I saw a History Channel special and again they repeated that old canard that Dec 25 was chosen to compete with Saturnalia, or was it Mithras or Sol Invictus?
Actually, it was none of them. No doubt Christianity has had it’s share of assimilating pagan celebrations, and some of them (Yule log and likely Christmas tree) have been taken into Christmas.
But the date has nothing whatsoever to do with any ancient Roman Pagan holidays.
As Wiki points out:The earliest source stating 25 December as the date of birth of Jesus is likely by Hippolytus of Rome, written very early in the 3rd century, based on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on 25 March, and then added nine months – festivals on that date were then celebrated. 25 March would also roughly be the date of his crucifixion, which ancient Christians would have seen as confirming the date of his birth, since there was a notion that the great prophets were conceived into the afterlife on the same date they were conceived into the world. John Chrysostom also argued for a 25 December date in the late 4th century, basing his argument on the assumption that the offering of incense in Luke 1:8–11 was the offering of incense by a high priest on Yom Kippur (early October), and, as above, counting fifteen months forward.
Honestly, these were nothing more than educated guesswork. I certainly wouldnt count on them as solid by any means.
But yes, the ancient Romans had a big bash around the Solstice, called Saturnalia.
The holiday started on Dec 17th (but note that the ancient Roman calendar was anything but precise) and went on until the 23rd or so. Gifts giving, feating, merrymaking, costumes, etc. A real blow out.
Mithras and Sol Invictus, both of whom only lasted for a short time, also has holidays associated with the Solstice. *Dies Natalis Solis Invicti *was even celebrated one year (at least) on Dec 25th, not the 21st the usual solstice, but again- remember the ancient Roman calendar was pretty fluid.
So, why couldnt Christmas have been picked on Dec 25th to compete? Well, two things:
If you wanna compete with a big party, you dont put yours after they have one, you put on the same day or before. You dont want everyone partied out. Saturnalia was the 17th, and the other two mostly on the Solstice.
But the most important one is that Christmas wasn’t a party day. It was just another Saints Feasts day (which doesnt mean you have a big feast). Until the Middle ages*, it wasnt celebrated with parties, gift giving, boozing and general merriment. I mean, if you’re gonna compete, you better have something better than “Go to church and light a candle”.
So, it’s another case of someone putting a couple of coincidences together and coming up with a hypothesis that has existed as a meme.
- and even then, Epiphany or the end of the twelve days, was the big holiday on January 6th.