Christmas

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

turned on red and blue merry christmas neon sign
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Christmas (from Old English, Christes mæsse; literally, “Christ’s mass”). An annual holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus.

Tradition and Date:

Christmas is traditionally celebrated in the West on December 25; this date was likely determined by the mid-to-late fourth century. Some groups, following the older Julian calendar, observe the holiday on December 25 of that calendar, which corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar.

By the late fourth century, Christmas had started to surface as a holiday in its own right, though in its early stages it was more of a prelude to the more established celebration of Epiphany (Kelly, Origins, 69–71). These holidays remain linked in both Eastern and Western traditions, with the Christmas season still ushering in Epiphany. Beginning in the ninth century, however—possibly as the result of the coronation of Emperor Charlemagne on Christmas Day in ad 800—the celebration of Christmas became a more prominent, distinguished, and public affair in the West (Murray, “Medieval,” 31–39). Much of what has today become common Christmas imagery (e.g., Santa Claus, Christmas trees) originated in the early modern era, with some traditions emerging as late as the 19th century.”[1]

Though speculation as to the time of year of Christ’s Birth dates from the early 3rd cent., *Clement of Alexandria, e.g., suggesting 20 May, the celebration of the anniversary does not appear to have been general till the later 4th cent. The earliest mention of the observance on 25 Dec. is in the *Philocalian Calendar, representing the Roman practice of the year 336 (25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae). This date was prob. chosen to oppose the feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti by the celebration of the birth of the ‘Sun of Righteousness’. Another tradition, however, derived the date of Christmas from that of the *Annunciation. The Pseudo-*Chrysostomic tractate De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis domini nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae argued that the Lord was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year, and calculated this as 25 Mar., a computation mentioned by St *Augustine (De Trinitate, 4. 5). Whatever the origin of the 25 Dec. date, after the accession of the Emp. *Constantine its observance in the W. seems to have spread from Rome. In the E. the closely related feast of the *Epiphany (6 Jan.), which commemorated also the Baptism of Christ, was at first the more important; but in the later 4th cent. it was connected with the Nativity, esp. in Syria, and by the middle of the 5th cent. most of the E. had adopted 25 Dec., though the Church of *Jerusalem held to 6 Jan. until 549. In the *Armenian Church 6, Jan. is still the only day devoted specifically to the celebration of the Incarnation. The controversies of the 4th to 6th cents. on the Incarnation and the Person of Christ doubtless contributed to the growth in importance of the feast.

The day is celebrated in the W. rite by three Masses of the night (normally said at midnight), of the dawn, and of the day, which have been held to symbolize the threefold birth of Christ, eternally in the bosom of the Father, from the womb of the Virgin Mary, and mystically in the soul of the faithful.

The popular observance of the feast has always been marked by the joy and merry-making formerly characteristic of the Roman Saturnalia and the other pagan festivals it replaced. It developed considerably in England in the 19th cent. through the importation of German customs by the Prince Consort (e.g. Christmas trees) and the influence of Charles Dickens. The singing of *carols has become a widespread feature in both ecclesiastical and secular contexts.”[2]

Footnotes:

[1] Eric Vanden Eykel, “Christmas,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[2] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 338.

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