Three centuries before Christ's birth, people celebrated 25 December, archaeologists claim

David Keys
Wednesday 24 December 2003 01:00
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Archeologists say they have traced the origins of the first Christmas to be celebrated on 25 December, 300 years before the birth of Christ. The original event marked the consecration of the ancient world's largest sun god statue, the 34m tall, 200 ton Colossus of Rhodes.

It has long been known that 25 December was not the real date of Christ's birth and that the decision to turn it into Jesus's birthday was made by Constantine, the Roman Emperor, in the early 4th century AD. But experts believe the origins of that decision go back to 283 BC, when, in Rhodes, the winter solstice occurred at about sunrise on 25 December.

The event was preserved by academics on Rhodes or in Alexandria, and seems to have been passed to Caesar by the Hellenistic Egyptian scientists, who advised him on his calendrical reforms.

The date was chosen because the emperor seems to have believed that the Roman sun god and Christ were virtually one and the same, and the sun's birthday had been decreed as 25 December some 50 years earlier by one of Constantine's predecessors, the Emperor Aurelian. He, in turn, seems to have chosen 25 December because, ever since Julius Caesar's calendar reforms of 46 BC, that date had been fixed as the official winter solstice, even though the real date for the solstice in Caesar's time was 23 December.

Dr Alaric Watson, one of the British historians involved in the current research and author of the major book on the period, Aurelian and the Third Century, said: "Constantine's choice of 25 December as the day on which to celebrate the birth of his divine patron, Christ, must be viewed in terms of the tradition on which Aurelian had drawn and which may well have originated in the celebration of the winter solstice at Rhodes some six centuries earlier.

"Constantine clearly saw his divine patron, initially Sol Invictus but later Christ, in much the same way as Aurelian had done. The imagery of Christ, like that of the ruler cults of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, owed much to solar theology."

Jesus's real date of birth is not known, although various different pre-4th century traditions and computations put it either in the January to March period or in November.

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