Question: The Dating of Christmas and Easter

The Date of Christmas

“Adoration of the Child” by Gerrit van Honthorst

This second part was, originally, to follow closely behind its predecessor, but circumstances beyond my control, and my tendency to over-research, delayed this post’s creation for far too long.  My original hope had been to have it online by the end of the Christmas season.  Lent is here, so I guess it will have to serve your Lenten meditations.

Oh well.

In the first of these two posts, we dealt with Marcy’s question: “Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”  I hoped to show that such pagan celebrations arise in Christian traditions because the Church, when preaching the Faith to these pagan peoples, incorporated what was useful into the life of the Church, creating an authentic culture.  In this second post, we will deal with her question involving the dating of Christmas: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that? Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?”

The question assumes one commonly held belief concerning Christmas: the birth of Christ actually occurred during the spring.  Several pieces of evidence are put forward to support this.  The key one is that Luke’s Gospel reports that shepherds who were “in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Luke 2: 8).  The obvious implication is that the area around Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth, would be too cold in late December for shepherds to be watching their sheep at night.  Christ must have been born during a warmer time (maybe Spring or Autumn, during the feast of Tabernacles, the harvest feast for the Jews), and thus December 25 is wrong.  The date, the theory continues, was chosen, like the Christmas tree and Yule logs, to incorporate pagan celebrations into the newly formed Christian Faith, a way of making new converts feel more at home.  That is the reason why the Church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December, away from its real date.

Often repeated, such evidence is, and with each repetition it sounds that much more convincing.  However, we should not be so quick to throw out the traditional date of Christmas.  There is evidence in favor of it, as well as against it.

First, let’s address the whole shepherd issue.  Does the presence of shepherds and sheep remove the possibility of a December Christmas?  Taylor Marshall, a professor and chancellor at FisherMoreCollege [http://www.fishermore.edu/] in Texas, notes that “Bethlehem is situated at the latitude of 31.7,” a latitude with “rather comfortable” outside temperature in December (Marshall, 52).  A quick glance at the weather nowadays in Bethlehem (January 2013) has a nighttime temperature of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, not balmy, but bearable.  At the same time, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “Authorities moreover differ as to whether shepherds could or would keep flocks exposed during the nights of the rainy season” (Martindale, “Christmas”).  The issue of shepherding in the winter thus remains open.  We cannot reject the December dating of Christmas because of a shepherd-based argument.

The second argument against the dating of Christmas in December is the claim that Christians simply put Christmas in December to coincide with one of several pagan festivals: the festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the winter solstice (the festival ran through middle/late December), or the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti, a celebration of the Unconquered Sun’s Birth (held on December 25).  The Christian Church, in an attempt to bring in more pagan converts, acquired these older pagan feasts, and thus made Christ’s birthday coincide with these festivals.

Is there evidence for such an acquisition?

Again, Dr. Taylor Marshall goes through a truly scholastic (in the original sense of the term) discussion of these points.  Regarding the winter solstice, he notes that the dates recorded for the celebrations (sometime between December 17 and December 22) do not coincide with the date for Christmas.  Now, this counterargument seems dismissive, but, then again, the connection between the winter solstice and Christmas is one of temporal approximation; there doesn’t seem to be any theological or spiritual connection between the coming of winter and the arrival of Christ.  If anything, springtime would be a better symbol, rather than the winter solstice, for the arrival of Christ, the life for the world.

The connection between Christmas and the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti is likewise tenuous.  Though there was a pre-Christian tradition of sun worship in Ancient Rome, the festival in honor of the Natalis Solis Invicti do not predate the celebration of Christmas in December.  The earliest references to the Natalis Solis Invicti occur during the reign of Emperor Aurelian.  Aurelian established the celebration in AD 274 with the intention of unifying various pagan rituals, possibly in reaction to increased Christian activity in the mid-3rd century.  Contemporary Christians did not seek to connect the date of Christmas to the festival.  Only in the 12th century does one find scholars connecting pagan festivals and Christmas, often with the explicit purpose of dissuading people from celebrating Christ’s birth.  On the contrary, many Church Fathers refer to the celebration of Christmas on December 25, whereas March 25 was given the date not only of the Annunciation, and therefore Christ’s Incarnation, but also the date of His crucifixion.

The argument over whether Christ was born in the spring versus the winter does not seem a part of the early Christian Church.  A more pressing debate in the early Church, it seems, was not if Christmas belonged in the spring, but rather if Christmas was on December 25 or January 6 (the Western half of the Church solved this problem in typical joyous fashion: 12 days of Christmas, from December 25 through January 6).

As far as Easter is concerned, much debate raged over when it should be celebrated.  What time of year was never an issue; all four Gospels are very clear in putting the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus in the context of the Jewish feast of Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  This answers the first part of Marcy’s question: Easter is so intrinsically linked with the feast of Passover (which, in turn, is based on the vernal equinox and the cycle of full moons) that to deviate from that context might diminish the importance of the feast.  All Christians, since the beginning, saw in the feast of Passover a precursor of Christ’s Passover from death into life through His resurrection.  On all of that, Christians agree.

The controversy, rather, was over what day of the week to celebrate this greatest of feasts.

Two camps emerged in the first centuries following the end of Roman persecution (because, of course, when one is worried for his or her life, one doesn’t quibble over when to celebrate Church feasts).  One camp said that Christians should celebrate Easter three days after the Jewish celebration of Passover, regardless of the day of the week on which this celebration fell.  The other major camp held that the Church should celebrate Easter near the time of Passover, but on a Sunday, in commemoration of how Christ rose on the “first day of the week.”  This controversy went through several phases during the first millennium of Christendom.  Popes and Church councils would decree, eventually, that Easter was to be always celebrated on Sunday, though not without some heavy debates (the last big debate over this issue arose at the Synod of Whitby, England, in 663; Wilfrid, a British cleric who sided with the Sunday date for Easter, by that time the official decision from Rome, persuaded the contingent of Irish monks to celebrate Easter on Sunday by invoking the Irish fidelity to the Holy See).

So there you go.  I hope that cleared up everything, or if it didn’t, just let me know.

Happy Lent!

For Further Reading:

Marshall, Taylor.  The Eternal City: Rome & and Origins of Catholic Christianity.  Dallas, TX: St. John Press, 2012. – Defends outright the traditional dating of Christmas.

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 3.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013. Available at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm.

McGowan, Andrew.  “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Biblical Archaeology Review, n. d.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/Christmas.asp.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI).  The Spirit and the Liturgy.  Translated by John Saward.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – See especially Part II, Chapter 5 (“Sacred Time”) which has a fascinating look at the history of setting the dates for Easter and Christmas.

Thurston, Herbert.  “Easter Controversy.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 5.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm.

Tighe, William J.  “Calculating Christmas,” Touchstone, December 2003.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v.

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