Two gods were born on 25 December, to wit, Sol, the Invincible Sun (Sol invictus) and the ascendant Christ.
Whose day was it, really?
The 12th century Syriac bishop, Jacob bar-Salibi, had this to say:
It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.What the good bishop imagined was that, during the last years of paganism, the cult of Sol remained so popular that the Church Fathers could only neutralize its celebration on the [traditional] winter solstice of December 25th by setting the birthday of Christ on that very same day. In other words, they snatched the day and, sooner rather than later, Christ trumped Sol.
The great classical scholar, Franz Cumont, had no doubt that this was what had happened. In his monumental Mysteries of Mithra, he declared it "certain that the commemoration of the Nativity was set for the 25th of December, because it was at the winter solstice that the rebirth of the invincible god [Sol], the Natalis invicti [birth of the Invincible (Sun)], was celebrated. In adopting this date, which was universally distinguished by sacred festivities, the ecclesiastical authority purified in some measure the profane usages which it could not suppress." (195-196)*
This view is now almost universally accepted; but is it true?
Obviously, we don't really know the date of the birth of Jesus Christ. The gospels do not say and the early church didn't much care about his physical birth. Until the Church Fathers got around to settling such questions in the 4th century, there was a grab bag of guesses. According to St Clement of Alexandria (2nd C):
There are those who have determined [the day] of our Lord’s birth; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Emperor Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20]... Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].Clement dismissed such dates out of hand. Instead, his own calculations showed that Christ was born on November 17, in the year 3 BC. A century later, a God-inspired theologian announced that Christ, the new "sun of Righteousness", was born on March 28 since the Creation began with the spring equinox (= March 25] and the Sun was created on the fourth day. So that was that (or so he thought). Before long, however, another learned priest calculated that the birth date was April 2 in the year 8 AD -- 5500 years to the day after the Creation, as he had worked it out himself. And then, of course, there were many who celebrated 8 January (Epiphany), still Christmas day in many Orthodox churches.
But no one had yet suggested December 25th.
It is only with the famous Calendar of Philocalus (a list of the early bishops of Rome and Roman festivals) written in 354 AD that we find, given for the year 336, December 25: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae, "Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea".
Flashback to 274 AD and Sol, the Invincible Sun
The Roman cult of Sol existed from the earliest history of the city until at least the time when Christianity became the exclusive State religion (380 AD). The notion that the sun was divine was in Roman eyes a matter of visible fact rather than faith. As a divinity, the sun was clearly due divine honours. He had at least four temples in Rome. We know of cult statues, as well as public feasts at one time or another on August 8th, 9th, and 22nd, October 19th - 22nd, and December 11th and December 25th.
The curious thing is that December 25th was the sole festival of Sol to fall on an astronomically significant date. Obviously the new sun is 'born' on the winter solstice when the days will start to lengthen but what exactly did the pre-Christian Romans celebrate on that date?
Enter Aurelian, conqueror of Zenobia
|Obverse: Radiate bust IMP C AVRELIANVS AVG|
Reverse: Sol standing, hand raised in salute, seated bound captives
Although Sol was favoured by emperors before and after Aurelian (r. 270-275 AD), there is no doubt that Aurelian intentionally elevated the sun-god to become one of the top divinities of the empire. Earlier priests of Sol had been generally from the middle ranks of Roman society, simple sacerdotes in a lower class public cult. Aurelian raised them to the level of pontifices, an office now filled by members of the senatorial elite. To be a priest of Sol was now a top prestige post.
He built a temple for the god on the eastern Campus Martius, today between the Via del Corso and the Piazza San Silvestro (so Bel may still be lurking under the church of San Silvestro in Capite). Something of this huge temple remained on the site until at least 1629 when Giovanni Battista Mercati made this haunting etching (above left) of its ruins. The temple incorporated eight splendid porphyry columns most probably transplanted from a temple in Palmyra; three centuries later these were transported by Justinian to Constantinople, to adorn his new church of St Sophia.
|Mosaic of Sol in a four-horse chariot|
It makes perfect sense. And, nowadays, there is almost unanimous agreement that this is what happened: the church hijacked Sol's birthday.
The problem is: we may have the story backwards.
So whose Christmas is it?
