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The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2012


The article reviews recent and current developments in research on the origins of Christmas, which has traditionally crystallized around two competing approaches, known as the "History of Religions Theory" and the "Calculation Theory." This essay shall look at the history of these approaches and discuss their rationale and limitations, before turning to the challenges that have been brought against them by the recent work of Steven Hijmans and Hans Förster. It will be argued that their studies reveal the need for a more nuanced approach to the history of Christmas, which retains the aspect of inter-religious influence, but also pays some overdue attention to the importance of chronological thought in early Christian scholarship.

Research Article
Copyright © American Society of Church History 2012

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1 Nothaft, C. P. E., “From Sukkot to Saturnalia: The Attack on Christmas in Sixteenth-Century Chronological Scholarship,” Journal of the History of Ideas 72 (2011): 503–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 For a general overview, see Roll, Susan K., “The Debate on the Origins of Christmas,” Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft 40 (1998): 116Google Scholar. See also Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas (Kampen: Peeters, 1995)Google Scholar. The word “theory” seems to capture the explanatory function of these views somewhat better than the often-used “history of religions hypothesis” (likewise “calculation hypothesis”), which over-emphasizes the uncertainty that is inherent to nearly all historical judgment.

3 Duchesne, Louis, Origines du culte chrétien: Étude sur la liturgie latine avant Charlemagne (Paris: Thorin, 1889), 247–54Google Scholar; Engberding, Hieronymus, “Der 25. Dezember als Tag der Feier der Geburt des Herrn,” Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft 2 (1952): 2543Google Scholar.

4 Talley, Thomas J., The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, Minn.: Pueblo, 1991), 79155Google Scholar. A parallel explanation is offered for the date of Epiphany (January 6), which was considered the nativity date by many Eastern communities during late antiquity and would have been derived from a Passion date on April 6. See now also Talley, “Afterthoughts on The Origins of the Liturgical Year,” in Western Plainchant in the First Millennium: Studies in the Medieval Liturgy and Its Music, ed. Gallagher, Sean et al. (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003), 110Google Scholar.

5 The text was edited by Botte, Bernard, Les origines de la Noël et de l'Épiphanie: Étude historique (Louvain: Abbaye du Mont César, 1932), 93105Google Scholar, and again in Patrologiae Latinae Supplementum, ed. Hamman, Adalbert-Gauthier, 5 vols. (Paris: Éditions Garnier Frères, 1958–74)Google Scholar, 1:557–67. On its chronological argument, see now Ezra, Daniel Stökl Ben, The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity: The Day of Atonement from Second Temple Judaism to the Fifth Century (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 250–57Google Scholar.

6 See, for example, Bradshaw, Paul F., The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 187–89Google Scholar; Kelly, Joseph F., The Origins of Christmas (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2004), 5863Google Scholar; Senn, Frank C., The People's Work: A Social History of the Liturgy (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2006), 7173Google Scholar.

7 Usener, Hermann, Das Weihnachtsfest, 3rd ed. (Bonn: Bouvier, 1969)Google Scholar. The work first appeared in 1889. On its content and impact, see Fausto Parente, “Das Weihnachtsfest,” in Aspetti di Hermann Usener, filologo della religione, ed. Arrighetti, G. et al. (Pisa: Giardini, 1982), 181211Google Scholar.

8 On the subject of Christian solar symbolism, see now Wallraff, Martin, Christus Verus Sol: Sonnenverehrung und Christentum in der Spätantike (Münster: Aschendorff, 2001)Google Scholar, who discusses Christmas, 174–95.

9 Talley, Thomas J., “Constantine and Christmas,” Studia Liturgica 17 (1987): 191–97Google Scholar.

10 Hijmans, Steven, “Usener's Christmas: A Contribution to the Modern Construct of Late Antique Solar Syncretism,” in Hermann Usener und die Metamorphosen der Philologie, eds. Espagne, Michel and Rabault-Feuerhahn, Pascale (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011), 139–51Google Scholar. See further Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” Mouseion ser. 3, 3 (2003): 377–98Google Scholar; Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome” (PhD diss., University of Groningen, 2009), 583–95,

11 For editions of the relevant passages, see Mommsen, Theodor, ed., Chronica minora saec. IV. V. VI. VII, vol. 1 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1892), 56, 7172Google Scholar, and Mommsen, ed., Inscriptiones Latinae Antiquissimae, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1893)Google Scholar, 278.

