Catholic Scholars on Christmas


The early Catholic Church did not celebrate Christmas. Furthermore, Tertullian (one of its leading 2nd/3rd century writers) warned that to participate in the winter celebrations made one beholden to pagan gods.

Notice what Tertullian wrote about winter celebrations, such as Saturnalia (from a pagan deity whose name meant plentiful):

The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s, as the Saturnalia Saturn’s; Saturn’s, which must necessarily be celebrated even by little slaves at the time of the Saturnalia. New-year’s gifts likewise must be caught at, and the Septimontium kept; and all the presents of Midwinter and the feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted; the schools must be wreathed with flowers; the flamens’ wives and the aediles sacrifice; the school is honoured on the appointed holy-days. The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday; every pomp of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian…? (Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter X. Translated by S. Thelwall. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).

But, however, the majority (of Christians) have by this time induced the belief in their mind that it is pardonable if at any time they do what the heathen do (Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter XIV).

The Catholic Encyclopedia teaches that:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church (Martindale C. Transcribed by Susanti A. Suastika. Christmas. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).

The above is true.

An Armenian scholar called Ananias of Shirak, circa 600 A.D., wrote:

The Festival of the holy Birth of Christ, on the 12th day before the feast of the Baptism, was not appointed by the holy apostles, nor by their successors either, as is clear from the canons of the holy apostles…which is 6th of January, according to the Romans.

But many years after their fixing the canons, this festival was invented, as some say, by the disciples of the heretic Cerinthus; and was accepted by the Greeks, because they were truly fond of festivals and most fervent in piety; and by them it was spread and diffused all over the world.

But in the days of the holy Constantine, in the holy Council of Nice, this festival was not received by the holy fathers (Ananias of Shirak, On Christmas, The Expositor, 5th series vol. 4 (1896) Translation. pp.323-337, as reported by ccel).

Twelve days before January 6th is December 25th (see also Conybeare F.C. The Key of Truth: A Manual of the Paulician Church of Armenia. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898, pp. 185). Hence, the above report suggests that December 25th was originally developed by the heretic Cerinthus.

Why would Cerinthus pick December 25th?

Probably because that was the day of celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra (also spelled Mithras). December 25th also took place during the Saturnalia, hence it was acceptable to at least two groups of pagans. Followers of Mithra represented an influential group in the Roman Empire. Other practices associated with Mithraism have become part of the Roman and Orthodox Catholic churches (such as their communion services).

Cerinthus was a heretic who the Apostle John publicly denounced towards the end of the first century. Notice that Irenaeus wrote that John detested Cerinthus so much that he would not even take a bath in the same building as him:

There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book III, Chapter 3, Verse 4).

Why would anyone want to observe a holiday started by an “enemy of truth” that was denounced so strongly by the Apostle John?

Well, at least until the Council of Nicea, the December 25th Christmas holiday was not even accepted by the Roman Catholics.

The Roman Catholics have also condemned Cerinthus as a heretic:

Cerinthus A Gnostic-Ebionite heretic, contemporary with St. John…Cerinthus was an Egyptian, and if not by race a Jew…Cerinthus’s doctrines were a strange mixture of Gnosticism, Judaism, Chiliasm, and Ebionitism (Arendzen J.P. Transcribed by William D. Neville. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).

Yet, the Church in Rome did endorse Christmas, however, no later than by the latter half of the fourth century. Astoundingly the Roman Catholics adopted it when it essentially absorbed the followers of Mithraism.

Notice the following:

Mithraism A pagan religion consisting mainly of the cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun-god Mithra. It entered Europe from Asia Minor after Alexander’s conquest, spread rapidly over the whole Roman Empire at the beginning of our era, reached its zenith during the third century, and vanished under the repressive regulations of Theodosius at the end of the fourth century…Helios Mithras is one god…Sunday was kept holy in honour of Mithra, and the sixteenth of each month was sacred to him as mediator. The 25 December was observed as his birthday, the natalis invicti, the rebirth of the winter-sun, unconquered by the rigours of the season (Arendzen. J.P. Transcribed by John Looby. Mithraism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).

The World Book Encyclopedia notes,

In 354 A.D., Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate on December 25. He probably chose this date because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the sun (Sechrist E.H. Christmas. World Book Encyclopedia, Volume 3. Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, Chicago, 1966, pp. 408-417).

It needs to be understood that some scholarly sources believe that the celebration in Rome of Christmas may have began 2-3 decades earlier (by Constantine), but none I am aware of suggest it was prior Constantine in the fourth century.

There have been scholars who believe that Constantine was involved as tradition claims a certain church in Rome as the first site of a December 25th “Christmas” celebration as the following news account indicates:

The church where the tradition of celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 may have begun was built near a pagan shrine as part of an effort to spread Christianity, a leading Italian scholar says.

