Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord
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. Many people mention the need to put Christ back in Christmas, but the need is greater than that. We 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. 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, March 25, the feast day commemorating Jesus’ conception.
History of Christmas
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 of the Church 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 that 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.