Christmas is a holiday which celebrates the birth of Jesus. It is celebrated on December 25. The word "Christmas" comes from "Christ's mass." A few churches, including the Russian and Ukrainian churches, still celebrate according to the Julian calendar. December 25 on the Julian calendar corresponds to January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
The story of the birth of Christ is told in the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew. Each contains different elements of the Christmas story. The visit of the Archangel to the shepherds and the birth of Jesus in a manger are from Luke. The story of the Star of Bethlehem and the visit from the magi bringing gifts of "gold, and frankincense and myrrh" are from Matthew.
The Bible does not give a date for the birth of Jesus. The holiday is exactly nine months following Annunciation on March 25. On the Roman calendar, March 25 was marked as the spring equinox while December 25 was considered the date of the winter solstice. Both of these dates are traditional and merely approximate. Christmas is often connected to pagan solstice festivals, especially by those who oppose the holiday. But the symbolism of a solstice date appealed to the Church Fathers for reasons unrelated to paganism.
In Western countries, during the Christmas season people generally hang up colored lights, place a Christmas tree (typically an evergreen tree) in their house, sing carols, and exchange gifts. Gift-giving commemorates the gifts given to the Christ child by the magi and is symbolic of the fact that Jesus came as gift to mankind from God.
|“||Clement of Alexandria [c. 150 – 215], for instances mentions (and dismisses) proposals that Christ was born on April 19 or May 20 and himself calculated the date as November 17, 3 BC. Other suggested dates included March 28 and April 2, but not December 25. None of these dates were influential, or enjoyed any official recognition.||”|
The choice of December 25 as the birth date of Jesus was influenced by universal historians. These writers wanted to present history in the form of cycles. According to an ancient Jewish tradition, the equinox is the anniversary of Creation. On the Roman calendar, the equinox was marked on March 25. In 221, Sextus Julius Africanus wrote a universal history that gave March 25 not only as the first day of Creation, but also as the date of incarnation. This implies that Jesus was born in December, nine months later. Solar symbolism was extremely common among Christian writers of the time. It was justified by the identification of Jesus as the "sun of righteousness" mentioned by the prophet Malachi. In the Middle Ages, Christians celebrated New Year's Day on March 25.
Nativity celebration must have arisen sometime after 300 as earlier writers were not aware of it. Irenaeus and Tertullian both give lists of Christian feasts that do not include Christmas. Origen and Arnobius both fault the pagans for celebrating birthdays.
The Chronography of 354 records that a Christmas celebration took place in Rome in 336. The creation of the feast may be a response to the Trinitarian controversy that was raging at the time. It was introduced to the Eastern Roman Empire after the death of Emperor Valens, who favored the Arian heresy, in 378. Christmas has a unique three-mass liturgy that gives a priest three opportunities to inveigh against heretics. Once Arianism died out, the status of Christmas declined.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was overshadowed by Epiphany (January 6). The holiday regained prominence in the time of Charlemagne, who was crowned as emperor on December 25, 800.
With the Reformation, Christmas fell into disrepute. It was banned under Cromwell. In the early 19th century, the Oxford Movement led a revival of the holiday. Many of the customs we have come to associate with Christmas developed in Victorian England, notably the Christmas tree, which originated in Germany and was introduced in England by Prince Albert. The concept of Christmas as a family-centered celebration and a time of generosity, good will, and friendliness to neighbors, was popularized by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol.
In the United States, the image of Santa Claus (i.e. Saint Nicholas) and his reindeer has been shaped by Clement Moore's poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (with the famous opening line "'Twas the night before Christmas.") Christmas was declared a national holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. In other countries, the depiction of Santa vary widely. For instance, in The Netherlands, Santa Claus is shown in a bishop's miter. In some countries, Saint Nicholas is not associated with the holiday at all; for example, in Spain it is the magi who bring gifts to children, and in Hawaii it is the jolly native Kamaunamauna. However, the tradition of Christmas gift-giving is prevalent in all cultures.
In the United States, during the twentieth century, gift-giving assumed a greater and greater role, and by mid-century had become of great commercial importance, to the point where some felt the religious aspects were becoming forgotten. As Stan Freberg put it in 1958, "There are two S's in Christmas and they're both dollar signs." The single week before Christmas currently accounts for 25 percent to 30 percent of all retail sales.
Relationship to pagan festivals
In an essay published in 1889, German scholar Hermann Usener argued that Christmas is an "appropriation" of an earlier pagan festival. According to Usener, the Church placed Christmas on December 25 as a kind of marketing strategy to absorb pagan solstice festivals into Christianity.
The end of the year was a "holiday season" of varied celebration in pagan Rome, and it remains so in modern times. Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for three to five days. It was followed by Dies Natalis Solis Invicti on December 25 and Kalends on January 1 to January 4. Saturnalia was exclusive to Italy while Sol was a sun god associated with emperors Aurelian and Constantine.
