Was there no festival of Sol on 25 December before 324 AD?

Most of us are aware that the 25th December is labelled as the “Natalis [solis] Invicti” in the Chronography of 354; specifically in the 6th part, which contains the so-called “Calendar of Philocalus” (online here), listing the state holidays.  Sol Invictus was introduced into Rome by Aurelian in 274 AD as a state cult, and it seems reasonable to suppose that this state holiday was introduced at the same time.   The Chronography also lists the saints’ days, in another calendar dating from 336 (online here), including Christmas on 25 December.  It is often supposed, therefore, that the date of Christmas was selected precisely to coincide with this solar holiday.  This theory was advanced by H. Usener in his book Das Weihnachstfest (1889, rep. 1911) with a follow-up in his posthumous article on Sol Invictus in 1905.[1]

However I have lately seen claims that, far from Christmas being located on the date of a pagan holiday, the truth is that Julian the Apostate (or someone) established a solar festival on the pre-existing date of Christmas!  These claims seem to derive from an interesting article by Steven Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas”.[2]  Hijman is a revisionist, so it is necessary to be wary, but I thought that it might be useful to review some of the evidence.

In the Chronography of 354, in the “Filocalian calendar”, some holidays – all associated with emperors or gods – are marked by chariot races (circenses missus).  These are also in multiples of 12 races, with one exception.  The sole exception is the entry for 25 December:


Which is the natalis of Invictus (rather than Sol) and 30 races, rather than a multiple of 12.  It is, therefore, an anomalous entry.

Hijmans makes some very interesting points about this.

  • Firstly, he argues that celebrating festivals with chariot races rather than sacrifices was an innovation of Constantine, introduced after Constantine defeated Licinius in 324.  It’s not an ancient thing.  So all these chariot races were introduced then.
  • Secondly, since all the ancient festivals were multiples of 12, it is clear that no festival of Sol existed on 25 December at that time.  If it had, it too would be a multiple of 12.  Therefore it is a later addition; as the irregular naming also indicates.
  • Thirdly he speculates that this entry may not even have been present in the original copy made in 354, but added later.
  • This leaves the first definite mention of a solar festival on this date to Julian the Apostate’s Hymn to King Helios, in December 362.

This is an interesting argument indeed.  What do we make of it?

Hijmans does not detail his first point, merely referring to M. Wallraff, Christus Verus Sol (2001), p.132, “citing Eusebius”. Unfortunately the Wallraff volume is inaccessible to me.   So we have to leave this point unchecked.

The second point relies on the accurate transmission of numerals in copies of the Chronography.  I am not clear whether this is actually reliable, or whether the text printed by Mommsen – which is the basis for the online version – is a critical text or not.   The Dec. 25 date could really have read “XXXVI” for all we know.

Obviously speculation, as in the third point, is not evidence.  I would suggest that we should not infer interpolation without need.

All the same this is a very interesting point.  Is it really possible that this was the case?

Update (5th August 2023): In August 2020 Dr Hijmans kindly responded to this article, and gave me permission to post his comments.  I am slightly ashamed that it took me so long to do so.  He wrote:

I have a few comments to supplement my arguments which you summarize so clearly in that blog.

1. Irrespective of whether we take the calendar (354) or Julian (362) as the first mention of a solar festival, it is interesting to note that there is no evidence before the mid 4th c. AD for a solar festival on December 25th or indeed on any of the astronomically significant days (if we take Dec. 25 to be the winter solstice). All traditional feast days for Sol are on astronomically random days. Thus there was no latent expectation, in antiquity, that the winter Solstice should be celebrated in honour of Sol. In other words the evidence we have for the celebration of Christmas (330s) is about a generation earlier than the evidence for a festival for Sol on that day.

2. The calendar mentions every celebrated emperor or deity explicitly by name, including Sol for the multi-day festival in October. Why is December 25 the sole exception?

