By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — So on what day was Christ born? The early Christians had no idea, so they just borrowed a Roman pagan holiday — the winter solstice festival called Saturnalia.
Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Nonsense, said Dr. Claude Sasso, diocesan vice-chancellor.
“Saturnalia doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Sasso said. “There would be no reason to borrow a pagan holiday.”
Yes, Saturnalia does come close to Christmas. But not quite.
Sasso pointed to the Catholic Encyclopedia that stated the earliest evidence of Roman pagans began celebrating Saturnalia was around 220 B.C. But it was a week-long festival around the Dec. 21 solstice that began on Dec. 17 and ended on Dec. 23 — NOT Dec. 25.
Moreover, while the winter festival was celebrated in many pagan cultures besides the Roman, it was hardly the ONLY pagan festival.
“Every day is a pagan holiday somewhere,” Sasso said. “No matter where you put Christmas on the calendar, someone could say, ‘That’s near the pagan holiday of Blah, Blah, Blah.”
Indeed, historical evidence strongly indicates that Saturnalia was a week filled with lawlessness, drunkenness and even human sacrifice. Christians would not want to associate with that.
There is also strong evidence of the reverse — that in the waning days of paganism, one of the very last pagan Roman emperors tried to steal the Nativity from the Christians.
That happened in 274 A.D., according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, when the emperor Aurelian declared Dec. 25 — outside the traditional Saturnalia festival — as one of the premier feasts of the birth of the invincible “sun,” a homophonic irony in modern English.
Although there would be further persecutions, it would be only 50 years later that the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, would come to power and make Christianity the official religion of the empire.
But by the time of Aurelian, historical evidence is clear that Christians were growing rapidly in number, and that they had been celebrating Dec. 25 as the Nativity of Jesus for quite some time, perhaps even as early as the early second century.
Sasso conceded that the early Christians couldn’t know with certainty the exact date of Christ’s birth, and the early Fathers of the Church came up with several dates, any of which could be argued.
“These aren’t doctrinal concerns,” Sasso said. “These are traditions on when we celebrate.”
Whatever the date, the early Christians were really celebrating the essential truth that a savior was born, not exactly when.
“What we have in the Gospels is history, but it’s a unique form of literature,” Sasso said. “It reflects true history, but each of the evangelists, inspired by the Holy Spirit, presented the truth in a different form.”
One of the earliest records of setting the date at Dec. 25 came from the second century Father of the Church, St. Irenaeus in his landmark five-volume argument against Gnosticism, “Against Heresies.” But the date St. Irenaeus attempted to set was the Annunciation, the day Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the immaculate womb of Mary, and the word became flesh.
St. Irenaeus, born in Turkey, was a student of St. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. St. Polycarp was a direct disciple of St. John the Evangelist, who cared for the Mother of God in her final days on earth at nearby Ephesus.
The very first words of John’s Gospel, read at the Christmas Mass During the Day, are “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
It continues, “And the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son.”
In the context of fighting heresies that questioned the nature of Jesus as fully God and fully man, St. Irenaeus consulted the best historical record of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel, as well as the calendars of his day.
In Luke, he cited the passage of the Angel Gabriel visiting elderly priest Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, in the temple when throngs were praying to announce the miracle of St. John’s conception in the womb hof Zechariah’s elderly wife, Elizabeth.
St. Irenaeus set that date as Sept. 25, when throngs would be assembled that year for the Day of Atonement.
He then found that after Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, she immediately visited Elizabeth, who was “in her sixth month.”
That would be March 25, the date the church still celebrates as Feast of the Annunciation.
And exactly nine months after March 25? That would be Dec. 25.
That date took hold and grew slowly in the west as the Feast of the Nativity. Churches in the east, however, would also celebrate the Nativity, but on Jan. 6 with the Epiphany.
That practice continued until the late fourth century when St. John Chrysostom delivered his powerful Nativity sermon at Antioch, and from that date, churches in the east began to celebrate Dec. 25 as a feast of joy.
Chrysostom’s closing words still ring clearly today:
Since therefore all rejoice, I too desire to rejoice. I too wish to share the choral dance, to celebrate the festival. But I take my part, not plucking the harp, not shaking the Thyrsian staff, not with the music of the pipes, nor holding a torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ. For this is all my hope, this my life, this my salvation, this my pipe, my harp. And bearing it I come, and having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels, sing: Glory to God in the Highest; and with the shepherds, and on earth peace to men of good will.