Skip to comments.All About Christmas Christmas History, Information, Prayers, Resources, Traditions, & More
Posted on 12/25/2007 2:21:50 PM PST by Huber
Christmas Definition and Summary
Christmas, also known as the Feast of the Nativity, literally means "Christ Mass." The feast celebrates Jesus' birth and the Incarnation of the Son of God on December 25. Christmastide is another name for the Christmas season, and currently extends from the first Vespers of Christmas Eve until the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Prayers: Christmas Prayers Basic Facts
Liturgical Color(s): White Type of Holiday: Solemnity; Holy Day of Obligation; Season Time of Year: December 25th until the Baptism of Our Lord (Sunday after Jan. 6th) Duration: Christmas: one day; Christmastide: varies, see above Celebrates/Symbolizes: The Incarnation, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ Alternate Names: Feast of the Nativity Scriptural References: Luke 2:1-20, Matthew 1:18-24, John 1:1-18. Introduction
Christmas conjures up many images in people's minds, most of them secular and having little connection to the original meaning of the holiday. Modern society, and even modern Protestant Christianity, have to a large degree taken Christmas outside of its place within the Catholic Church year, where it follows the expectant season of Advent. Liturgically (i.e. within the Church Year), Christmas does not even begin until December 25th, although in the secular world the Christmas season practically starts before Halloween, at least according to major retailers.
Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation, the feast celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, as a little baby in Bethlehem, within the realm of history. While many Christians recognize Christmas as celebrating Jesus' birth, unfortunately many fail to see it as a festival of the Incarnation. Outside of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and a few others, the idea of Christmas as a season has nearly disappeared. Although secular traditions are fun and endearing, Christmas is primarily a Christian holy day and should be treated as such. Even the term is an abbreviation of the phrase "Christ mass," which reflects the primary understanding of Christmas as a feast day within the Church year, connected to the Eucharist. Unfortunately, in recent times, the Church has taken a backseat to food preparation, gift opening, and other festivities that are unrelated to the primary festivity: celebrating the Incarnation of God. Many people mention the need to put Christ back in Christmas, but the need is greater than that. As an Anglo-Catholic (Anglican) priest I heard speak once noted: people also need to put the "mass" back in Christmas.
Christmastide is the name given for the time surrounding Christmas Day. In the current Catholic calendar, Christmastide lasts from Christmas Day until the Baptism of our Lord, which is the Sunday following January 6th. This time includes many other important Christian Holy Days. The 12 days of Christmas, the time from December 25th until the Epiphany (Jan. 6th), have often been recognized as a time for special feasting. In fact, Christmastide used to refer to the 12 Days of Christmas, and some still use "Christmastide" to refer to this period. In the past, the season of Christmas lasted from Christmas until Candlemas, and superstitions developed, believing there was bad luck associated with leaving Christmas decorations up after Candlemas. The octave of Christmas lasts, in the Catholic Church, from December 25th until January 1st, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Of note, Christmas falls exactly 9 months after the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast day commemorating Jesus' conception. History
The history of Christmas ultimately goes back to the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus Christ around 4 BC. At least by the time of St. Matthew and St. Luke's Gospels, Christians began to reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ. A few of the early Fathers speculated about the birth of Jesus, but the actual celebration of Christmas cannot be fixed with certainty before the very early 4th century. Some scholars think that the celebration of Epiphany (originating in the East), which included the nativity and modern Christmastide themes, was celebrated much earlier (possibly late 2nd century). The celebration of Christmas uniquely as the nativity of Jesus Christ, however, originated in the West, probably in North Africa. The earliest surviving reference to December 25th for the celebration of Christmas is in the Philocalian calendar, which shows the Roman practice in AD 336. The celebration of Christmas spread throughout the whole of the East and the West in the 4th century. By the fifth century, almost all of the Church was observing December 25th as the Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany on January 6th, although some Christians still kept January 6th as a holy day which included the nativity. The West was slower to embrace Epiphany, but by the fifth century Rome included it as a feast. Today, in the Western Church, the season of Christmas, called Christmastide, includes the Epiphany (the manifestation of Christ to the wise men) and the baptism of Jesus. Also, in the Catholic Church we remember and celebrate the divine Motherhood of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, falling on January 1st.