3. Julian clearly states that there were two separate festivals of Sol in 362. One was the “newish” multi-day festival held every four years, and the other was an ancient one-day festival celebrated around the time of the winter solstice, established by Numa. If the newish, four-year festival is not the one founded by Aurelian, which is it then? If it is the one founded by Aurelian (as it surely must be), then on the evidence of Julian it was not celebrated on or around December 25, as that was the date of the annual one-day festival. The entry in the Calendar of 354 for a multi day ludi Solis on October 19-22 confirms this (which ludi were these, if not the ones of Aurelian). As the ludi were first celebrated in 274, they would also have been held in 254 (calendar, 20th games) and 262 (Julian, 22nd games). I really do not see any other way to read this evidence.

4. I think that the fact that Julian attributes the annual winter solstice Sol-festival to Numa is simply to give it pedigree. There is no evidence for such a festival, even in the late Republican and early imperial fasti (in which Sol is well-represented: 8/9 August, 29 August, also 11 December (if we accept Lydus).

To this I replied:

I do like your theory, and it would be convenient for me personally in arguing with the bat-witted “Christmas is really pagan” element among us. But for the same reasons I’m on my guard against it.

I like your argument that Julian knew that the October multi-day festival was newer; that would fit with Aurelian. But what, then, is the Natalis Invicti on 25 Dec? It works as the supposed anniversary of the dedication of the temple of Sol Invictus by Aurelian. But can we say that Aurelian created two festivals, and that Julian knew only of one and supposed the other to be from the days of Numa, i.e. traditional (I wouldn’t see this wording as anything but a rhetorical flourish meaning “very ancient”)? Do we see it as some form of dressing up of the solstice that ordinary people celebrated anyway, (was it with torches?)? If so, any 3rd century emperor could have created it. Maybe even a 4th century emperor. Does it have to have a deeper significance? You make a good point about the absence of mention of either emperor or deity – is that why?

Your point about the Roman failure to mark astronomical events is fascinating. Hmm!

I can also see Julian creating a fake festival, to undermine a Christian one. He was an intelligent persecutor,and his methods have been adopted ever since. But I don’t know how much time he even spent in Rome. And … would he care? It would only affect Rome, after all. I’ve never looked at the data for Christmas in the 4th century – was it widespread? If not, why would he bother? I think of him as mainly interested in the Greek east.

But at root, I don’t much like hypothesising an interpolation of this stuff into the Philocalian calendar. The Chronography was, after all, a physical book – a splendid artwork. It could well have had something added into it at an early stage, before any copies were made. Just as Jerome added material into the empty spaces in Eusebius’ Chronicon, someone could have added in the material about DNSI. It’s true. But I don’t like it. It feels way too much like the lazy German scholarship of the 19th century – I almost wrote “the last century”! – which treated inconvenient data as something to be excused. There’s no evidence of this. We have so little evidence, that we can not afford to discard any of it.

So … I am hesitant.

Dr H. kindly responded:

I am hesitant too to conclude with certainty hat Christmas preceded a pagan winter celebration of Sol. I (try to) state simply that there is no evidence for it. The evidence against it is essentially an argumentum e silentio.

Julian states unequivocally that the multi-day, quadrennial festival that he did not celebrate around the time of the winter solstice was “newish” and that the one-day festival which is at the heart of his hymn to Helios goes back to Numa. He does not say when the multi-day festival was celebrated, but I think the October date given by the Calendar makes that quite clear.

