Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas

I have found the full Latin of the inscription which Roll (“Toward the Origins of Christmas”) implies states that Emperor Aurelian set up a feast for Sol Invictus on December 25 in 274AD.  The Latin inscription can be found here (it is a transcription, sadly no picture is provided) it is number 580 (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae by Hermann Dessau.)  As we will see the inscription says no such thing about December 25:

Below I have transcribed it:

Soli invicto sacr.
pro salute et inco
lumitate perpetui
imp. Caes. L. Domi
ti Aureliani Pii Fel.
Aug. p.m., t. p. VI, cos.
III, p. p., proconsuli[s]

Here is my translation:

To the Holy Unconquered Sun
for welfare and secur-
-ity of the perpetual
Emperor Caesar Lucius Domi-
-tius Aurelian the Pius Auspicious
Augustus Pontifex Maximus, earned title of consul 6 (times)
3 (times) [don't know what "p. p." is]    procunsul

In my haste I am not too sure about the last line and the latter half of the 2nd to last. For help with Latin abbreviations in inscriptions see here

This inscription doesn’t tell us anything about when the feast was celebrated or even that Aurelian set up a feast at all.  I suspect that this may have all been made up.

After some searching I found a nice blog about Sol Invictus by Roger Pearse, which lead to this wonderfully large and detailed dissertation on the cult of Sol by Steven Hijmans, our part of interest is here.
Hijmans says:

“there is no evidence that Aurelian instituted a celebration of Sol on that day [December 25].  A feast day for Sol on December 25th is not mentioned until eighty years later, in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian in his Oration to King Helios” [p.588 & p.6 of pdf]

So indeed, no evidence that Aurelian set up a feast for Sol Invictus on December 25, what of the other two pieces of evidence?  The Philocalian Calendar (part 6 of the Chronography of 354)  says that “Natalis Invicti” or “Birth of the Unconquered) was celebrated on December 25, whether that refers to Sol or Jesus is unclear, what is clear is that other feasts of Sol are mentioned by name (for example on August 28) and that the Chronography of 354 does say that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 in part 12.

The second piece of evidence is from no less than Julian the Apostate who in the late 4th century (Oration to King Helios IV, 156C from Hijmans p.589 & p.7 of pdf) claimed that Numa himself instituted a festival of Sol on December 25, meaning that for almost 1,000 years no one mentioned these celebrations until the 4th century, which casts much doubt upon the accuracy of this claim (especially given that it comes from a hostile source).  Hijmans himself dismisses it on p.589 & p.7 of the pdf.

So to conclude our recent blog posts on Christmas and Roman festivals:

A feast to Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) did occur on December 25, but the earliest evidence for it dates from the mid to late 4th century.  There is no evidence that Emperor Aurelian established a Festival of Sol Invictus (or anyone or anything else) on December 25.

Saturnalia did not occur on December 25 and had nothing to do with the birth of any god or anyone else.

Egyptians apparently presented an infant as a representation of the newborn Sun on the winter solstice, but this evidence also dates from the fourth and fifth centuries.

Hippolytus in 202-211 AD set the date for the birth of Jesus on December 25, because he thought Jesus was conceived 9 months earlier on the Passover, the day in which he also thought  the world was created (5500 years earlier), the Vernal Equinox March 25.

Clement of Alexandria (193-215 AD) quoted various anonymous sources about the birth of Jesus and roughly agrees with Hippolytus, claiming that Jesus was born in late fall to early winter. Clement’s sources clearly seem to believe that Jesus was conceived on the Passover and was born roughly 9 months later; in fact the only difference between them and Hippolytus is that they differed on when the Passover actually occurred.  However there is a significant possibility that one of Clement’s sources was Hippolytus himself because of the preponderance of possible dates he gives that fall on the 25th of a month (He gives 4 of them and then another date on the 24th) which corresponds with Hippolytus’ belief that Jesus was both conceived, born, and executed on the 25th of a month.

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13 Responses to Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas

  1. Roger Pearse says:

    Useful to look up that inscription — thank you. Isn’t it remarkable how much sheer *fiction* is in circulation on these issues?

    Aurelian did institite games of the sun (agones solis) in October. The calendar of Philocalus does not give any Christian festivals, so I think we can take it that Natalis Invicti is a state festival of pagan origin. The remark of Julian about the Heliaia on that date — the attribution to Numa is unevidenced, as you say — confirms that such a festival did occur. If you look at the Chronography calendar, you will notice that all the old festivals have the same number of chariot races, while those created in late antiquity have strange numbers like 24. This suggests that the 25 Dec. festival is also a late creation.