Christmas was universally celebrated until the Reformation, but afterwards many "reformers" rejected Christmas. The English Puritans were particularly hostile to Christmas and went to absurd lengths to suppress it. During the brief Calvinist reign in England, parliament forbade the celebration of Christmas, even going so far as to force shops to be open. This attitude carried over into the Americas where Christmas was outlawed or criminalized in Puritan states. For example, in Massachusetts, until the 1830s, anyone who missed school or work on December 25th was subject to a fine. During the earliest days of the USA, with the exception of Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, the religious and secular celebration of Christmas would've been quite rare. Even in the 21st century, many people, for a variety of reasons (all suspect from a Catholic viewpoint), reject the celebration of Christmas. The issue today is not so much how to get people to celebrate Christmas, but rather to re-orient them to the original purpose of celebrating Christmas: Christ and the mass. Worship and Prayer Resources
Christmas Prayers and Collects Nativity Sermon: St. Isaac the Syrian The Troparion, Kontakion, and Canon of the Nativity Eastern Hymns for the Pre-Feast of the Nativity Nativity Sermon I Pope St. Leo I Nativity Sermon II Pope St. Leo I Nativity Sermon III Pope St. Leo I Nativity Sermon IV Pope St. Leo Nativity Sermon VI Pope St. Leo Nativity Sermon VII Pope St. Leo Nativity Sermon VIII Pope St. Leo A Christmas Sermon St. Gregory of Nazianzus Christmas and Church Year Books
The Mass of the Early Christians (Aquilina) Catechism of the Catholic Church Holy Bible: New Jerusalem Bible Christian Prayer: Liturgy of the Hours The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Cross and Livingstone, eds.) New St. Joseph People's Prayer Book The Study of Liturgy (Jones, ed.) Spirit of the Liturgy (Ratzinger) More Christian & Church Year Books Traditions, Symbols, & Typology
Traditions and Customs Decorating Buildings With Greenery Christmas Carols Sending Christmas Cards Feasting on the 12 Days of Christmas Santa Claus/Father Christmas Legends Christmas plays The Creche/Nativity scene Eating unique foods Christmas Lights / Christmas Candles Christmas Tree (Another Christmas Tree Image) Various world customs
Symbols Jesus, Mary, and Joseph Nativity scene Greenery Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, Bayberry, & Poinsettia The Star Hawthorne Glastonbury Thorn in Blossom Angels Santa Claus/Father Christmas (St. Nicholas) Various Foods
Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing Christmas Flowering of Aaron's Rod Birth of Eve Moses in the Bulrushes Christmas Games and Educational Materials
Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Crossword Puzzle (html) Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Crossword Puzzle (pdf) Interactive Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Crossword Puzzle Frequently Asked Questions
1. Don't you know Jesus wasn't born on December 25th? Actually there is a possibility that Jesus was born around December 25th, and that his conception occurred in March (see question 2 below). Ultimately, nobody knows, or can ever know, exactly when he was born. Some people use this doubt about the exact date to try to discredit Christmas. However, it shows a profound misunderstanding of what Christmas is about. In the Church, Christmas is a feast of the Incarnation, a day set aside to celebrate and remember that God became man to save us from our sins and redeem the world. That God would become a little baby, born to a human Mother, in our hostile world to deliver us from death and sin is quite a testament to his love. Many modern Christians think too much in terms of technicalities or factoids. Christmas is not about dates on birth certificates, but about the love of God in becoming man.
2. Was December 25th Chosen for Pagan Reasons? Many internet sites promote the idea that early Christians chose December 25th as Christmas day because this date coincided with a pagan feast. Thus, they say, Christmas is a "pagan" feast. This means that the date of Christmas has become a part of the "is Christmas pagan?" debate. First, the belief that Christians chose December 25th based on the date of a pagan festival is rooted in discredited 17th and 18th century scholarship. Second, as is mentioned below, Christians likely chose December 25th for Jewish reasons.
