We all have questions about Christmas. Where did its name come from? What is its history? Why is it when it is? So, here are some answers to common questions about one of the most celebrated feast days of the liturgical year.
What Does “Christmas” Mean?
The word “Christmas” is derived from the Middle English word Cristemasse, which comes from the Old English Cristes Maesse, a phrase which means “Christ’s Mass” and was first recorded in 1038.
Christmas’ origin is simple: it is the celebration of the day when the Second Person of the Trinity, God’s Holy Word, was born into this world. This is a definitive moment in the history of the created world unlike any other.
Is it Connected to the Winter Solstice?
December 25 falls at the time when the ancient world celebrated the winter solstice, which historically has been important for agricultural reasons. The winter solstice is the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. To pagans this meant that they knew that the days would start getting lighter and longer and the nights would become shorter.
To celebrate, people had a mid-winter festival to celebrate the sun ‘winning’ over the darkness of winter. December 25 was the feast of Sol Invicti or Natalis Invicti (“the invincible sun” or “birth of the unconquered”).
During the 4 century, Christianity became an official part of the Roman Empire. This is the point of time in history when paganism became Christianized. Referring to Jesus as the “light of the world” fits with existing pagan beliefs about the birth of the sun. The ancient “return of the sun” philosophy had been replaced by the “coming of the Son” message of Christianity.
St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Sermon 192, writes: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”
Similarly, G.K. Chesterton reflected on the win over paganism by Christianity: “Paganism was the biggest thing in the world; Christianity was bigger. And everything since has been comparatively small.”
Why is it Celebrated on December 25?
In the 5 century, Pope Leo I established the Feast of the Nativity to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. This goes back to a celebration from even earlier in history: Anno Mundi, the traditional celebration of the Creation of the World.
While the date of this celebration was different across many ancient calendars, March 25 emerged as the date of its celebration because of its proximity to the spring equinox. Early Christians also adopted March 25th as the date of the Annunciation, the day when an angel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus, the Savior of the world.
Both dates celebrate events when God entered the world: first through the act of Creation and again through the Incarnation. So, nine months after the celebration of this glorious conception, we celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth on December 25.
The consensus among the early Church Fathers seemed to be that Jesus was born sometime between 3 and 2 B.C. St. Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Commentary on Daniel 4:23:3, “the first advent of Our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was eight days before the Kalends of January, the fourth day [i.e.Wednesday]…” The Kalends was the first day of the month, and eight days before January 1 is December 25.
St. John Chrysostom added to this consensus stating: “But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December…the eight before the kalends of January [25 December]…, But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”
Is it True Christmas Used to be Illegal?
Christianity was illegal across the Roman empire until the 4 century, and it wasn’t until the 6 century that Emperor Justinian declared Christmas to be a public holiday.
More recently, in the United States, Puritans objected to the celebration of Christmas because they felt it to be too unbiblical and rooted in pagan partying. Christmas was outlawed in Boston from 1659 until the ban was lifted in 1681. The celebration of Christmas still was not widespread by America’s founding in 1776.
Alabama was the first state to declare it a public holiday in 1836, and it wasn’t officially proclaimed a federal holiday until 1870. Today, the holiday is widespread and common — well over 85 percent of the U.S. population celebrates Christmas.
Join Us in Prayer
Hopefully, these answers will help you understand the origins of this liturgical feast a little bit more. Remember to take time for prayer, engage your faith, and prepare yourself spiritually for the Solemnity of Christmas. For more information on how to prepare for this liturgical feast, visit The Station of the Cross.
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