Was Christmas a replacement of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah that was celebrated by the early Christians or was it to replace the Pagan festival of the 'Invincible Sun' instituted in 274 CE.
Why should Christmas be meant to replace anything?
The liturgical year is riddled with merriment, every other day is a feast or a solemnity or at least an observance of some pious memorial.
Other than to denounce Christ or the Churches that keep Christmas, there is no reason to conflate some pagan festivity no one cares about with Christmas. If there was a conspiracy back in the fourth Century, then St. Augustine would have said something about it. What he did say was that when the barbarians came to sack Rome, they left the churches alone, out of respect for traditions that were foreign to them, but which they could see were clearly holy. They didn't see in them their own idolatry, they saw the city of God made manifest.
Hanukkah on the other hand, has never been as big a thing as Christmas. Christmas has been an important marker in the eyes of the Catholic Church purely out of necessity. Consider the lectionary and how the Bible itself was formed. The books we use at Mass were the same books and letters mentioned by St. Justin Martyr when he wrote about what it is that Christians do during their get togethers. Naturally, a book can't go on ad infinitum so it makes sense that at some point you're going to finish the book and start over again. So, it makes sense that you'd want to put the events leading up to Jesus' birth in the first part of the book and go on from there.
So, we know Jesus died around Passover, we posit that the two most important truths in history took place on the same day of the year (The Incarnation and The Resurrection) and we do a +=9 months to get a good approximation of where Christmas should be.
Pagans and Jews aside, the question to be asked is, is there really a better day for Christmas?
First of all 274 AD is the date the Cult of the Sun became an official Roman Cult, not the date a pagan festival was established. It appears that is was not until the mid 4th century that a the festival celebrating the Birth of the Sun was established in the Roman Empire. Christians had already calculated the birth of Christ to be on the 25th day centuries earlier and the celebration of the birth of Christ was wide spread by the 4th. More likely the cult copied the Christianity than the other way around.
Regarding Hanukkah the Anglican Church (Church of England, Episcopalians etc.) and Orthodox Christians still celebrate the feast of light at the end of Christmas beginning of Epiphany. The feast of light is thought to have originated in the Jewish festival of lights or Hanukkah and is thought to be the fulfillment of that festival. It should be noted that both Christmas and Epiphany were in earlier times celebrated for 8 days, Christmas was latter extended it to 12 days.
The accusation that Christmas was usurped from Sol Invictus is probably a result of works of the puritans of the 17th Century England. It makes no logical sense whatsoever.
If we look at the outlook of the early Western Church (and by Western, I mean both the Latin Catholics and the various Eastern Orthodoxies) towards pagan life and rituals in general, its abundantly clear that they saw it with utter disgust.
First, take the use of Incensing for example, the Roman Christians didn't just avoid incensing, they outright condemned it. For them, it was nothing more than a pagan remnant that would defile Christianity, if adopted. Lactantius, the 4th Cent. Christian writer and one of Constantine's main advisers condemns it in his book Institutiones Divinae. Hippolytus of Roma omits the use of incense entirely in his work, Apostolic Traditions.
Accusing the Roman Church of usurping/adopting an entire pagan festival and rebranding it as Christmas to gain pagan converts, when it was repulsed by something so frivolous as a stick of incense which it perceived to be pagan, is in the realm of the absurd.
Secondly, the Roman Empire wasn't the only place with Christians in the 4th Century. There is no evidence that Sol Invictus was observed anywhere outside of the borders of the Roman Empire. Earliest record of Sol Invictus being celebrated on the 25th of December is from AD354. There is little evidence to suggest it was celebrated before 4th Century in Rome. But we know that the Syriac Christians were already celebrating Christmas(although it was considered a minor feast leading up to Epiphany) in the last week of their season of Subbara, which falls on December in the Gregorian Calender - this practice dates from at least the mid-4th Century.
Christmas being a replacement of the Feast of Hanukkah also doesn't make sense.
During the early centuries AD, the Jews clearly did not give Hanukkah much importance, as the Mishnah obviously omits it. Neither does Hanukkah have any theological connotations - after all, it's kept for the memory of the Maccabees.
Christianity had no need to find a replacement for an obscure Jewish holiday. But I do agree that some Christian communities, especially the ones with Jewish origins, like the Christians of St' Thomas of Kerala, do observe some rituals reminiscent of Hanukkah. But they do it in the week of Epiphany, not the week of Christmas.
