Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The "First Christmas"

We have looked at some of the possible reasons for dating Christ's birth to December 25th, but how early was that dating settled upon?

Month of December; the figure is playing
dice on a table, which was only allowed
during festivals.
Eastern churches (especially Egypt) liked to celebrate on 6 January, but usually because that was the day of the Epiphany, when the Magi showed up and acknowledged the baby's special significance. The church at Constantinople accepted 25 December for the Nativity in 379, and Antioch followed in 386. Alexandria and the rest of Egypt accepted the December date in 431.

The official choice of date did not come before the  practice of celebrating it, however. There is a document called the Chronography of 354 that offers a clue. The Chronography was made for a wealthy Roman, Valentines, by one of the best-known scribes of the day, Furius Dionysius Filocalus (for that reason, copies of the manuscript through the ages have sometimes been called the Calendar of Filocalus).

The Chronography is an illustrated calendar and almanac in several parts. Its 16 sections contain, among other bits of information, pictures of cities, pictures and important dates of emperors, the planets and the zodiac, calculated dates for Easter from 312 to 411 CE, and an error-prone catalogue of early popes.

Section six is a straightforward calendar, with each month and day listed, along with their important events.  Here is listed, on 25 December, "N INVICTI"; it stands for Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, the "Day of Birth of the Unconquered Sun," a reference to Mithras. (Note: The Saturnalia festival is, of course, mentioned, but that ran from the 17th to 23rd, so early persecuted Christians using it to mask Christmas, when Christmas was listed as the 25th, seems like a hypothesis that has outlived its usefulness.)

Section 12 is what interests us. It is a list of the feast days of martyrs. The very first entry is:
VIII kal. Ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae
This means "On the 8th Kalends of January, birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea"

The 8th Kalends of January is 25 December. So a generation before the early churches started declaring 25 December  the day of Christ's birth, it was already being celebrated as such by Christians.

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