I would qualify that as “established Roman religion connected with Sol” did not show particular interest in astronomy (which – given the state of the Roman calendar up to the Julians, should not really surprise us, in hindsight.) But even Roman imperial religion shows no real sign of this, at leas as fat a Sol is concerned. To the best of my knowledge even Mithraism had not particular festival on the winter Solstice. I would have to check, but I thought the Tienen evidence placed the major Mithraic celebrations (as established by buried remnants of feasts) in the Spring? That they celebrated December 25 is not, I believe, supported by any actual primary sources…

Julian’s hymn to Helios sounds to me like a work written specifically to promote the solar celebration of December 25. I don’t think that necessarily means he ‘invented’ it. There are various ways in which one can imagine such a festival to have arisen in the fourth century, with collective “memory” being a very likely one. I think it is very well possible that Julian believed the convenient “fact” of a solar festival on the 25th. His insistence on the importance of that festival is striking.

As for interpolation. We need to explain the major anomalies of this entry (number of chariot races, wording of the entry). The calendar gives no hint of what those reasons were. I would hazard that a later interpolation is the most likely interpretation – not in the Calendar of Filocalus himself, but in the “mother calendar” which it copied. An entirely pagan official calendar Rome would not be unthinkable in the 350s, but may have prompted somebody to pencil in – say – the birthday of Christ (in Rome around the 320s, much late in most other cases we can identify)

Very useful points indeed.  Thank you!

  1. [1]H. Usener, “Sol Invictus”, RhM 60 (1905) pp. 465-491.
  2. [2]Steven Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas: A contribution to the modern construct of late antique solar syncretism”, in: M. Espagne & P. Rabault-Feuerhahn (edd.), Hermann Usener und die Metamorphosen der Philologie. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2011. 139-152.  Online here, although the online version appears to be a draft.  However Hijmans’ full thesis, with extensive plates, is online here.

12 thoughts on “Was there no festival of Sol on 25 December before 324 AD?

  1. Your initial skepticism seems warranted. Quite a backstory with the Romans — a temple to Sol Indiges said to date back to 8th century BC… more than 1000 years before 324 CE.

    Christian and scientist Isaac Newton clarified the history in his book on Daniel and the Apocalypse chapter XI — the later Christians “afterwards took up with what they found in the [Roman] Calendars.”

    An excerpt:
    “THE times of the Birth and Passion of CHRIST, with such
    like niceties, being not material to religion, were little
    regarded by the CHRISTIANS of the first age. They who
    began first to celebrate them, placed them in the cardinal
    periods of the year ; as the annunciation of the Virgin
    MARY, on the 25th of MARCH, which when JULIUS CAESAR
    corrected the Calendar was the vernal Equinox ; the feast
    of JOHN Baptist on the 24th of JUNE, which was the
    summer Solstice ; the feast of St. MICHAEL on SEPT. 29,
    which was the autumnal Equinox, and the birth of CHRIST
    on the winter Solstice, DECEMB. 25, with the feasts of St.
    STEPHEN, St. JOHN and the INNOCENTS, as near it as they
    could place them. And because the Solstice in time re-
    moved from the 25th of DECEMBER to the 24th, the 23d,
    the 22d, and so on backwards, hence some in the following
    centuries placed the birth of CHRIST on DECEMB. 23, and
    at length on DECEMB. 20 : and for the same reason they
    seem to have set the feast of St. THOMAS on DECEMB. 21,
    and that of St. MATTHEW on SEPT. 21. So also at the
    entrance of the Sun into all the signs in the JULIAN Calendar,
    they placed the days of other Saints ; as the conversion
    of PAUL on JAN. 25, when the Sun entred AQUARIUS ; St.
    MATHIAS on FEB. 25, when he entred PISCES ; St. MARK
    on APR. 25, when he entred TAURUS ; CORPUS CHRISTI
    on May 26, when he entred GEMINI ; St. JAMES on
    JULY 25, when he entred CANCER ; St. BARTHOLOMEW
    on AUG. 24, when he entred VIRGO ; SIMON and JUDE
    on OCTOB. 28, when he entred SCORPIO”

