At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. But even after 2,000 years, it is still unclear when he was born. In any case, there is no information in the New Testament about the exact date. So why exactly December 25 was chosen as his birthday is still a matter of debate among scientists today.
People worldwide celebrate Christmas on December 25, except for those Orthodox who follow the Julian calendar. They don’t celebrate the holiday until Jan. 6 or 7. Christmas has long been celebrated on December 25 – at least in Rome, explains Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, a historian at the Institute for Medieval Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
In a Roman festival calendar from 335 AD, this day is mentioned as Christmas. That, he says, is the earliest confirmed reference. At that time, Christianity became permitted and even promoted religion. “Now Christians could openly celebrate their festivals, and that’s when this festival appears on December 25 in the mid-330s,” Preiser-Kapeller said.
Dispute over origin
However, there is still disagreement among scholars today about why exactly Christmas is celebrated on December 25. Some say early Christians searched Bible texts for clues and interpreted them to mean that December 25 was the closest date. Other scholars assume that there were already pagan festivals of the gods on that day that Christians adopted. In Rome, for example, there was the festival for the sun god Sol Invictus, which was also celebrated on December 25.
However, the first evidence for the sun god festival is as old as Christmas. Who now oriented itself at whom is thus a hen or egg question. From a scientific perspective, more can be said about Christmas Eve and December 26.
Christmas Eve has a Jewish tradition
The family celebration on Christmas Eve returns to a Jewish tradition, explains Johannes Preiser-Kapeller. “There one celebrates already the eve of the feast, for example, with the Sabbath.” He says that Christmas Eve was added later to the Christmas celebration. December 26, in turn, is the day of the martyr Stephen, thus an independent day of remembrance, which was embedded in the Christmas festive cycle.
Johannes Preiser-Kapeller points out that in the first centuries of Christianity, no single authority defined feast days and their timing in a binding way for everyone. He suspects that there were different local Christmas traditions and that people eventually adapted to the Roman model of December 25.
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