Christmas: December 25 or January 6?

Don't tell the kids, but it's almost time for Christmas! That is, if you live in Armenia.

One of the lesser known facts about Christian history is how little concern there was -- for the first few hundred years -- about determining, much less celebrating, the date on which Jesus was born. The first extant record of proposed dates for the Nativity comes from Clement of Alexandria, about the turn of the 2nd to 3rd century:

There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lords birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar]. (Stromateis 1.21.145)

Missing from this earliest evidence is either of the two dates that came to be celebrated later: December 25 (in the Western parts of the Roman Empire) or January 6 (in the Eastern parts). How did these dates arise? And why is Armenia a stalwart, still celebrating Nativity on January 6?

To these questions, professor Andrew McGowan of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne has provided a well-researched and accessibly written response: "How December 25 Became Christmas." After laying out the basic evidence, McGowan does a great service by providing a compelling alternative to a common explanation of the origin of the Christmas date. First, the oft-repeated one:

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

This explanation has been anthologized by standard coursebooks on the history of Christianity -- yet it has scant evidence to commend it.

McGowan admits, to be sure, that many of Christmas's modern customs and symbols (e.g., the tree) were appropriated through cultural interaction with non-Christian peoples in Europe. Such obvious borrowing of customs and symbols has led scholars to believe -- probably falsely -- that the date of Christmas was also borrowed from non-Christian ritual practice.To the contrary, McGowan proposes the following: "Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus birth may lie in the dating of Jesus death at Passover."

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation -- the commemoration of Jesus conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

The first reference to the exact date of December 25 comes in the Philocalian calendar (354) from Rome, but no reason is given there for the dating.

In the East, too, the dates of Jesus conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar -- April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6 -- the eastern date for Christmas. ... Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

The notion that the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus ought to have occurred on the same day of the year expresses well the cyclical theological orientation of the ancient and medieval worldview. The Paschal mystery recapitulates creation.

The Armenians hold fast to the date of January 6, which was defended at length by the 7th-century Armenian mathematician, Anania of Shirak, in "A Discourse upon the Epiphany of Our Lord and Savior." In the course of that defense, he quotes from a letter about liturgical issues written by Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, to the Armenians in the year 335. It is furthermore clear in that letter -- which is the best extant evidence of Christian liturgy in Jerusalem before Cyril of Jerusalem, Egeria's travel diary, et al. -- that Macarius considered the date of the Nativity to be the same as the date of the Epiphany (Baptism).*

So while we complete our "Twelve Days of Christmas" in the West and prepare for our Epiphany to the Magi and "Three Kings' Day" celebrations, let us not forget the Armenians, who honor a tradition of equal antiquity.

* Terian, Abraham. Macarius of Jerusalem: Letter to the Armenians (A.D. 335). Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008. 

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Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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