  2. I’ve been investiganting a bit about Hijmans’ thesis, so these question has made me found your excellent blog (I cannot even stress how fabulous is to treat Patristics and sources in an objective way). I have to say I’m not a big Hijmans fan, I think he seems biased trying to force a discussion that is barely there. But here I went, trying to read every source and give a more plaussible explanation. Well, yes, maybe the Natalis Solis is not as old as the emperor Julian tried to imply, making it of republican origins, but I kinda resist to believe is has not to do with Aurelian, maybe I’m the biased but thanks to this now I have some information that seems to contradict second point. As you did, I basically compared the Phillocalus in the Momssen CIL, but also I compared with the Fasti Praenestini. In the Philocalus entry for March, the first day is the Natalis Marti, it has XXVIII charriot races (Not a multiple of 12), also the Feria Marti appears in the Fasti Praenestini, so we can assure it’s “old” enough to come from the Julius Dinasty, so this gives the question if it’s the exception…or it’s just that ussing multiples of 12 were some fashion and it’s just happens it has nothing to do with a theoretical antiquity. Or maybe in this case the Philocalus commited a wrong…
    Anyways. Good Blog.

  3. Thanks for your answer.
    Addenda: I’ve consulted Mommsen CIL volume in which the Philocalus is, not the digital version. The digital base has “Corrected” the number XXVIII in March to XXIIII. Mommsen himself says in the volume note “Scribendum puto XXIIII”. So I searched any previous version of the Fasti of Philocalus to have a better understainding if it was a true wrong made by Philocalus or maybe came from previous versions. At least 2 versions maintains the number XXVIII as it is. But the most interesting one is the explanation of the edition of Fr. Xysto Schier about why that festival had 28 charriot races instead of 12 or 24. He cites Ovid’s Fasti, in the part where we can read: “And now two nights of the second month are left, and Mars urges on the swift steeds yoked to his chariot. The day has kept the appropriate name of Equirria (“horse-races”), derived from the races which the god himself beholds in his own plain.”. So, at least to my understanding, Xysto inference is that at least the number is correct and and it can be explained as a consecuence of february two left days avoiding it to have 30, which also could explain Ovid’s rhyme.
    Have a good day.

  4. I’m embarrassed to speak but i don’t know if it’s because my english is rusty or because the post didn’t want to reach a conclusion as to whether “Christmas is pagan” but… after all, does Christmas have anything to do with a “pagan” festival?

  5. The post is about whether the pagan festival recorded in 354 actually was created then, by Julian, rather than in 274 by Aurelian.

    We don’t actually have any ancient evidence at all on why Xmas appears on 25 Dec. We certainly have no evidence that it was “copied” from a pagan festival, and it is unthinkable that such a thing would have been done in this period.

  6. Oh okay. It’s just that since you said that we should be careful with Hijman (since he is a revisionist) i thought there was some chance that Christmas was created to replace a pagan festival. Could you please suggest me some other author who refutes this “pagan Christmas” claim? Thanks for the explanations 🙂

  7. Are Schmidt and Nothaft reliable references to debunk this idea that Christians deliberately stole a pagan holiday and Christianized it? Could you please suggest me some other author who refutes this “pagan Christmas” claim?

  8. Generally I respond to anyone making such a claim is to ask which ancient source records such “stealing”. They can’t produce one. Often they claim that Xmas is stolen from “pagan solstice” celebrations. I point out that Xmas is not on the solstice, and the Romans did not celebrate the solstice anyway, but Saturnalia, on Dec. 17.

  9. yeah! If i’m not mistaken, the solstice is on the 21st, right? why do some keep trying to associate events that bear no resemblance? sorry if the insistence was inconvenient is that whenever this month comes, social networks and news sites are full of these statements and i don’t know where i can confirm them since they don’t usually cite sources. I think the most mentioned ones are yule, saturnalia, mithras or they just say it was a sun god festival. I’m preparing for the “accusations” by looking for authors who talk about these accusations. So… did they really define that December 25th was going to be Christmas based on calculus? Thank you for your work and for answering my questions 🙂

Leave a Reply