebius. It was celebrated in the East from the third century as the feast of the Epiphany, in commemoration of the Nativity as well as of Christ’s baptism, and afterwards of his manifestation to the Gentiles (represented by the Magi). – Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church, Page 128)
The December 25th date was not without prominence, at least by the 4th Century in the West. This was in part, due to the common belief that the Lord both suffered and was conceived on the same day. At around 200 A.D., Tertullian presented a calculation (in Adversus Iudaeos 8) that the 14th of Nisan on the Hebrew Calendar, which is the day of the crucifixion of Christ, coincided with March 25th on the Roman calendar. Accordingly, if the Lord was conceived on March 25th, He was therefore born on December 25th, which is nine months after March 25th. For this reason, March 25th was recognized as the date of the Feast of Annunciation, and December 25th, the date of the Feast of Nativity. This was the case in the West, and soon to become the case in the East (including the Coptic Church) as we will discuss shortly:
This aforementioned was expressed by St. Augustine:
For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. St. Augustine (On the Holy Trinity, Chapter 5)
By the end of the 4th Century, things began to change for the Churches in the East. They began to commemorate Feast of Nativity on December 25th, as a distinct and separate day from January 6th. But they also continued to commemorate Feast of Epiphany on January 6th, 12 days later (these were known as the “12 days of Christmas”). On December 25,~386 A.D., in a homily delivered to the people of Antioch, St. John Chrysostom explained that celebrating the Feast of Nativity on December 25th was a recent change made within less than ten years:
Although it is not yet the tenth year since this day [December 25th] became clear and familiar to us, through your zeal, it has now flourished as though it was given from the beginning many years ago. Because of this one would not be far wrong in saying that it is both new and old: new because it has only recently been made known to you, old and venerable because it has swiftly become similar in stature to days long recognized and it feels as though it is of similar age to them.
St. John Chrysostom goes on to explain that the day (celebrating Christmas on the December 25th) was already known to the West, and that this change in the Church in the East. was not received well by everyone:
This day was known from the beginning to those in the West: now it has been brought to us and before the passing of many years, has swiftly shot up, bearing such fruit as you now see…Everywhere there is a lot of conversation about this day, some saying accusingly that the day is a new innovation which has only recently been introduced, while others contend that it is ancient and venerable…
Then St. John Chrysostom went on to try to convince the flock as to why December 25th was really the day of the birth of Christ:
I have three convincing arguments to share with you through which we will know for sure that this is the time at which our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Word, was born. Of the three the first is that the news about the feast was swiftly circulated everywhere; it increased in prominence and the feast flourished…- St. John Chrysostom (Homily on the Date of Christmas)
From the above referenced sermon, the following is evident:
- At the time of the sermon (about ~386 A.D.), the Feast of Nativity was newly being celebrated as a distinct feast independent of the Epiphany. This was a novelty to the Churches of the East when the sermon was being delivered.
- St. John Chrysostom mentioned he believed the Church in the West always celebrated the Feast of Nativity on December 25th, as an independent festival, and that they did so “from the beginning and by old tradition”.
- The change from celebrating the Nativity on the January 6th to December 25th, was met with some opposition, but the change was prevailing.
- St. John Chrysostom believed December 25th was the day the Lord was actually born, and not merely a random day assigned by the Church.
Similarly, St. Gregory Nazianzen gave a sermon (Oration 38) on December 25th:
On the 25th of December, 380, being Christmas Day, he [Gregory Nazianzen] preached on the Mystery of the Incarnation, and on the manner in which it is to be celebrated. Two other orations, on the Baptism of Christ, and on the spiritual gifts and graces bestowed in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and on the danger of delay of Baptism, and on the Baptism of young children, were delivered by him at Constantinople on January 6 and January 7, A.D. 381. – Chr. Wordsworth, D.D. (A church History)
While it is clear that St. John Chrysostom believed celebration of Christmas on December 25th was “from the beginning and by old traditions”, some historians maintain that celebrating Christmas on a distinct day–namely December 25th, first appeared in Rome in the 4th Century:
At all events, the celebration of December 25 as Christmas appears first in Rome, apparently in 353 or 354, though it may date from 336. From Rome it spread to the East, being introduced into Constantinople, probably by Gregory of Nazianzus, between 378 and 381. A sermon of Chrysostom, preached in Antioch in 388, declares that the celebration was then not ten years old in the East, and the discourse was delivered, it would appear, on the first observance of December 25 in the Syrian capital. It reached Alexandria between 400 and 432. – Williston Walker (A History of the Christian Church, Page 169)
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, based on the writings of John Cassian, the December 25th Nativity feast reached Alexandria between 427 and 433:
John Cassian records in his “Collations” (X, 2 in P.L., XLIX, 820), written 418-427, that the Egyptian monasteries still observe the “ancient custom”; but on 29 Choiak (25 December) and 1 January, 433, Paul of Emesa preached before Cyril of Alexandria, and his sermons…show that the December celebration was then firmly established there, and calendars prove its permanence. The December feast therefore reached Egypt between 427 and 433. – “Christmas” (Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm)
The writings of church fathers show that they did not merely consider December 25th to be an arbitrary day set by the Church to remember the Lord’s birth. But rather, those who upheld this December 25th, literally believed He was born on this day. This was due to the fact that, as previously explained, the annunciation was believed to have taken place on March 25th, and so consequently the Nativity had to be on December 25th. But this was not the only reason.