Italian archaeologists last month revealed an underground grotto that they believe ancient Romans revered as the place where a wolf nursed Rome’s legendary founder, Romulus, and his twin brother, Remus. A few feet from the grotto, or “Lupercale,” the Emperor Constantine built the Basilica of St. Anastasia, where some believe Christmas was first celebrated on Dec. 25…

It opted to mark Christmas, then celebrated at varying dates, on Dec. 25 to coincide with the Roman festival celebrating the birth of the sun god, Andrea Carandini, a professor of archaeology at Rome’s La Sapienza University, told reporters Friday. The Basilica of St. Anastasia was built as soon as a year after the Nicaean Council. It probably was where Christmas was first marked on Dec. 25, part of broader efforts to link pagan practices to Christian celebrations in the early days of the new religion, Mr. Carandini said. “The church was built to Christianize these pagan places of worship,” he said. “It was normal to put a church near these places to try to ‘save’ them.” Rome’s archaeological superintendent, Angelo Bottini, who did not take part in Mr. Carandini’s research, said that hypothesis was “evocative and coherent” and “helps us understand the mechanisms of the passage from paganism to Christianity.” (Scholars link 1st yule church to pagan shrine. Washington Times – Dec 23, 2007 ROME (AP). viewed 12/24/07).

And the December 25th date was adopted apparently because the Greco-Roman church was filled with people who did not care that this was the Saturnalis/Mithra birthday, so calling it by the name of Christ somehow was believed to make the sun rebirth activities more acceptable.

And the December 25th Christmas did not become part of the observations in Constantinople until the famous hater of Jews, John Chrysostum, introduced it there:

We may take it as certain that the feast of Christ’s Nativity was kept in Rome on 25 December…It was introduced by St. John Chrysostom into Constantinople and definitively adopted in 395 (Thurston. H. Transcribed by Rick McCarty. Christian Calendar. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York ).

Furthermore, here is even more that The Catholic Encyclopedia admits this about Christmas:

Christmas…Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the “birthdays” of the gods.

Alexandria. The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I, xxi in P.G., VIII, 888) says that certain Egyptian theologians “over curiously” assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ’s birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus…

Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Asia Minor. In Cyprus, at the end of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserts against the Alogi (Hær., li, 16, 24 in P. G., XLI, 919, 931) that Christ was born on 6 January…

Rome. At Rome the earliest evidence is in the Philocalian Calendar (P. L., XIII, 675; it can be seen as a whole in J. Strzygowski, Kalenderbilder des Chron. von Jahre 354, Berlin, 1888), compiled in 354, which contains three important entries. In the civil calendar 25 December is marked “Natalis Invicti”…

By the time of Jerome and Augustine, the December feast is established, though the latter (Epp., II, liv, 12, in P.L., XXXIII, 200) omits it from a list of first-class festivals. From the fourth century every Western calendar assigns it to 25 December…

The Gospels. Concerning the date of Christ’s birth the Gospels give no help; upon their data contradictory arguments are based. The census would have been impossible in winter: a whole population could not then be put in motion…

Natalis Invicti. The well-known solar feast, however, of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date. For the history of the solar cult, its position in the Roman Empire, and syncretism with Mithraism, see Cumont’s epoch-making “Textes et Monuments” etc., I, ii, 4, 6, p. 355…The earliest rapprochement of the births of Christ and the sun is in Cypr., “De pasch. Comp.”, xix, “O quam præclare providentia ut illo die quo natus est Sol . . . nasceretur Christus.” – “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born.”…

Cards and presents. Pagan customs centering round the January calends gravitated to Christmas…

The yule log. The calend fires were a scandal even to Rome, and St. Boniface obtained from Pope Zachary their abolition (Martindale C. Christmas, 1908).

Hence it is clear that even early Roman writers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen did not endorse Christmas, nor did Augustine even list it as an important holiday. And that even later Catholic sources recognize that it is not likely that a census (as shown in Luke 2:1) would be done during the winter–making a December 25th date of birth unlikely (it was also too cold for shepherds to spend the night with their flocks out in an open field, as shown in Luke 2:8, making a December 25th birth basically impossible).

It appears that towards the beginning of the third century, there were some in Alexandria (not Asia Minor, or even Rome) who began to feel that Jesus’ birth should be celebrated, and that it would be on May 25th. But later, in the fourth century, Christmas began to be celebrated with January 6th or December 25 being the dates observed (and that is believed to be because the sun-worshiping Emperor Constantine, or one of his successors, wanted to have a Sun holiday at the time of Saturnalia and Brumalia to placate the Gentiles–it should be noted that while Catholic scholars admit the probable pagan origins of the date and celebrations associated with Christmas, they tend to not believe that it was derived from Saturnalia).

Although it contains certain errors, even the popular novel The Da Vinci Code understood some of the relationship between sun worship and Christmas when it stated:

In Constantine’s day, Rome’s official religion was sun worship–the cult of Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun–and Constantine was its high priest…By fusing pagan symbols, dates, and rituals into the growing Christian tradition, he created a type of hybrid religion…

The pre-Christian God Mithras – called the Son of God and the Light of the World – was born on December 25…By the way, December 25 is also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus (Brown D. The Da Vinci Code. Doubleday, New York, 2003, p. 232).

