Contra Natalis Solis Invictis

CHRISTMAS (from Old English Cristes maesse “Christ’s mass”).† Observance commemorating the birth of Jesus. In the Western church, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord was first celebrated on December 25 ca. A.D. 336, the date apparently chosen to counter the Roman feast Natalis Solis Invicti (“birth of the unconquered sun”), the birthday of Emperor Aurelius. In Alexandria and the Eastern churches the event was originally celebrated on January 6 in connection with the Feast of the Epiphany honoring Jesus’ baptism; some branches of the Eastern church still hold to this date. The name, which does not occur in the New Testament, derives from the three masses of the Western rite celebrating the threefold birth of Christ in the Father’s bosom, Mary’s womb, and the believer’s soul.

—Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 210–211.

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  1. If God had wanted us to celebrate the specific day of Christ’s physical birth, would He not have told us? I admit I romantically like the idea that Christ was born or conceived on the even of the feast of Tabernacles, but I see no proof in it other than as a romantic notion.

    • I thought it was approximately a fortnight earlier, on the feast of trumpets. But whichever, it would have to be somewhere around that time, because we know what time of year the course of Abia (Abijah) was ministering, when Zacharias would have been officiating. I’m not sure how much is being assumed when we work it out from that.

  2. “the date apparently chosen to counter the Roman feast” sounds like a good story, but is historically dubious. One can trace December 25 by implication back to the second and third centuries (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Julius Africanus, Hippolytus etc) who held March 25 (the first day of the year, and thought to be the anniversary of creation) as the date of the conception of Jesus, the actual date of incarnation. December 25 then falls out as exactly nine months’ gestational period thereafter. That it thus happened to coincide with pagan celebrations is incidental, not designed. A careful study of the records shows that the coincidence was considered a nuisance rather than a benefit.

    • Could you kindly point to the specific sources or to any research conducted? I noticed Bradley’s post below (devoid of documentation), but it then points to another source which I am assuming provides documentation. It refers to The Origins of the Liturgical Year.

      But besides them mentioning the date of Christ’s birth, which is a reasonable thing to be curious about, did they mention or advocate particular celebrations prior to 336?

  3. Unless there is good justification, I find the idea of hoping someone a merry Christ’s Mass very unpleasant. I don’t celebrate any mass. On the other hand, in Spanish it doesn’t sound bad to say “Feliz Navidad.” No mention of mass in Spanish.

    Hmmm. This post just made me think of the meaning of Solis, the surname on my mother’s side.

    • It’s not Christ’s Mass in French/Turkish (Noel), German (Weinacht), Welsh (Nadolig) or Greek (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΎΓΕΝΝΑ), either.

  4. All of these dates seem to be wrong. The most plausible attempt to work out the date of Christ’s birth was done by a theologian A. M. Hunter whose many books were published by SCM press some time back. December and January do not sound correct from what I read, if A. M. Hunter is to be taken seriously.

    • @John Rokos Please note my entire original comment which boils down to this:
      1) If God wanted us to know a specific date He would have told us.
      2) God did not tell us
      1,2 MT God does not want us to know a specific date.

      I then go into a small comment about a romantic notion which effectively says: I think it would be interesting if some (non important) facet of something(incredibly important) turned out to be X. The equivalent of saying:
      “I like nickel blot caps on my factory exhaust of my car”
      “Because I like nickel bolt caps”

      It doesn’t change the function but unfortunately does lead us to waste time talking about bolt caps, which I never should have mentioned.

    • And I don’t give a specific date either, just an approximate time in the year when it is most likely to have been.

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