The day of the birth of Christ was also tied the winter solstice. The winter solstice occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It is the day with the shortest daylight, and longest night of the year. This day occurs twice a year, once for each hemisphere (Northern and Southern). In the Northern hemisphere, the winter solstice takes place between December 20 and 23, depending on the year. The day after the winter solstice is the day of the year when the days begin to lengthen,. The birth of Christ was believed to be tied to this day, since Christ is the “true light…coming into the world” (John 1:9). Hence the birth of Christ was supposed to take place the day immediately after the winter solstice, which was December 25th. The winter solstice likely took place December 24th in the 4th Century.
The relationship between celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th and the winter solstice is evident from the below quote by St. Augustine:
St. Augustine (Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Psalm CXXXIII)
The ministry of man grew less and less, as was signified in John; the ministry of God in our Lord Jesus Christ increased, as was shown at their birth. The former [St. John the Baptist] was born, as the tradition of the Church shows, on the 24th of June, when the days begin to shorten. The Lord was born on the 25th of December, when the days begin to lengthen. Here John himself confessing, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Inversely, the summer solstice is the day of the year when the day hours are longest and nights are shortest. After the summer solstice, the nights continue to become gradually longer. For this reason, and because John the Baptist should decrease and Christ increase, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), the Church commemorated the birth of John the Baptist the day after the summer solstice. which was June 24th (Paona 30 on the Coptic Calendar).
The same idea explained in a letter attributed to St. Cyril of Alexandria, but some have argued the below letter is spurious.
And through the four seasons there are two equinoxes and two solstices. On the ninth Kalends of April [March 24th] is one equinox, and on the eighth Kalends of July [Jun 24th], on the birthday of Saint John, is one solstice, and on the eighth Kalends of January [Dec 25th], on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, is another solstice. — Attributed to St. Cyril of Alexandria (Letter 87)
Whether the above letter is spurious or not, the association of the birth of Christ with the winter solstice, and the association of the birth of John the Baptist with the summer solstice was clearly evident in the early Church starting with the 4th Century, as evidenced in the writings of some fathers and by the dates set by the Church to commemorate their birth. To this day, the Coptic Church still commemorates the birth of John the Baptist on June 24th (Julian), but this translates to July 7th (Gregorian).
With regard to Christmas, where does 29th of Kiahk (Coptic month) fit in? The 29th of Choiak coincides with December 25th on the Julian Calendar. Hence, when the Coptic Church celebrates the Feast of Nativity, it is actually still celebrating on December 25th, but on the Julian Calendar. Prior to the change to the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, East and West (not including the Armenian Church), all celebrated Feast of Nativity on the same day– December 25th.
In the 14th Century, Ibn-Kabar affirms the belief that the Lord’s birth was on Tuesday, the 25th of December (which coincided with the 29th day of the Coptic month of Choiak (Kiahk)):
He was born in time in Bethlehem the land of Aphratha, the village of David. His birth was on Tuesday, the 25th of Canoon the First (25th of December) – which is the 29th of Koiak, the fourth month of the Egyptian Calendar – It was said that it coincided with the 10th of Shaabaan of the Crescent Calendar. This was in the 42nd year of the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus, and during the reign of Herod Antonitus on the Judean quarter. – Ibn-Kabar (The Lamp that Light the Darkness In Clarifying the Service, 1296-1332 A.D.)
December 25th also has some significance with regard to purification of the Temple, as referenced in 2 Maccabees. According to the Orthodox Study Bible: “The twenty-fifth of Chislev on the Hebrew calendar corresponds with December 25, bringing to mind the coming of the Son of God in the flesh for the purification of mankind”:
It happened on the anniversary of the same day the temple was profaned by the foreigners, that the purification of the temple took place: on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. (2 Maccabees 10:5)
Thus, January 7th on the Gregorian Calendar corresponds with Kiahk 29 on the Coptic Calendar, Both correspond with December 25th on the Julian Calendar. While the Coptic Church commemorates the Feast of Annunciation today on April 7th (Gregorian), this day corresponds with March 25th (Julian). Thus, the only thing that has changed is the shift from the Julian to Gregorian Calendars by the West and other churches. Hence, since the end of the 4th Century, the unanimous goal of the Churches, both East and West (including the Coptic Church) was to celebrate the Feast of Annunciation on March 25th and the Feast of Nativity on December 25th. Churches that celebrate Christmas on January 7th today, are actually celebrating it on December 25th of the Julian Calendar. The same churches which celebrate Epiphany on January 19th (Gregorian) today, including the Coptic Church, are still celebrating it January 6th (Julian).
In summary, by the 4th Century, there were two prevalent traditions to celebrate the Nativity of Christ. In the East, the Nativity was celebrated on January 6th along with Epiphany on the same day. In the West, Christmas was celebrated on December 25th, followed by a separate celebration of Epiphany on January 6th. The tradition of the West was gradually assimilated by the Churches in the East, except for the Armenian Apostolic Church. Nothing has changed between East and West since the 4th Century, except the shift to the Gregorian Calendar by some churches. Christmas was and always be celebrated on December 25th in all churches (except the Armenian Church) depending on which calendar is being used.