This Is Why Christmas Is on December 25

The history behind how Christmas came to be celebrated at the end of December may have little to do with the actual date of Jesus's birth.

With holiday decorations popping up in stores before kids have finished their Halloween candy, it may be hard to imagine that Christmas wasn’t always celebrated on December 25. But it wasn’t until about three centuries after the birth of Jesus that Christians began commemorating it as a holiday on December 25th. Don’t miss the history of 10 Christmas traditions.

Why was that? First of all, the Bible doesn’t mention any specific date of birth for Jesus. Some biblical scholars note that passages mentioning sheep indicate Jesus may have been born in the spring, not in the winter, according to History.com. But the December 25th date could have come from Roman Catholic historian, Sextus Julius Africanus. In AD 221, he dated Jesus’s conception to March 25—nine months before December 25.

In addition, early Christian leaders considered the celebration of birthdays a pagan ritual. The Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the three Wise Men visiting Jesus and Easter, the day of Jesus’s resurrection, were considered more important religious holidays for early Christians (Here’s what you should write in your Christmas cards this year.)

But that doesn’t mean that early Christian leaders weren’t willing to take a page from the pagans. Check out these Christmas traditions from around the world.

“In the third century, the Roman Empire, which at the time had not adopted Christianity, celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25th. This holiday not only marked the return of longer days after the winter solstice but also followed the popular Roman festival called the Saturnalia (during which people feasted and exchanged gifts). It was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, a god of light and loyalty whose cult was at the time growing popular among Roman soldiers,” according to Britannica.com.

Early church leaders may have wanted to provide an alternative to the pagan celebrations. In AD 336, the church in Rome officially began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25. By that time, Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.

The holiday wasn’t widely accepted by early Christians, however. It wasn’t until the ninth century that Christmas became a major holiday. Next, read about the surprising history behind your favorite Christmas carols, or these cool facts about the White House Christmas tree.

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Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery is an associate editor for Reader’s Digest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Prevention, Rhode Island Monthly, and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.