The Sun of Righteousness

The date of Jesus Christ’s birth is not recorded in the gospels.  The time of year is not even mentioned, although from the reference to shepherds “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Lk 2:8) one might conclude that his birth was in summertime.  This uncertainty begs the question:  how and why did Christians settle on December 25th as the date of Christmas?  This is much more than a trivia question, because in answering it we also learn something crucial about Christian faith, or rather, how Christians understand their connection to the world around them which did not yet know and believe in Christ.

To answer this question we need to know that while Christianity was first spreading through the Greco-Roman world in the first few centuries A.D., that the cult of the sun, the last of the major nature religions, was spreading simultaneously and just as quickly.  In the 70′s of the third century, Emperor Aurelian even designated this as the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.  This religion glorified the sun as the source of life, and therefor as the highest divine power.  Here, as in all natural religion, was the deification of nature, of natural life-forces.  The biggest celebration of sun worship took place in the last days of December during the winter solstice, when the days are the shortest and now begin to grow longer, bringing growth in warmth and light as spring approaches, as nature is resurrected, and as life triumphs over winter’s death.  Read more in the book Celebration of Faith, The Church Year by Alexander Schmemann.