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Christmas and the Christmas Season

Christmas History, Information, Prayers, Resources, Traditions, & More

Christmas Definition and Meaning

Christmas, also known as the Nativity, literally means "Christ Mass." The feast celebrates the birth and incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on December 25. Christmastide is another name for the Christmas season, which 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

In Western Society, Christmas conjures up many images in people's minds: Santa Claus, stockings, presents, the Christmas Tree, greenery, lights, snow, and more. While these images bring joy to many, they are only peripherally connected to the original feast. Modern Western society, and some versions of Christianity, have to a large degree taken Christmas outside of its place within the 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 according to major retailers, the Christmas season practically starts before Halloween.

So, what is the original meaning of Christmas? Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation, the celebration of 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 a celebration of Jesus' birth, the solemnity is also a festival of his Incarnation, that is, God becoming human in the person of Jesus. 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. Even the term itself 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, celebrating Christmas with the Church has taken a backseat to food preparation, gift opening, and other festivities that, while good, are only secondary activities that are not meant to replace the primary "reason for the season": celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. While many mention the need to put Christ back in Christmas, the need is greater than that. As an Anglican priest once noted: we need to put the "mass" back in Christmas too.

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, e.g. that there was bad luck ahead for those who left Christmas decorations up after Candlemas. The octave of Christmas lasts 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

Even though the Bible does not record a specific celebration of a feast of Christ's birth, the Infancy Narratives of St. Matthew and St. Luke form the basis of the Christmas celebration. Thus, 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, and its significance. A few of the early Church Fathers speculated about the birth of Jesus, but the actual liturgical 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. While various 3rd century Church Fathers (including St. Hippolytus of Rome and Sextus Julius Africanus) believed Jesus was born on December 25, the earliest surviving reference to December 25th as the liturgical celebration of Christmas is in the Philocalian calendar, which shows the Roman practice in AD 336. The Apostolic Constitutions (c AD 380) mandate the celebration of Christ's birth on December 25th, and his Epiphany on January 6 (see Book V:III:XIII). 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 the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, which falls on January 1st.

Christmas was universally celebrated until the Reformation, but many Protestant 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 have 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 contemporary concern 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.

Christmas Art, Photos, and Images

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Jesus, Mary, and Joseph Statue (D. Bennett)

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Christmas Morning (Maxfield Parrish)

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The Nativity (F. Barocci)

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The Nativity (Robert Campin)

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Mystical Nativity (Botticelli)

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The Nativity (Hornebout)

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Nativity (1887) (Burne-Jones)

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Nativity Icon

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Holy Family Icon

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Christmas Tree (D. Bennett)

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Lighted Christmas Tree (D. Bennett)

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Christmas Tree in Room (D. Bennett)

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Christmas Ornament (D. Bennett)

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Christmas Candle (D. Bennett)

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Christmas Lights (D. Bennett)

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Christmas Bible Verses (C. Bennett)

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Gingerbread Church Ornament (D. Bennett)

More Liturgical Artwork

An Advent and Christmas Card From Us

Worship and Prayer Resources

Christmas Prayers and Collects
Christmas Prayers of the Faithful I
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

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, and yet another image)
Christmas Ornaments
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. What are the Twelve Days of Christmas?
While different authorities and churches seem to reckon the beginning and end of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" slightly differently, the "Twelve Days of Christmas" are a time of continued Christmas celebration running from Christmas until Epiphany. Contrary to popular assumptions, the 12 days do not begin before Christmas, but after. Some reckonings begin the period on Christmas Day itself, while others begin the "twelves days" on Christmas night or December 26th. Some reckonings end the twelve days on January 5th, while others include Epiphany within the twelve days. Whatever the reckoning, since there has always been a strong historical connection between Christmas and Epiphany, it makes sense that these two major feasts would be connected by a period of celebration. The twelve days of Christmas are rather ancient, as the Second Council of Tours in 566 (or 567) proclaimed their importance.

2. 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 (and skeptics who argue with them) 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.

3. 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 and Christian reasons.

There are a variety of good theories as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. The first theory is based on speculation by second-century Christians in Rome and North Africa as to when 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 and birth? 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. This makes sense, because there was a Jewish tradition that the Messiah would be conceived around the time of Jewish Passover, and a March conception is certainly within the range of Jewish Passover. This theory is clearly outlined by Dr. William Tighe, in his essay Calculating Christmas. A second theory was proposed by 3rd century Christians, including Julius Africanus. These writers speculated that Jesus was born on December 25th, basing this speculation on the date of the spring equinox, and the date they believed the world was created. 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 actually born, but the date of December 25th seems to be 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.

I recommend Choosing the Date of Christmas: Why December 25? for a more in-depth answer to the question of Jesus' birth date, which explains the two theories mentioned above in more depth, and provides a few other basic reasons why early Christians chose December 25th to celebrate Christ's birth.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Aren't Red and Green Christmas Colors?

7. Is Santa Christian?

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

General Links

"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

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This page written by and David Bennett. Last updated 04-03-2011.

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