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According to conventional wisdom, Christmas had its origin in a pagan winter solstice festival, which the church co-opted to promote the new religion. In doing so, many of the old pagan customs crept into the Christian celebration. But this view is apparently a historical myth-like the stories of a church council debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or that medieval folks believed the earth is flat-often repeated, even in classrooms, but not true.
William J. Tighe, a history professor at Muhlenberg College, gives a different account in his article "Calculating Christmas," published in the December 2003 Touchstone Magazine. He points out that the ancient Roman religions had no winter solstice festival.
True, the Emperor Aurelian, in the five short years of his reign, tried to start one, "The Birth of the Unconquered Sun," on Dec. 25, 274. This festival, marking the time of year when the length of daylight began to increase, was designed to breathe new life into a declining paganism. But Aurelian's new festival was instituted after Christians had already been associating that day with the birth of Christ. According to Mr. Tighe, the Birth of the Unconquered Sun "was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians." Christians were not imitating the pagans. The pagans were imitating the Christians.
The early church tried to ascertain the actual time of Christ's birth. It was all tied up with the second-century controversies over setting the date of Easter, the commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection. That date should have been an easy one. Though Easter is also charged with having its origins in pagan equinox festivals, we know from Scripture that Christ's death was at the time of the Jewish Passover. That time of year is known with precision.
But differences in the Jewish, Greek, and Latin calendars and the inconsistency between lunar and solar date-keeping caused intense debate over when to observe Easter. Another question was whether to fix one date for the Feast of the Resurrection no matter what day it fell on or to ensure that it always fell on Sunday, "the first day of the week," as in the Gospels.
This discussion also had a bearing on fixing the day of Christ's birth. Mr. Tighe, drawing on the in-depth research of Thomas J. Talley's The Origins of the Liturgical Year, cites the ancient Jewish belief (not supported in Scripture) that God appointed for the great prophets an "integral age," meaning that they died on the same day as either their birth or their conception.
Jesus was certainly considered a great prophet, so those church fathers who wanted a Christmas holiday reasoned that He must have been either born or conceived on the same date as the first Easter. There are hints that some Christians originally celebrated the birth of Christ in March or April. But then a consensus arose to celebrate Christ's conception on March 25, as the Feast of the Annunciation, marking when the angel first appeared to Mary.
Note the pro-life point: According to both the ancient Jews and the early Christians, life begins at conception. So if Christ was conceived on March 25, nine months later, he would have been born on Dec. 25.
This celebrates Christ's birth in the darkest time of the year. The Celtic and Germanic tribes, who would be evangelized later, did mark this time in their "Yule" festivals, a frightening season when only the light from the Yule log kept the darkness at bay. Christianity swallowed up that season of depression with the opposite message of joy: "The light [Jesus] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).
Regardless of whether this was Christ's actual birthday, the symbolism works. And Christ's birth is inextricably linked to His resurrection.