Here is what happened: Second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa tried to find the day in which Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian (d. AD 225) they had concluded that he died on Friday, March 25, AD 29 (incidentally, this is an impossibility, since March 25 in the year AD 29 was not a Friday). How does the day of Jesus' death relate to the day of his conception? It comes from the Jewish concept of the "integral age" of the great Jewish prophets. This is the notion that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception. Therefore, if Jesus died on March 25, being a great prophet, he was also conceived that day. This means he was born nine months later on December 25th. The pseudo-(John)Chrysostomic work de solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae accepts the same calculation. St. Augustine mentions it as well. Also, there was a Jewish concept that the Messiah would be conceived around the time of Jewish Passover, and a March conception is certainly within the range of Jewish Passover. Thus early Christians had good reasons to choose December 25th as the date of Jesus' birth which had nothing to do with paganism. We still can't say for sure when Jesus was born, but the date of December 25th is based on faithful reasoning, not an infiltration of paganism into the Church. The Church celebrates Jesus' conception on March 25th, with the Solemnity of the Annunciation.
Please see the excellent article by Dr. William Tighe entitled Calculating Christmas for more information on the theory explained above. Also, please visit Choosing the Date of Christmas: Why December 25? for multiple theories as to why December 25th was chosen for the date of Christ's birth.
3. Related to Question 2, Isn't Christmas Pagan? I have yet to meet any traditional, conservative Christian of any stripe who acts even remotely pagan at Christmas. This is in spite of the charges constantly leveled by some that Christmas is somehow pagan. Christmas did happen to occur around the time of pagan festivals, although there is no solid evidence that this was done purposefully. Even if the feast was meant to replace a pagan festival, the key word is replace. Pagans had lots of holy days and we can technically level the charge of "pagan" against any day of the year, because some pagan somewhere celebrated something every day of the year. Pagan is such a generic term that it can be applied to many religions in virtually every region. This does not mean that pagans rightfully "owned" their feast days to begin with, or that Christians purposely chose the pagan feast days for their celebrations. Every day is God's by right to start with, and those claiming that celebrating Christ's birth is pagan often give far too much power to long forgotten pagans and their customs. In fact as question two mentions, many scholars think that the Church chose December 25th because of Jewish reasons. An insightful article, Are Christmas and Easter Pagan? by David Morrison explains why celebrating Christmas is not celebrating a pagan day.
4. I am still not convinced. I don't observe any pagan days or customs and I don't want to start! The problem with eliminating pagan influence is that it is impossible. If you live and breathe in the month of January, you are in essence acknowledging a pagan deity, because January is named after the Roman god Janus, the god of doorways. If you pray on Wednesday you are praying on Odin's Day. What about Thursday? That is Thor's Day. In fact, everyday of the week has some pagan connotations in the English language, and in most others too. Wedding rings were originally pagan too. We don't really make too big a deal of these facts. What a pagan did thousands of years ago doesn't even really matter to the Church today, except perhaps to the historical scholar. God created every single day and they are all His. Thor doesn't own Thursday, nor did he ever; he doesn't even exist. Janus never guarded January, because Janus doesn't exist either. Plus, when Christians scheduled their festivals on these days, they drained the pagan day of all of its former power, and dedicated the day to the true God, Jesus Christ. These "pagan" days, which God has owned all along anyway, have been transformed and dedicated to Jesus Christ by the Church.
Yes, some pagan customs remained intact in the Christian festivities; when these customs agreed with Christian teaching there was nothing wrong with using them. For example, the Christmas tree may have originally been pagan, but it has been given new Christian symbolism and meaning. The eternal life that Christ gives us thanks to the Incarnation is shown well by the symbolism of the evergreen in the midst of the death of winter. "Christianizing" or "Judaizing" pagan customs has been done since the beginning. The Jews borrowed the idea of the resurrection of the dead from the Persians but that does not make it any less true. Many scholars trace the Jewish feast of Purim to a pagan ritual marking the beginning of spring. Again, this does not mean the Jews were celebrating paganism. No, they were celebrating a Jewish feast to the true God, which had fortunately replaced a feast to pagan deities. In fact, C.S. Lewis would say that because the Persians and pagans both had slices of the truth of Christ, it makes the resurrection of the dead and the realities behind Purim more true. In conclusion, it is virtually impossible to purge yourself of all pagan influence. What really matters is what we celebrate today and the meaning behind our current celebrations.
