Christmas

The English name for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ kept on 25 December by the Western Church. There is no evidence of a Feast of the Nativity before the fourth century, except possibly among the Basilidians. The earliest mention of 25 December is in the Philocalian Calendar, compiled in 354, which cites its observance in Rome in 336. It would not appear to have been celebrated in Antioch until approximately 375. By 380 it was being observed in Constantinople, and by 430 in Alexandria. It was still unknown in Jerusalem early in the fifth century-it was not until the sixth century that the Nativity was finally detached from 6 January and celebrated on 25 December. By the middle of the fifth century it was being gradually observed throughout East and West. The Armenians still observe 6 January, the closely related Feast of the Epiphany, as Christmas Day.

There is no authoritative historical evidence as to the day or month of Christ's birth in Jerusalem. 25 December was the date of a Roman pagan festival inaugurated in 274 as the birthday of the unconquered sun which at the winter solstice begins again to show an increase in light. Sometime before 336 the Church in Rome, unable to stamp out this pagan festival, spiritualized it as the Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness. Christmas in the Eastern Church celebrates the birth of Christ together with the visit of the shepherds and the adoration of the wise men. In the Western Church the adoration of the Magi is attached to Epiphany on 6 January. In the Roman Catholic Church three masses are usually said to symbolize the birth of Christ eternally in the bosom of the Father, from the womb of Mary and mystically in the soul of the faithful. The traditional customs associated with Christmas have been derived from several sources. The merrymaking and the exchange of presents find their origin in the Roman Saturnalia festival (17-24 December), and the greenery and lights come from the Kalends of January (1 January, the Roman New Year) with its solar associations. The Germano-Celtic Yule rites introduced the tradition of feasting and fellowship. In the USA (and in England during the Commonwealth) Christian celebrations were at first suppressed by the Puritans, who objected to their pagan origins. Since the nineteenth century the celebration of Christmas has become increasingly popular.


The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Statue of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate).

CHRISTMAS, the traditional anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. Most Protestants and Roman Catholics observe this anniversary on December 25. Eastern Orthodox and Armenian churches observe Christ’s birth either on December 25 or January 6.

Neither the term Christmas (a derivative of Christ + Mass) nor the actual celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Christ is recorded in the Bible. Early Christians did meet regularly to commemorate the death, Resurrection and promised return of Christ (1 Cor 11:20-34).

Authorities are not agreed concerning the precise date of Christ’s birth. Neither is there agreement concerning the time at which the celebration of Christmas actually began in the churches. Clement of Alexandria, toward the close of the 2nd cent. a.d., cites diverse views concerning the date of Christ’s birth among early churchmen (Stromata, Bk. 1, ch. 21). Some believe that his early reference to the remembrance of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist among the Basilidans included a joint observance remembering both His baptism by John and His birth, since early churchmen in the E seemed to believe that Christ’s baptism and birth were on the same calendar dates. By the end of the 4th cent., the eastern churches had adopted special services commemorating jointly the birth of Christ, the adoration of the Magi, and Christ’s baptism by John. Apparently, these services were held at first on January 6, but later were divided between December 25 and January 6. Augustine points to the prevailing tradition in the 5th cent. among western churches concerning the birth of Christ and the observance of Christmas. “For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered;...But He was born according to tradition upon December the 25th” (De Trinitate, Bk. IV, ch. 5).

It is probable that diverse traditions in the Early Church regarding the precise time of Christ’s conception led to the differences of dating for Christmas observances in the E and W. As early as a.d. 336 the observance of Christmas on December 25 was widespread among western churches.

Today in most western churches, the observance of Christmas emphasizes the immediate events surrounding the birth of Christ. While most Christians do not attempt to be dogmatic about the precise date of Christ’s birth, it is now traditional to observe the 25th of December in memory of His coming into the world.

During the period dating from the earliest general celebrations of Christmas, numerous customs have been introduced into the event. Originally, it appears that a special religious ceremony marked the occasion. Gradually a number of the prevailing practices of the nations into which Christianity came were assimilated and were combined with the religious ceremonies surrounding Christmas. The assimilation of such practices generally represented efforts by Christians to transform or absorb otherwise pagan practices.

The Feast of Saturnalia in early Rome, for example, was celebrated for seven days from the 17th to the 24th of December and was marked by a spirit of merriment, gift giving to children and other forms of entertainment. Gradually, early Christians replaced the pagan feast with the celebration of Christmas; but many of the traditions of this observance were assimilated and remain to this day a part of the observance of Christmas. Other nations, the Scandinavians, Germans, French, English and others have left their mark on the observance as well. Some groups refrain from celebrating Christmas on the grounds that the introduction of pagan practices has destroyed the original significance of the occasion. They cite the use of Christmas trees and the yule log, among other things, as examples of the paganization of Christmas. Yet many Christians contend that such practices no longer bear pagan connotations, and believe that the observance of Christmas provides an opportunity for worship and witness bearing.

The Biblical emphasis connected with the birth of Jesus Christ is evidenced by adoration and worship (Luke 2:8-12); the giving of gifts to God (Matt 2:1-11); and expressions of peace and goodwill (Luke 2:13, 14).

Bibliography

Augustine, De Trinitate, IV, 5, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, III (1887), 74; Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, I, 21, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, II (1887), 333, 334; L. Duchesne, Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution, 4th ed. (1912), 257-265A; K. Lake, “Christmas,” Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, III (1924), 601-608.