Was Jesus Really Born On December 25th?

The First December 25 Christmas
Is Tied To Pagan Shrine And Solstice Celebrations

By Ariel David

ROME - The church where the tradition of celebrating Christmas on December 25 may have begun was built near a pagan shrine as part of an effort to spread Christianity, a leading Italian scholar says.

Italian archaeologists have uncovered an underground grotto that they believe ancient Romans revered as the place where a wolf nursed Rome's legendary founder Romulus and his twin brother Remus.

A few feet from the grotto, or "Lupercale," the Emperor Constantine built the Basilica of St. Anastasia, where some believe Christmas was first celebrated on December 25.

A view of St. Anastasia Basilica, in Rome.
A recently discovered pagan shrine dedicated to
Rome's founder Romulus and his brother Remus
is being linked by some experts to the first
celebration of Christmas held on the date that still
marks the festivity today. Italian archaeologists
have unveiled an underground grotto believed
to have been worshipped by ancient Romans as
the place where a wolf nursed the legendary twins.
A top Italian scholar believes that the Church of
St. Anastasia, built on the site of the shrine,
believed to be a few steps away from the church
witnessed the birth of Christmas as we know it,
making it a symbolic place in efforts to link
pagan practices and Christian celebrations
in order to make converts of the pagans.

Constantine ended the frequent waves of anti-Christian persecutions in the Roman empire by making Christianity a lawful religion in 313. He played a key role in unifying the beliefs and practices of the early followers of Jesus.

In 325, he convened the Council of Nicaea, which fixed the dates of important Christian festivals. It opted to mark Christmas, then celebrated at varying dates, on December 25 to coincide with the Roman festival celebrating the birth of the sun god (Winter Solstice), Andrea Carandini, a professor of archaeology at Rome's La Sapienza University, told reporters.

The Basilica of St. Anastasia was built as soon as a year after the Nicaean Council. It probably was where Christmas was first marked on December 25, as part of broader efforts to link pagan practices to Christian celebrations in the early days of the new religion, Carandini said.

"The church was built to Christianize these pagan places of worship," he said. "It was normal to put a church near these places to try to 'save' them."

Rome's archaeological superintendent Angelo Bottini, who did not take part in Carandini's research, said that hypothesis was "evocative and coherent" and "helps us understand the mechanisms of the passage from paganism to Christianity."

Bottini and Carandini both said future digs could bolster the link between the shrine and the church if structures belonging to the "Lupercale" are found directly below the basilica.

The Basilica St. Anastasia was the first church to rise not on the ancient city's outskirts, but on the Palatine Hill, the palatial center of power and religion in imperial Rome, Carandini said. Though little known today, at the time of Constantine it was one of the most important basilicas for Christians in Rome, he said.

The "Lupercale" shrine - named after the "lupa," Latin for she-wolf - is 52 feet below ground. So far, archaeologists have only been able to see it by inserting probes and cameras that have revealed a vaulted ceiling decorated with colored marble and a white imperial eagle.

Though some experts have expressed doubts that the grotto is in fact the mythological nursery of Romulus and Remus, most archaeologists believe the shrine fits the descriptions found in ancient texts, and plans are being drawn up to excavate the structure further.

"The exact date of Jesus' birth is a mystery. About the best we can do is to narrow it down to seasons. The Bible does give us one clue. The shepherds were in the fields with their flocks at night when Jesus was born. This clearly indicates that Jesus was born during the warmer seasons. During the coldest months like December or January, the shepherds didn't sleep in the fields but would bring their flocks into corrals. There is virtual agreement among scholars that December 25 is not the birth date, not even the month that Jesus was born." --

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