5. I thought red and green were Christmas' colors? Red and Green are more secular Christmas colors, and may have risen from the use of greenery and popular red Christmas items (like Santa's clothes, berries, bows, etc) during the Christmas season. However, the technical liturgical color is white. This is not to say there is anything wrong with red and green (or any other color you may associate with Christmas), or that you should take down all of your non-white decorations. It is just that in the setting of the worship service, the primary color will be white. Art and Poetry
Christmas Morning (Maxfield Parrish) The Nativity (F. Barocci) The Nativity (Robert Campin) Mystical Nativity (Botticelli) The Nativity (G. Hornebout) Nativity (1887) (Burne-Jones) Nativity (1888) (Burne-Jones) More Christian and Liturgical Art General Links
"Christmas" from the Catholic Encyclopedia "St. Nicholas of Myra" from the Catholic Encyclopedia The 12 Days of Christmas & Christmastide: A Rich Catholic Tradition Legend of the Xmas Tree All About Advent All About the Feast of the Holy Family All About Epiphany Choosing the Date of Christmas: Why December 25? David Bennett Are Christmas & Easter Pagan?: Christian Holy Days & Paganism David Morrison Calculating Christmas William Tighe Christian and Church Year Books About ChurchYear.Net
In the course of a year, the Church celebrates the unfolding of the mystery of Christ, beginning with Advent, anticipating his first coming, and reaching a high point at Easter, the feast of feasts, celebrating Christ's resurrection. Through the Church Year, which includes the seasonal, daily, and yearly cycles of Christian time, we live into the events of Jesus and his followers through sanctified time. Thus, we experience in symbol what Jesus and his followers did in reality. We do this through daily prayer (The Liturgy of the Hours), worship, the Eucharist, the sacraments, art, changing colors, canticles, psalms, antiphons, symbols, and other means.
The Church Year, including all liturgical celebrations and times of prayer, is one of the most meaningful dimensions of the Catholic faith. Many Christians of all traditions feel drawn to this system of holy time, and prefer to orient their lives around the Christian calendar instead of the secular calendar. Postmodern men and women feel especially drawn to many elements of Sanctified Time: mystery, connection to the past, and a multitude of religious symbols and experiential elements. Thus the Church Year is a postmodern Catholic evangelism tool, and a means of spiritual growth for all who use it.
We now have All About...! pages for every season of the Church Year, and have many All About...! pages for various feasts, fasts, and holy days of the Church Year. Each All About...! page has a history, general facts, scriptural references, traditions, symbols, links, worship resources, sermons, an FAQ, and more material related to the particular season or holy day. We also have a helpful Church Year and Liturgy Dictionary, to define certain unfamiliar terms and practices. We are expanding our resources to include general prayers, language resources, and other tools peripherally related to celebrating the Church Year, but still important to its celebration. Enjoy!
If you have any suggestions or information you would like to add to our Church Year. Net pages, please contact us.
This page written by Jonathan Bennett and David Bennett. Last updated 12-10-2007. ChurchYear.Net
This is a great resource for our shared Christmas heritage.
Merry Christmas to all!
Very informative, Huber. Thanks!
AnalogReigns, I saw an advertisement for your church’s Christmas liturgies in the “Charlotte Observer.” (We bought it to line the snake’s cage ...) I hope you had a wonderful service and a good attendance.
T_C, you bought their ad for the purpose of lining your snake's cage? Shame on you! *\;-)
That’s about all most papers are good for these days.
I bought the dang leftist paper because the snake did a dump and needed new paper (and I hadn’t finished reading “The County Edge,” which comes on Fridays), but I happened to notice the ad for the Traditional Anglican congregation because I’d previously discussed the new Anglican parish in our area with AnalogReigns. Also, I was waxing nostalgic over English Christmastide services, since we’re doing the Spanish service at our parish.
The snake’s name is Susan.
I think he meant just the Observer, not the ad...
But I was feeling sorry for the snake.
Thanks for the compliment, but I’m up in the DC area visiting relatives. I went to Truro in Fairfax for the late Christmas Eve service.
What a service! What a Church! What music and song!
Close to Heaven.
Bona ex Deus!
I think SHE meant just the Observer, not the ad...
LOL! But I’m glad you had a good visit there.
I am a She. It is unclear, regarding the snake, unless they have babies ... but my son decided it was “Susan.”
I’m very happy that you had a great experience of the Christmas Eve service in your present location. Merry Christmas!
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.