A recent doctoral dissertation by S.E. Hijmans at the University of Groningen (NL) takes a fresh look at whole kit and caboodle.* The new Dr Hijmans is the first to have noticed that there is absolutely no evidence to show that the Games of the Sun founded by Aurelian ever took place on December 25th. On the contrary, no feast day for Sol is mentioned on that day until 80 years later in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian the Apostate in his Oration to King Helios (the Sun).
In short, while the winter solstice on or around the 25th of December was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedates the celebration of Christmas, and none that indicates that Aurelian had a hand in its institution.*In fact, the Calendar lists a festival of Sol that was celebrated in 354 AD from 19-22 October culminating in an unparalleled 36 chariot races (instead of the standard 12 or 24 races at this time) -- an extravagance which seems to suggest not an annual festival but a rarer quadrennial event; thus, these are likely to be the Games dating back to Aurelian. Those games, first held in 274 AD and then every four years, would indeed have been celebrated in 354 (Philocalus' Calendar) and in 362 (Julian's Oration). So, if the Christians had wanted to take over Sol's most important festival, that should have been the multi-day games celebrated on 19-22 October.
But hang on a moment!
The Calendar also says that chariot races were held for the Sun on December 25th -- so which is it? Well, the calendar doesn't quite say that. It lists 30 races run that day in honour of Natalis Invicti; that is, the birth of the Invincible (or Unconquered) ....
While Invictus is a common epithet for Sol (but not only for Sol), the word is not followed by any name telling whose natalis is being honoured. Whether celebrating the birth of a god, an emperor, a hero, or even an event, a name is always given -- except this one time. This is an odd omission for a time-honoured feast.
|Christ as Sol in Mausoleum M in pre-4th C necropolis under St Peter's, Vatican|
There is a real possibility that the day was not dedicated to Sol until after the bishop of Rome first celebrated Christmas on that date in 336 AD -- a pagan reaction to a Christian feast, perhaps, rather than vice versa.
If Sol were the copycat (and not the other way round), this would explain why December 25th was the only festival of Sol to fall on an astronomically significant date.
This doesn't tell us when the Natalis Invicti of December 25th entered the Roman calendar, but it does appear to have overlapped (at least after 336 AD) with the celebration of natus Christus in Betleem Judeae on the same day. The Church fathers were, of course, aware of the cosmological significance of December 25th as winter solstice. That alone may have made it the most logical date to serve as the birthdate of Christ. The sun played a role in the Roman world as a divine cosmic body and Christians could deal with the heavenly body, sol, whose cosmic nature, higher order, and reality was undeniable, without necessarily dealing with the pagan god, Sol. While they were aware that pagans called this day the birthday of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and probably did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.
At the very least, this new way of looking at the evidence casts doubt on the contention that Christmas was instituted on December 25th in order to counteract a popular pagan religious festival. Christ didn't have to trump Sol after all. Sol wasn't even in play.
Enjoy your holidays with a clear conscience.
And Happy New Year to all.
Updated 22 December 2011
More images of Aurelian's Temple of the Sun in Rome discovered by Roger Pearse (Thoughts on Antiquity). Not much is left but you get a good idea of its original immensity..
* S.E. Hijmans, Sol: the Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, diss. Groningen, 2009; esp. Chapter 9.
Main sources: S.E. Hijmans, Sol: the Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome. I have also made us of Roger Pearse's posts on Franz Cumont, Mithras and 25 December at Thoughts on Antiquity
Upper left: Silver disc of Sol Invictus. Roman, 3rd century AD. From Pessinus (Bala-Hissar, Asia Minor). British Museum GR 1899.12-1.2, Photo credit: Jastrow via Wikipedia
Left: Bronze figure of Sun-god, Roman, 3rd century AD. Photo credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum, GR 1865,0712.17
Centre: gold coin (aureus) of Aurelian. Photo credit: Tataryn77 via Wikipedia
Below left: Etching by Giovanni Battista Mercati of the ruins of Aurelian's Temple of the Sun in 1629, from the series Some Views and Perspectives of the Uninhabited Places of Rome. Photo: The Amica Libary
Lower left: Sol in a 4-horse chariot (quadriga), Roman mosaic in Bonn Rheinisches Landes Museum. Photo credit: petrus agricola.flickriver
Lowest left: Mosaic of or Apollo-Helios Detail of vault mosaic of Christ as Sol in the Mausoleum of the Julii. From the Mid-late 3rd century necropolis under St. Peter's in the Vatican. Photo credit: Leinad-Z via Wikipedia