I believe they consider Epiphany, much like Hanukkah, as a Festival of Lights and involves lighting lots of menorahs and candles.
Christmas has no biblical origins, it is meant to celebrate Jesus's birthday. In fact the church recognized Christmas's pagan origins and banned in England in 1647. Reformation in the 19th Century
In America it was banned between the years of 1659-1681. Christmas as we know it really didn't start happening until the late 1800's and even then it was foreign to most people. Puritans then where preaching and distributing literature denouncing such celebration. Christmas really became what we think of it today, when in 1843 Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol".
History aside, now we look at the origin of Christmas itself.
Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, or that is the birthday of the unconquerable sun. It is also called Saturnalia as it Honors the deity Saturn. Saturn was worshiped for agricultural purposes. This was later celebrated by the Romans as Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus. It celebrated the renewal of light and the coming of the new year. What day was it celebrated on? You guessed it December 17-23 and 25. Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting, partying, and gifts. Saturnalia
As the Roman empire came under Christian rule pagan holidays where added to help convert pagans to Christianity. You see this mainly under emperor Constantine's rule. The people whom the Romans conquered had their "religion" and celebrations added to the Romans celebrations. The Romans may have gotten this from Persia. who had done this before in history.
Emperor Constantine did not really become a christian until later in life and even then he didn't stick with just Christianity. One or the other wasn't an option for him I guess. Constantine supported both Christianity and pagan beliefs. Constantine.
The names of Saturnalia where later changed to take on a more Christian aspect. The church commemorated December 25 as Jesus's birthday. The church got pagan converts and the pagans got to keep their holidays. Christmas origin
"Emperor Constantine the Great’s (285–337) desire was to consciously use elements of Christianity to strengthen the pagan Roman Empire. He succeeded in redefining the existing celebration of Sun worship as the festival of Christ’s birth."
We know that Jesus could not have been born in December or January. The bible tells us that at Luke 2:8
There were also in the same region shepherds living out of doors and keeping watch in the night over their flocks.
So when Jesus was born we see that people where out sleeping in the field and watching sheep most of the day. Lets see what the bible says about that months weather conditions. Ezra 10:13
However, there are many people, and it is the rainy season. It is not possible to stand outside, and the matter will not take just one or two days, for we have rebelled extensively in this matter.
It was not even possible to stand outside it was so bitter cold. That is rain aside. Shepherds would not have been outside after late October let alone December.
Changing the name of the holiday doesn't change the pagan roots. Christmas doesn't celebrate Jesus's birthday, but a celebration by pagan devotees of Mithra. Mithra the Pagan Christ
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It was winter, and the Festival of the Dedication of the Temple was being celebrated in Jerusalem. Jesus was walking in Solomon's Porch in the Temple, when the people gathered round him and asked, "How long are you going to keep us in suspense? Tell us the plain truth: are you the Messiah?" - John 10: 22
The Hanukkah festivals that Jesus took part in was similar enough to Christmas in ritual and custom to assume that early Christians continued with the festival in honor of the birth of Jesus - that might well have fallen on the same day of the year.
Back then, the Feast of the Lights (Hanukkah or 'Festival of Dedication') took place for two days on the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth days of Kislev starting with the lighting of candles on the evening of the twenty-fourth. (The Judaic month of Kislev is almost the same as December.) Candles were then lit for a further six or possibly eight days. The specific reason for the festival of Hanukkah is to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids and the result of that victory, which was the re-dedication of the altar in the Temple after three years when no services took place. In general, it celebrates religious freedom, the light that was lit in Israel for all people, and the spread of that light throughout the world.