12 Hijmans, “Usener's Christmas,” 147–50.

13 See most recently Förster, Hans, “Die beiden angeblich ‘ältesten Zeugen’ des Weihnachtsfestes,” Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft 42 (2000): 2940Google Scholar; Wischmeyer, Wolfgang, “Die christlichen Texte im sogenannten Filocalus-Kalender,” in Textsorten und Textkritik, ed. Primmer, Adolf, Smolak, Kurt, and Weber, Dorothea (Vienna: Österr. Akad. d. Wiss., 2002), 4557Google Scholar; Gianotto, Claudio, “L'origine de la fête de Noël au IVe siècle,” in La Nativité et le temps de Noël: Antiquité et Moyen Âge, ed. Boyer, Jean-Paul and Dorival, Gilles (Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'Université de Provence, 2003), 6579Google Scholar (67–68). Arguments in defense of authenticity are made by Naumowicz, Józef, “Le Calendrier de 354 et la fête de Noël,” Palamedes 2 (2007): 173–88Google Scholar; Wallraff, Christus verus Sol, 180n26; Zerfass, Alexander, Mysterium mirabile: Poesie, Theologie und Liturgie in den Hymnen des Ambrosius von Mailand zu den Christusfesten des Kirchenjahres (Tübingen: Franke, 2008), 6263n286Google Scholar. Without the testimony of the Chronograph, the earliest attestation of Christmas would be pushed to ca. 361–63, when the date was mentioned in a sermon held by the North African bishop Optatus of Milevis. See Wilmart, André, “Un sermon de Saint Optat pour la fête de Noël,” Revue des sciences religieuses 2 (1922): 271302CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 See Hijmans, “Usener's Christmas,” 149, who argues against authenticity on the basis of the number of races.

15 Hijmans, “Usener's Christmas,” 150. This reversed line of influence is also defended by Davril, Anselme, “L'origine de la fête de Noël,” Renaissance de Fleury: La revue des moines de Saint-Benoît 160 (1991): 914Google Scholar.

16 Hijmans, “Sol Invictus,” 395–97.

17 Förster, Hans, Die Anfänge von Weihnachten und Epiphanias: Eine Anfrage an die Entstehungshypothesen (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007)Google Scholar. As a preparatory study for this magnum opus, Förster previously published Die Feier der Geburt Christi in der Alten Kirche: Beiträge zur Erforschung der Anfänge des Epiphanie- und Weihnachtsfestes (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000)Google Scholar.

18 Förster, Die Anfänge, 51–55, 93–97, 106–20.

19 Ibid., 307.

20 Wallraff, Christus verus Sol, 194: “Vielmehr handelt es sich offenbar um parallele Erscheinungen, gewissermaßen unterschiedliche Ausflüsse der gleichen Strömung des Zeitgeistes.” See also Wallraff's review of Förster, Die Anfänge, in Gnomon 82 (2010), 339–44.

21 Förster, Die Anfange, 6: “Es ist eine Tatsache, daß die Berechnungshypothese aufgrund der fast schon atemberaubende Geistesakrobatik, die ihr zugrunde liegt, berechtigte Zweifel an ihrer Tragfähigkeit erweckt.”

22 Grumel, Venance, La chronologie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1958)Google Scholar; Strobel, August, Ursprung und Geschichte des frühchristlichen Osterkalenders (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1977)Google Scholar; Mosshammer, Alden A., The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See now also Nothaft, C. P. E., Dating the Passion: The Life of Jesus and the Emergence of Scientific Chronology (200–1600) (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 One worthwhile task for future studies could be to re-examine the chronological data in the early-third century works of Julius Africanus and Hippolytus, which have both been upheld in the past as early witnesses to Jesus' birth on December 25. This has been rejected by contemporary scholarship, but the question is perhaps yet to be fully resolved. A case for December 25 in Julius Africanus will be made in C. P. E. Nothaft, “Early Christian Chronology and the Origins of the Christmas Date: In the Defense of the ‘Calculation Theory,’” (unpublished manuscript).