by  Francis  Weiser

Feast of the Nativity


Origins • In the Roman Empire it was a general custom to celebrate the birthdays of rulers (see Matthew 14, 6) and of other outstanding persons. Such birthdays often were publicly honored even after the death of the individual. The day of the celebration did not always coincide with the actual date of birth. The birthday of Plato, for instance, used to be celebrated on a feast of the god Apollo.1

The early Christians, who attributed to Christ not only the title (Kyrios) but also many other honors that the pagans paid to their "divine" emperors, naturally felt inclined to honor the birth of the Saviour. In most places the commemoration of Christ's birth was included in the Feast of the Epiphany (Manifestations) on January 6, one of the oldest annual feasts.

Soon after the end of the last great persecution, about the year 330, the Church in Rome definitely assigned December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Christ. For a while, many Eastern Churches continued to keep other dates, but toward the end of the fourth century the Roman custom became universal.2 No official reason has been handed down in ecclesiastical documents for the choice of this date. Consequently, various explanations have been given to justify the celebration of the Lord's nativity on this particular day. Some early Fathers and writers claimed that December 25 was the actual date of Christ's birth, and that the authorities in Rome established this fact from the official records of the Roman census that- had been taken at the time of the Saviour's birth. Saint John Chrysostom held this opinion and used it to argue for the introduction of the Roman date in the Eastern Church.3 He was mistaken, however, for nobody in Rome ever claimed that the records of the census of Cyrinus were extant there in the fourth century, and much less that Christ's birthday was registered in the lists.4 In fact, it was expressly stated in Rome that the actual date of the Saviour's birth was unknown and that different traditions prevailed in different parts of the world.5

A second explanation was of theological-symbolic character. Since the Bible calls the Messiah the "Sun of Justice" (Malachi 4, 2), it was argued that His birth had to coincide with the beginning of a new solar cycle, that is, He had to be born at the time of the winter solstice. A Confirmation of this opinion was sought in the Bible, by way of reckoning six months from the annunciation of John the Baptist (which was assumed to have happened on September 24) and thus arriving at March 25 as the day of the Incarnation. Nine months later, on December 25, would then be the birthday of the Lord. This explanation, though attractive in itself, depends on too many assumptions that cannot be proved and lacks any basis of historical certitude.6

There remains then this explanation, which is the most probable one, and held by most scholars in our time: the choice of December 25 was influenced by the fact that the Romans, from the time of Emperor Aurelian (275), had celebrated the feast of the sun god (Sol Inoictus: the Unconquered Sun) on that day.T December 25 was called the "Birthday of the Sun," and great pagan religious celebrations of the Mithras cult were held all through the empire.8 

What was more natural than that the Christians celebrate the birth of Him Who was the "Light of the World" and the true "Sun of Justice" on this very day? The popes seem to have chosen December 25 precisely for the purpose of inspiring the people to turn from the worship of a material sun to the adoration of Christ the Lord. This thought b indicated in various writings of contemporary authors.9

It has sometimes been said that the Nativity is only a "Christianized pagan festival." However, the Christians of those early centuries were keenly aware of the difference between the two festivals—one pagan and one Christian—on the same day. The coincidence in the date, even if intended, does not make the two celebrations identical. Some newly converted Christians who thoughtlessly retained external symbols of the sun worship on Christmas Day were immediately and sternly reproved by their religious superiors, and those abuses were suppressed.10 Proof of this are the many examples of warnings in the writings of Tertullian (third century) and the Christian authors of the fourth and fifth centuries, especially the sermons of Saint Augustine (430) and Pope Leo I (461).1


The error of confusing Yule (solstice) and Christmas (the "Mass of Christ"), as if both celebrations had a common origin, occurs even in our time. Expressions like "Christmas originated four thousand years ago," "the pagan origins of Christmas," and similar misleading phrases have only added to the confusion. While it is certainly true that some popular features and symbols of our Christmas celebration in the home had their origin in pre-Christian Yuletide customs, Christmas itself—the feast, its meaning and message—is in no way connected with any pagan mythology or Yule rite.

Christmas soon became a feast of such great importance that from the fifth century on it marked the beginning of the ecclesiastical year. After the tenth century, however, the season of Advent came to form an integral part of the Christmas cycle; thus the beginning of the ecclesiastical year was advanced to the first Sunday of Advent.12

Emperor Theodosius, in 425, forbade the cruel circus games on Christmas Day, and Emperor Justinian, in 529, prohibited work and public business by declaring Christmas a civic holiday. The Council of Agde (506) urged all Christians to receive Holy Communion on the feast.13 The Council of Tours (567) proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast.14 The Council of Braga (563) forbade fasting on Christmas Day.15 Thus the groundwork was laid for a joyful celebration of the Lord's nativity, not only in the house of God but also in the hearts and homes of the people.

Middle Ages • 

The great religious pioneers and missionaries who brought Christianity to the pagan tribes of Europe also introduced the celebration of Christmas. It came to Ireland through

Saint Patrick (461), to England through Saint Augustine of Canterbury (604), to Germany through Saint Boniface (754). The Irish monks Saint Columban (615) and Saint Gall (646) introduced it into Switzerland and western Austria; the Scandinavians received it through Saint Ansgar (865). To the Slavic tribes it was brought by their apostles, the brothers Saint Cyril (869) and Saint Methodius (885); to Hungary by Saint Adalbert (997).