The date was of particular importance in the Greek /Roman calendar and in the calendars of many of the ancient societies. On or roundabout this day the star Sirius (the brightest of all stars) that flies behind the earth in its path around the Milky Way is right overhead at midnight. When Sirius is overhead at midnight it means that the sun is at its furthest south and that summer is coming again. For this reason, the date had been associated in many ancient and not so ancient religions with the birth of a god or a new period of religion. It was therefore no accident that Antiochus Epiphanes offered the first sacrifice to Zeus Olympios in the Temple on this date in 167 BCE. It was intended to show that a new period of rule of the Greek gods over the land had begun. Judah Maccabeus would have been fully aware of this and made sure that the first Hanukkah also fell on 25 December 164 (165) BCE to counter the Greek claim. (Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the Temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Kislev - II Maccabees 10: 5)
Persia was different from the other countries in their beliefs around Sirius, and used the star to make predictions. This is based either on changes in color (white, blue, emerald) the star undergoes (in the past there were times when it has appeared red) or on the positional shift in relation to the background stars due to the gravitational influence of a white dwarf companion star. Because these changes are minute and dependent on great knowledge, it is no surprise that nobody but the magoi noticed them. (This would explain why Herod and the scribes did not notice it. If a huge big comet hung over Bethlehem, millions of people would have turned up, as they were strong believers in the magic of stars.)
Because it is closely linked with the Feast of the Tabernacles (Succoth), so close that it is even called that, and now see that that ye keep the Feast of Tabernacles in the month Kislev - II Maccabees 1: 9, it is a festival for all people (including gentiles) to celebrate. To the original promise made in the desert by the festival of Sukkoth (that one day Israel would no longer live in tents but in houses) the important facet of lights were added. With the rededication of the Temple, came the profound moment of the lighting of the candelabra. They made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought the candlestick . . . and the lamps that were upon the candlestick they lighted, that they might give light in the temple - I Maccabees 4: 49 - 50. Josephus said (Antiquities of the Jews, 12: 7: 7), and from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and called it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.
The festival is supposed to be a happy time in accordance with I Maccabees 4: 59 - the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu, with mirth and gladness. From the earliest, the festivalgoers bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang Psalms - II Maccabees 10: 7. Israel in winter is green as this is the time of the rains and what snow there is (if at all) quickly melts. Bringing greenery into the home therefore has nothing to do with the pagan midwinter festival but with the promise made in the desert and celebrated during the Feast of the Tabernacles.
The twenty-fifth of December (Kislev) that became important to Christianity together with joyous songs and the Christmas tree and lights all originated in Hanukkah.
December 25 could be the day the day a star stopped.
Dr. Larson did a presentation on the Bethlehem Star. The position he takes is that the star was a real astronomical event. Using software we can view where the stars are in the night sky at any point on earth and in history.
How do you stop a star? On December 25 of 2 BC as it entered retrograde, Jupiter reached full stop in its travel through the fixed stars. Magi viewing from Jerusalem would have seen it stopped in the sky above the little town of Bethlehem.
Larson’s understanding and use of orbital mechanics is accurate. This explanation of the Star of Bethlehem is compelling to me. It is consistent with the Biblical story. It pleases me that I can accept it as an engineer, and as an astronomy enthusiast.” — FRANK T. BUZZARD, PH.D.
NASA’s Chief Engineer for both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Director of the Columbia shuttle accident task force.
It seems to me that there are only three possible outcomes to this question:
- 1.) Christmas was instituted in order to celebrate a Christian feast liturgically on the day of a pagan celebration.
- 2.) The feast of Christmas was instituted in order to replace the Jewish feast of Hanukkah.
- 3.) The third possibility that the question does not mention is that it may actually be the day Christ was born.
Now let us look at this subject a little closer.
According to many historians, Christmas was set to December 25th because it was the date of the festival of Sol Invictus. This idea became popular especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Philocalian calendar of AD 354 gives a festival of "Natalis Invicti" on 25 December. There is limited evidence that this festival was celebrated before the mid-4th century. Whether this date was intended to celebrate solstice is doubtful; one scholar writes that "the cult of the Sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect".
Since the 12th century, there have been speculations that the near-solstice date of 25 December for Christmas was selected because it was the date of the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, but this has been contested by the Calculation Hypothesis through the writings of the Early Christian Fathers. For example, Hippolytus of Rome, between 202 and 211, said in his commentary of the Book of Daniel that the birth of Jesus took place on December 25. The manuscript also includes a passage which gives the Passion of Jesus as March 25. - Sol Invictus (Wikipedia)
Our second possibility of Hanukkah has a very daunting possibility to say the least. In fact Hanukkah and Christmas will be celebrated on the same date in the year 2024!
Hanukkah (Hebrew: חֲנֻכָּה, usually spelled חנוכה pronounced [χanuˈka] in Modern Hebrew, also romanized as Chanukah or Chanuka), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.