While some may wish to argue with The Da Vinci Code the truth, as even all the Catholic scholars admit, is that Christmas was not observed in the second century by the post-apostolic New Testament Church.

They also admit that practices associated with Christmas are of pagan origin, and many of them were condemned by early Catholic leaders. And even the name Natalis Invicti, which the Catholics admit the date of the Christmas celebration apparently came from is a pagan festival that literally means invincible birth and that is referring to the so-called invincible birth of the sun, not Christ.

Why, as Catholic scholars admit, would the Gospels not be of no help in determining the date?

Precisely because God did not have the date recorded. Nor is it likely that Jesus was born in the winter.

It is of interest to note that God said He did not let the children of Israel see Him, lest they try to make images of Him (Deuteronomy 4:15-19). Thus it is logical that God did not have the date of Christ’s birth clearly recorded as He did not want it to be observed. It should also be understood that early Christians did not celebrate any birthdays (see also Did Early Christians Celebrate Birthdays?).

Perhaps I should add that a book I bought at the Vatican in 2004 states the following about the eighth bishop of Rome (now called Pontiffs) and Christmas:

8. TELESPHORUS, ST. (125-136)…He prescribed fasting and penance in the seven weeks before Easter, thus initiating a practice that is still alive in the Christian world. He established that on Christmas eve priests could say three masses and he introduced the Gloria in excelsis Deo, which he himself may have composed, at the beginning of the mass (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p.3).

That passage is clearly in error as there is no evidence that any in the second century celebrated Christmas.

More recently, a Roman Catholic author admitted the following:

So we don’t reject the use of trees at Christmas time because they were pagan, we continue to use them, because as symbols of life they now point to Christ. (Killian Brian. Halloween, as autumn celebration, reminder God’s name is hallowed. Catholic Online International News. 10/31/06.

Yet, the Catholic accepted English translation of the Bible, Douay Old Testament Of Anno Domini 1609 (DOT), teaches:

2 Thus saith our Lord: According to the ways of the Gentiles learn not: and (a) of the signs of heaven, which the heathen fear, be not afraid:
3 Because the laws of the people are vain: because the work of the hand of the artificer hath cut a tree out of the forest with an axe.
4 with silver and gold he hath decked it: with nails and hammers he hath compacted it, that it fall not asunder.. (Jerermie/Jeremiah 10:2-4, The Original And True Douay Old Testament Of Anno Domini 1609. Prepared and Edited by Dr. William von Peters, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005, Dr. William G. von Peters. Ph.D. 2005 copyright assigned to VSC Corp.).

29 When the Lord thy God shall have destroyed before thy face the nations, that thou enterest in to possess, and thou shalt possess them, and dwell in their land:
30 beware lest thou imitate them, after they be subverted at thy entering in, and thou require their ceremonies, saying: As these nations have worshipped their Gods, so will I also worship.
31 Thou shalt not do in like manner to the Lord thy God. For all the abominations, that our Lord doeth abhor, have they done to their Gods, offering their sons and daughters, and burning them with fire (Deuteronomy 12:29-31, DOT).

God does not approve of trees that are decorated in worship or other practices associated with pagan worship. Such things should not be done by Christians. God warns against imitating the ways of the pagans.  This is also shown in Protestant preferred translations of the Bible, like the King James Version as any one can check.

Of course, many do know that the reason that December 25th was chosen was because that was the birthday of Mithra, the sun-god.  Here is a carving of Mithra:

This radiating from the head ultimately ended up in painting, etc. of Greco-Roman saints.  And this is part of why people started to equate the “Son of God” with the “God of the Sun” (even though the words for son/sun in Greek and Latin do not sound the same like they do in English).

But would God want people to imitate pagan practices and adopt pagan dates for celebrations?

The Bible teaches:

24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24, NKJV)

It is NOT truth to worship God on pagan holidays.  It is NOT truth that December 25th is Jesus’ birthday.

Also notice what the last chapter of the last book of the Bible teaches:

14 Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. 15 But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie. (Revelation 22:14-16, NKJV)

Most scholars understand that Jesus was NOT born on December 25th.  God does not want His people to adopt pagan practices.  Is not observing Christmas practicing a lie?

Some articles of possibly related interest may include:

What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Christmas and the Holy Days? Do you know what the Catholic Church says were the original Christian holy days? Was Christmas among them?

Is January 1st a Date for Christians Celebrate? Historical and biblical answers to this question about the world’s New Year’s day.

Did Early Christians Celebrate Birthdays? Did biblical era Jews celebrate birthdays? Who originally celebrated birthdays? When did many that profess Christ begin birthday celebrations?

Sunday and Christianity Was Sunday observed by the apostolic and true post-apostolic Christians? How clearly endorsed Sunday?

What Did the Early Church Teach About Idols and Icons? Did Catholic and Orthodox “saints” endorse or condemn idols and icons for Christians?

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