We need to debunk a bit of fake news before we get any deeper into the holiday season. The selection of December 25 as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ had nothing to do with Saturnalia or the winter solstice. Besides, Saturnalia wasn’t always celebrated in December, and it wasn’t even originally named for Saturn. It was adapted from an older version known to the Greeks, celebrated for their version of Saturn, Kronos.
The Kronia is first recorded in Ionia, the central part of western Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the eighth century BC, a little before the time of the prophet Isaiah. From there, the celebration spread to Athens and the island of Rhodes, ultimately making its way westward to Rome, shifting over time from midsummer to the winter solstice. Both festivals were a time of merriment and abandoning social norms, with gambling, gift-giving, suspension of normal business, and the reversal of roles by slaves and their masters.
The festival of Saturnalia, held between December 17 and 23, was undoubtedly the most popular of the year for Romans. It was marked by a reversal of societal norms, which apparently hearkened back to better days:
The first inhabitants of Italy were the Aborigines, whose king, Saturnus, is said to have been a man of such extraordinary justice, that no one was a slave in his reign, or had any private property, but all things were common to all, and undivided, as one estate for the use of every one; in memory of which way of life, it has been ordered that at the Saturnalia slaves should everywhere sit down with their masters at the entertainments, the rank of all being made equal. Italy was accordingly called, from the name of that king, Saturnia; and the hill on which he dwelt Saturnius, on which now stands the Capitol, as if Saturnus had been dislodged from his seat by Jupiter.
It’s widely believed by skeptics, and some well-meaning but misinformed Christians, that the date for celebrating Christmas was chosen by the early church to “Christianize” Saturnalia. The story goes that the festival was so popular that even Christians in the Roman Empire wouldn’t give it up, so church leaders declared December 25 the birth day of Jesus, established a feast, and stole Saturnalia from the pagans.
That happens not to be the case.
The earliest record of the observance of Christmas is from Clement of Alexandria around AD 200. But the first suggestion that Christmas might be linked to pagan worship didn’t come until the twelfth century, about nine hundred years later. In other words, as far as historians can tell, no Christians between the third through twelfth centuries thought they were accidentally worshiping a pagan god at Christmas. While some noted the proximity of December 25 to the winter solstice, which falls on December 21 or 22, early Christian writers did not believe the church chose the date. Rather, they saw it as a sign that God was the true sun, superior to the false gods of the pagans.
The Donatist sect in North Africa celebrated Jesus’ birth on December 25 in the early fourth century, before Constantine became emperor of Rome (so we can’t blame him for setting the date). And while it’s true that the emperor Aurelian made veneration of Sol Invictus the law throughout the Roman Empire in AD 274, a collection of ancient writings called Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae puts the feast day during the reign of Licinius (AD 308–324) on November 18. There is little evidence that a feast for Sol Invictus was held on December 25 before the middle of the fourth century AD, and Christians were celebrating the birth of Christ on that date about half a century earlier.
So, given that nobody in the first century recorded the actual date of Jesus’ birth, how did the early church arrive at December 25? It’s a little complex, but it illustrates the motives of the Church Fathers, which did not include sneaking pagan worship into the faith.
Second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa made an effort to calculate the exact date of Jesus’ death. For reasons that escape us, they settled on March 25, AD 29. (The reasons escape us because March 25 was not a Friday that year, nor was it Passover Eve, nor did Passover Eve fall on a Friday in AD 29, or even in the month of March.) The March 25 date was also noted by early church theologians Tertullian and Augustine.
There was a widespread belief among Jews of the day in the “integral age” of great prophets, which means it was thought that the prophets of Israel died on the same day they were conceived. It’s not biblical, but that’s not the point. What matters is the early church believed it, and that’s how it was decided that Jesus was born in late December: Adding nine months to March 25 brings you to—you guessed it—December 25.
It’s that simple. Underline this: Saturn and Saturnalia had nothing to do with Christmas.
The effort to claim the credit, however, is the work of the dark god and his minions. The recent pushback against celebrating Christmas has been so intense that some Christians are careful to avoid mentioning the holiday, except with trusted friends, lest they be accused of accidentally worshiping Saturn, Baal, Sol Invictus, or Nimrod—by other Christians. The Christmas season used to be the one time of year when Christ was openly proclaimed in our society. Sadly, zealous but misinformed believers have unwittingly helped the Fallen reclaim the holiday.
It’s almost certain that Jesus was not born on December 25. It’s also true that the Christmas holiday has attracted a lot of baggage—pagan traditions, hyper-commercialization, and awful renditions of Christmas carols by pop divas. (Mariah Carey recently tried to trademark the title “Queen of Christmas.” Seriously. Thankfully, the U.S. Patent Office said no.)
None of that matters. The important point is this: The early church did not establish December 25 as a feast day to celebrate the birth of Jesus to copy or co-opt a pagan holiday.
That said, Saturn successfully rebranded the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, as Sāturni diēs, Saturn’s Day, in the second century AD when Rome replaced its eight-day cycle with a seven-day week. And there is biblical evidence that some Jews adopted the worship of Saturn during the Babylonian captivity:
“You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts. (Amos 5:26–27)
Sikkuth appears to be a reference to a minor Babylonian god named Sakkud, or Sakkut. However, the pronunciation was close enough to the Hebrew word sukkat (“hut”) that the Jewish scholars who translated the Septuagint rendered the first line, “And you took along the tent of Molech.” The consonants of Molech and melek (“king”) are identical, but it’s interesting that the translators were comfortable bringing the “king-god” into the scripture, and that’s exactly how Stephen quoted Amos during his speech to the Sanhedrin.
It’s especially interesting since “Kiyyun” refers to the Babylonian name for Saturn, Kajjamānu, “the Steady One.” Kajjamānu was an unimportant god in the Mesopotamian pantheon, but it’s indicative of the hubris of the king-god: Under his influence, most of the Western world now calls God’s divinely ordained day of rest “Saturn’s Day.”
And because that isn’t enough, even Christians have been convinced that Saturn, not Jesus, is the reason we celebrate Christmas.
From the book The Second Coming of Saturn by Derek P. Gilbert
Derek Gilbert Bio
Derek P. Gilbert hosts SkyWatchTV, a Christian television program that airs on several national networks, the long-running interview podcast A View from the Bunker, and co-hosts SciFriday, a weekly television program that analyzes science news with his wife, author Sharon K. Gilbert.
Before joining SkyWatchTV in 2015, his secular broadcasting career spanned more than 25 years with stops at radio stations in Philadelphia, Saint Louis, Little Rock, and suburban Chicago.
Derek is a Christian, a husband and a father. He’s been a regular speaker at Bible prophecy conferences in recent years. Derek’s most recent book is The Great Inception: Satan’s PSYOPs from Eden to Armageddon. He has also published the novels The God Conspiracy and Iron Dragons, and he’s a contributing author to the nonfiction anthologies God’s Ghostbusters, Blood on the Altar, I Predict: What 12 Global Experts Believe You Will See by 2025, and When Once We Were a Nation.