Traditionally both Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrated for eight days. For Catholics, Christmas is still celebrated with an octave ending on the Feast of the Mother of God (January 1st). Hanukkah is also known as the feast of lights; whereas Christ’s birth bring to the world the true light of God’s presence in the human and divine person of Jesus Christ. Light of Christ is now born in human form.
Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה) a transliteration also romanized as Chanukah or Hanukkah) is a Jewish festival commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. It is also known as the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. The festival is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, called a menorah (or hanukkiah). One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles. This unique candle is called the shamash (Hebrew: שַׁמָּשׁ, "attendant"). Each night, one additional candle is lit by the shamash until all eight candles are lit together on the final night of the festival. Other Hanukkah festivities include playing the game of dreidel and eating oil-based foods, such as latkes and sufganiyot, and dairy foods. Since the 1970s, the worldwide Chabad Hasidic movement has initiated public menorah lightings in open public places in many countries. - Hanukkah (Wikipedia)
To my knowledge there has been little study done on the actual possibility if Jesus had been born of the actual feast of Hanukkah for the years 6 BC - 4 BC. Is it possible? Yes, but it is historically not yet verified. Was Christmas meant to replace Hanukkah? Possibly, but it can not be positively proven either.
The third possibility is my favourite. Could December 25 be the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Here too, it can can not be absolutely proven with certainty, but it is an eye opener to say the least.
Most importantly, there is no historical record for a celebration Natalis Sol Invictus on December 25 prior to A.D. 354.
Further testimony reveals that the Church Fathers claimed December 25 as the Birthday of Christ prior to the conversion of Constantine and the Roman Empire. The earliest record of this is that Pope Saint Telesphorus (reigned A.D. 126- 137) instituted the tradition of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Although the Liber Pontificalis does not give us the date of Christmas, it assumes that the Pope was already celebrating Christmas and that a Mass at midnight was added. During this time, we also read the following words of Theophilus (A.D. 115-181), Catholic bishop of Caesarea in Palestine: “We ought to celebrate the birthday of Our Lord on what day soever the 25th of December shall happen.” - God’s Birthday
Here is what Dom Guéranger, the foremost authority on the liturgy in his Liturgical Year has to say about this matter:
The custom of celebrating the Solemnity of our Saviour’s Nativity by a feast or commemoration of forty days’ duration is founded on the holy Gospel itself; for it tells us that the Blessed Virgin Mary, after spending forty days in the contemplation of the Divine Fruit of her glorious Maternity, went to the Temple, there to fulfil, in most perfect humility, the ceremonies which the Law demanded of the daughters of Israel, when they became mothers.
The Feast of Mary’s Purification is, therefore, part of that of Jesus’ Birth; and the custom of keeping this holy and glorious period of forty days as one continued Festival has every appearance of being a very ancient one, at least in the Roman Church. And firstly, with regard to our Saviour’s Birth on December 25, we have St John Chrysostom telling us, in his Homily for this Feast, that the Western Churches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept it on this day. He is not satisfied with merely mentioning the tradition; he undertakes to show that it is well founded, inasmuch as the Church of Rome had every means of knowing the true day of our Saviour’s Birth, since the acts of the Enrolment, taken in Judea by command of Augustus, were kept in the public archives of Rome. The holy Doctor adduces a second argument, which he founds upon the Gospel of St Luke, and he reasons thus: we know from the sacred Scriptures that it must have been in the fast of the seventh month [Lev. xxiii 24 and following verses. The seventh month (or Tisri) corresponded to the end of our September and beginning of our October. -Tr.] that the Priest Zachary had the vision in the Temple; after which Elizabeth, his wife, conceived St John the Baptist: hence it follows that the Blessed Virgin Mary having, as the Evangelist St Luke relates, received the Angel Gabriel’s visit, and conceived the Saviour of the world in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, that is to say, in March, the Birth of Jesus must have taken place in the month of December.