The cycle of solstice and equinox is a natural phenomena significant to religions of widely varying character. As Hijmans writes:
|“||It is cosmic symbolism ... which inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the winter solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the summer solstice [June 24] as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception. While they were aware that pagans called this day the “birthday” of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.||”|
Both Saturnalia and Sol Invictus were overshadowed by Kalends, a new year celebration. While there is no trace of either Saturalia or Sol Invictus persisting into Christian times, various churchmen noted how difficult it was to suppress Kalends. The Roman end-of-year celebrations transferred to Epiphany in the Early Middle Ages and later to the Twelve Days of Christmas.
The connection between Christmas and Yule, a Scandinavian pagan holiday, is often misunderstand. Writing in the eighth century, Bede did not know Yule as a holiday. He refers to it only as a month of the Anglo-Saxon calendar. Christmas was popularized by Charlemagne's coronation in 800. As Yule did not appear as a festival until later, it was likely created in response to Christmas. When the Christian calendar was introduced to Scandinavia, King Haakon I (r. 934–961) of Norway assigned Yule to December 25 to correspond with the date of Christmas, according to the account of Snorri Sturluson.
Modern-day cultural significance
The tension between religious and secularized Christmas has waxed and waned periodically over the years. The pendulum swung toward secularization in the middle of the twentieth century. One marker was the emergence of songs like I'll Be Home For Christmas (1943), The Christmas Song, (1946), and Silver Bells (1951), which have become a beloved part of Christmas in America despite their lack of any religious content. Bing Crosby, a devout Catholic, initially was reluctant to sing the secular 1942 song White Christmas, which was to become his biggest hit.
In recent years, the celebration of Christmas has become part of the "culture wars." Fox News analysts John Gibson and Bill O'Reilly claim that Christmas has come under attack by liberals. Some Christian conservatives want an increased recognition of the religious core of the holiday, and want to maintain a separation between Christmas and other holidays occurring at the same time of year.
Some Christian churches, sects, and communities reject the observance of Christmas for theological reasons. Christian sects that don't celebrate Christmas include Jehovah's Witnesses; Armstrongites; some adherents of Messianic Judaism; most Sabbatarian denominations, such as the True Jesus Church and the Church of God (7th-Day); the Iglesia ni Cristo; the Christian Congregation in Brazil; the Christian Congregation in the United States; certain reformed and fundamentalist churches of various persuasions, including some Independent Baptists, Holiness Christians, Oneness Pentecostals, Amish-Mennonites, and Churches of Christ congregations.
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- Sosigenes of Alexandria intended March 25 to be the date of the equinox when he designed the Julian calendar. This calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC, drifted by almost a day each century. By 325, calendar drift had moved the equinox to March 21, according to the Council of Nicaea. The Gregorian calendar, instituted in 1582, attempted to reestablish the calendar alignment as it was at the time of Nicaea. By modern calculations, the equinox is on March 21 or 22.
- Hijmans, S.E., Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, 2009, p. 584.
- "Christmas and its cycle", New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2002, Catholic University of America Press. vol. 3, pp. 550–557.
- Africanus did not calculate the date of birth himself. (Hijmans, p. 585, footnote 8.)
- Hijmans notes the "the pervasive use of the sun as metaphor for Christ in early Christian literature, in which he is often referred to as “Sol verus”, “Sol Justitiae”, etc." (Hijmans, p. 584).
- "But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall." (Malachi 4:2, ESV).
- McCracken, George, Arnobius of Sicca, the Case Against the Pagans, Volume 2, p. 83. "Therefore if this is a fact, how can Jupiter be god if it is agreed that god is everlasting, while the other is represented by you to have a birthday, and frightened by the new experience, to have squalled like an infant."
- The manuscript reads, VIII kal. Ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae. ("The Chronography of 354 AD. Part 12: Commemorations of the Martyrs," The Tertullian Project. 2006.)
- in a recording, "Green Christmas"
- Usener's views are foreshadowed in two essays by P.E. Jablonski (1693-1757). (Hijmans, p. 584.)
- Hijmans, p. 595.
- "In 578 CE a church Council at Auxerre, Burgundy, forbade disguisings, and another Council, in the year 614, stated it was “unlawful to make any indecent plays upon the Kalends of January, according to the profane practices of the pagans.” (Pennick, Nigel, Pagan Magic of the Northern Tradition: Customs, Rites, and Ceremonies, 2015.)
- "Bede on Yule"
- "[Hakon] made a law that the festival of Yule should begin at the same time Christian people held it, and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt and ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted." (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, or the Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, "Hakon the Good's Saga," Chapter 15.)
- Still Dreaming of a White Christmas, NPR story
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