    There is also the question of what “natalis” means. It could mean birthday; but also it can mean “anniversary of the dedication of a temple”. This seems to be the meaning for other “natalis” in the calendar. We know that Aurelian dedicated the temple of Sol Invictus. Thus we would get a festival on the anniversary of the dedication of the temple, and thus the idea that the festival was created at the same time by Aurelian.

    On the other hand, the idea that 25 Dec. is the “new sun” or “birth of the sun” appears in Latin literature generally. The astrologer Antiochus of Athens describes it as the birthday of the sun in his calendar of heavenly events, and he may have lived in the 1st or 2nd centuries. If so, perhaps Natalis has its usual meaning.

    But it seems to me that there is a pile of uncertainty in all this.

    The idea that Christmas was celebrated on 25 Dec. to stamp on a pagan festival is asserted half a century later by Chrysostom, if I remember correctly.

  2. Tom says:

    Roger thank you for your insights, you make some good points, perhaps I was a bit too hasty in some of my conclusions, I want to look into a few things and post a reply but I am away from home now, so maybe in a few days or after christmas.

  3. Pingback: Antiochus of Athens and the Birth of the Sun | Chronicon Blog

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  5. Mike says:

    The p. p. in the inscription stands for pater patriae – the title was assumed by Aurelian upon his accession.

    I hope you don’t mind this remark a year later than your post, but I only found your site recently and am enjoying reading back through the posts.

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  7. Pingback: Steadfast Lutherans » Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Christmas and Sol Invictus

  8. Pingback: Christmas and Sol Invictus - Grace Lutheran Church

  9. ThePaganSun says:

    Here’s a bit of ancient proof that the pagans were celebrating (at least from the Christians’ POV) Dec. 25th as the winter solstice long before most Christians AGREED on what day Jesus’ birthday fell on exactly. Most people (especially Christians still wanting to hold on to thier version of Christmas) forget that even by the 400s, not all Christians agreed on what Jesus’ birthday was. Below is a quote used from the University of Chicago.

    “And yet Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis who died in AD 403, continued to argue that January 6 was the date of Jesus’ birth. “Greeks, I mean idolaters, celebrate this day on the eighth before the Kalends of January [December 25], which Romans call Saturnalia….For this division between the signs of the zodiac, which is a solstice, comes on the eighth before the Kalends of January, and the day begins to lengthen because the light is receiving its increase. And it completes a period of thirteen days until the eighth before the Ides of January [January 6], the day of Christ’s birth” (Panarion, IV.22.5-6; also IV.24.1: “For Christ was born in the month of January, that is, on the eighth before the Ides of January—in the Roman calendar this is the evening of January fifth, at the beginning of January sixth”).” And the Eastern Orthodox Christians STILL celebrate Jan. 6th as Jesus’ birthday and NOT Dec. 25th to this day!

    So although we don’t know EXACTLY which holiday came first, we can make a very educated guess that the pagan one still superceded the Christian one. A) Early Christian leaders warned their followers about even celebrating birthdays and rather celebrated the day they died. B) Even Christian writers (as seen in the quote above) mentioned that before 403 BCE, pagans were celebrating a holiday on Dec. 25th that Chrsitains mistook for Saturnalia before most Christians agreed on the exact date of Jesus’ birth. C) Even later Christian writers (that surely must read and studied their forefathers’ earlier texts) warn against celebrating anything on Dec. 25th since it’s associated with paganism. D) The date of Jesus’ birth and its traditons isn’t even mentioned in the New Testament so Jesus’ birth at that point (100-200 CE when the Gospels were written) probably wasn’t celebrated on Dec. 25th E) All the secular trappings of Christmas: holly, mistletoe, a sleigh with reindeer, a decorated tree, presents, lights, etc are all mostly from Germanic and partly Celtic paganism. And finally F) It’s been far more common historically for Christians to copy pagan tradtions than pagans to copy Christians.

    Bottom line. The pagan holiday still seems to have come first.

    • Wize says:

      I think the point is Christians came up with the date first. They didn’t borrow it from the pagans. So Dec. 25 although not agreed upon was first mentioned by the Christians…

  10. Dude! Why did you take down your Hyppolytus and Clement pages!

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