But it was not till the fourth century that the Churches of the East began to keep the Feast of our Saviour’s Birth in the month of December. Up to that period they had kept it at one time on the sixth of January, thus uniting it, under the generic term of Epiphany, with the Manifestation of our Saviour made to the Magi, and in them to the Gentiles; at another time, as Clement of Alexandria tells us, they kept it on the 25th of the month Pachon (May 15), or on the 25th of the month Pharmuth (April 20). St John Chrysostom, in the Homily we have just cited, which he gave in 386, tells us that the Roman custom of celebrating the Birth of our Saviour on December 25 had then only been observed ten years in the Church of Antioch. It is probable that this change had been introduced in obedience to the wishes of the Apostolic See, wishes which received additional weight by the edict of the Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian, which appeared towards the close of the fourth century, and decreed that the Nativity and Epiphany of our Lord should be made two distinct Festivals. The only Church that has maintained the custom of celebrating the two mysteries on January 6 is that of Armenia; owing, no doubt, to the circumstance of that country not being under the authority of the Emperors; as also because it was withdrawn at an early period from the influence of Rome by schism and heresy. - The History of Christmas (The Liturgical Year)
And now for St. John Chrysostom in his own words:
There is something which long ago patriarchs painfully longed for, prophets foretold and the righteous set their hearts on. Now it has come to pass and had its consummation today. God was seen on earth through flesh and dwelt among humankind. So then, beloved, let us rejoice with great gladness. For if John leapt in his mother’s womb when Mary visited Elizabeth, consider that we have actually seen our Saviour born today. So now we, much more, must leap, rejoice, and be full of wonder and astonishment at the grandeur of God’s plan which exceeds all thought. Think how great it would be to see the sun coming down from the heavens, running on the earth and sending out its beams on everybody from here. If the sight of such splendour would astound all who behold it, consider and contemplate now how great it is to see the sun of righteousness (Malachi 4: 2), sending out beams from our own flesh and illuminating our souls. Long ago I set my heart on seeing this day, and not just seeing it, but seeing it with such a great gathering of people. I continually prayed that our place of meeting would be filled just as we now see it filled. So this has come to pass and had its consummation. Although it is not yet the tenth year since this day became clear and familiar to us, through your zeal, it has now flourished as though it was given from the beginning many years ago. Because of this one would not be far wrong in saying that it is both new and old: new because it has only recently been made known to you, old and venerable because it has swiftly become similar in stature to days long recognised and it feels as though it is of similar age to them. It is as with carefully bred and cultivated plants (the ones that reach an impressive height almost as soon as they are placed in the earth, and are laden with fruit). This day was known from the beginning to those in the West: now it has been brought to us and before the passing of many years, has swiftly shot up, bearing such fruit as you now see – the precincts full and the church packed with the crowd who have gathered together. Expect a repayment worthy of such zeal from Christ who is born today in the flesh. He will reward you for this enthusiasm. Your heartfelt zeal for this day is a great sign of your love for the one who is born. If it is necessary for anything to be contributed by us, your fellow servants, then, as we are able, we will contribute it; or rather whatever words the grace of God gives me to build you up. What do you wish to hear today? You want, of course, to hear about this day. I well know that many are still debating with each other about it, some arguing against, some for. Everywhere there is a lot of conversation about this day, some saying accusingly that the day is a new innovation which has only recently been introduced, while others contend that it is ancient and venerable, that the prophets spoke in advance about his birth and that from the beginning it was plain and clear to those living from Thrace to Cadiz. So come then and let us begin to give an account of these things. At the moment a day which is debated among you enjoys significant goodwill. If it became more familiar to you it is obvious that it would enjoy even greater zeal. Clarity of teaching will consolidate its position among you.
I have three convincing arguments to share with you through which we will know for sure that this is the time at which our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Word, was born. Of the three the first is that the news about the feast was swiftly circulated everywhere; it increased in prominence and the feast flourished. Gamaliel said of the proclamation of the Gospel – if it is from men and women it will come to an end, but if it is from God you will not be able to bring it to an end lest you are found to be fighting against God. I would confidently say of this day that, since God the Word is of God, far from it coming to an end, it is increasing in prominence each year and becoming better and better known. Within a few years the preaching of the Gospel had taken hold of the entire world even though it was shared in each place by ordinary people of little education like tentmakers and fishermen. The modest circumstances of its servants did it no harm, but the power of the message won over everything, brought to nothing whatever got in the way and demonstrated a strength of its own. - John Chrysostom - Homily on the Date of Christmas
In the end all three are quite possible.