Most of these saints were the first bishops of the countries they converted and as such they established and regulated the celebration of the Nativity. In England, Saint Augustine observed it with great solemnity. On Christmas Day in 598, he baptized more than ten thousand Britons.18 In Germany, the observance of Christmas festivities was officially regulated by a synod in Mainz in 813.1T

By about the year 1100, all the nations of Europe had accepted Christianity, and Christmas was celebrated everywhere with great devotion and joy. The period from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries was the peak of a general Christian celebration of the Nativity, not only in churches and monasteries, but in homes as well. It was a time of inspiring and colorful religious services. Carols and Christmas plays were written. It was at this period, too, that most of the delightful Christmas customs of each country were introduced. Some have since died out; others have changed slightly through the ages; many have survived to our day. A few practices had to be suppressed as being improper and scandalous, such as the customs of dancing and mumming in church, the "Boy Bishop's Feast," the "Feast of the Ass," New Year's fires, superstitious (pagan) meals, impersonations of the Devil, and irreverent carols.18

Decline • 

With the Reformation in the sixteenth century there naturally came a sharp change in the Christmas celebration for many countries in Europe. The Sacrifice of the Mass—the very soul of the feast—was suppressed. The Holy Eucharist, the liturgy of the Divine Office, the sacramentals and ceremonies all disappeared. So did the colorful and inspiring processions, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. In many countries all that remained of the once rich and glorious religious festival was a sermon and a prayer service on Christmas Day.19 Although the people kept many of their customs alive, the deep religious inspiration was missing, and consequently the "new" Christmas turned more and more into a feast of good-natured reveling.

On the other hand, some groups, including the German Lutherans, preserved a tender devotion to the Christ Child and celebrated Christinas in a deeply spiritual way within their churches, hearts, and homes.20

In England the Puritans condemned even the reduced religious celebration that was held in the Anglican Church after the separation from Rome. They were determined to abolish Christmas altogether, both as a religious and as a popular feast. It was their contention that no feast of human institution should ever outrank the Sabbath (Sunday); and as Christmas was the most important of the non-Sunday festivals, they directed against it all their attacks of fierce indignation. Pamphlets were published denouncing Christmas as pagan, and its observance was declared to be sinful. In this anti-Christmas campaign these English sects were much encouraged by the example of similar groups in Scotland, where the celebration of the feast was forbidden as early as 1583, and punishment inflicted on all persons observing it.21

When the Puritans finally came to political power in England, they immediately proceeded to outlaw Christmas. The year 1642 saw the first ordinances issued forbidding church services and civic festivities on Christmas Day. In 1644, the monthly day of fast and penance was appointed for December 25.22 The people, however, paid scant attention to these orders, and continued' their celebrations. There was thus inaugurated a great campaign of two years' duration (1645-1647). Speeches, pamphlets and other publications, sermons and discussions were directed against the celebration of Christmas, calling it "antichrist-Mass, idolatry, abomination," and similar names. Following this barrage of propaganda, Parliament on June 3,1647, ordained that the Feast of Christmas (and other holidays) should no longer be observed under pain of punishment. On December 24, 1652, an act of Parliament again reminded the public that "no observance shall - be had on the five-and-twentieth of December, commonly called Christmas day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches in respect thereof." 23

Each year, by order of Parliament, town criers went through the streets a few days before Christmas, reminding their fellow citizens that "Christmas day and all other superstitious festivals" should not be observed, that market should be kept and stores remain open on December 25.

During the year 1647 popular riots broke out in various places against the law suppressing Christmas, especially in London, Oxford, Ipswich, Canterbury, and the whole county of Kent. In Oxford there was a "world of skull-breaking"; in Ipswich the festival was celebrated "with some loss of life"; in Canterbury "the mob mauled the mayor, broke all his windows as well as his bones, and put fire to his doorsteps."25 An ominous note was sounded against the republican Commonwealth at a meeting of ten thousand men from Kent and Canterbury who passed a solemn resolution saying that • "if they could not have their Christmas day, they would have the King back on his throne again."26

The government, however, stood firm and proceeded to break up Christmas celebrations by force of arms. People were arrested in many instances but were not punished beyond a few hours in jail.27 Anglican ministers who decorated their churches and held service on Christmas Day were removed from their posts and replaced by men of softer fiber.28 Slowly and relentlessly, the external observance of Christmas was extinguished. December 25 became a common workday, and business went on as usual. But in spite of these repressive measures many people still celebrated the day with festive meals and merriment in the privacy of their homes.

Revival in England • 

When the old Christmas eventually returned with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it was actually a "new" Christmas. The spiritual aspect of the feast was now left mostly to the care of the ministers in the church service on Christmas Day. What was observed in. the home consisted of a more shallow celebration in the form of various nonreligious amusements and of general reveling.29 Instead of the old carols in praise of the Child of Bethlehem, the English people observed Christmas with rollicking songs in praise of "plum pudding, goose, capon, minced pie and roast beef."30 However, a spirit of good will to all and of generosity to the poor ennobled these more worldly celebrations of the great rehgious feast Two famous descriptions of this kind of popular celebration are found in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and in Washington Irving's Sketch Book.

The singing of hymns and carols, which had been suppressed by the Puritans, found only a slow and restricted revival in England. Even as late as 1823, an English collector of Christmas lore, William Hone (1842), wrote in his Ancient Mysteries that carols were considered as "something past" and had no place in the nineteenth century.31 Meanwhile, a few rehgious carols had been written and soon became favorites among the English-speaking people. The most famous of these are "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" (Nahum Tate, 1715) and "Hark the herald angels sing" (Charles Wesley, 1788).

Christmas in America • 

To the North American continent the Christmas celebration was brought by the missionaries and settlers from the various European nations. The Spaniards established it in their possessions in the sixteenth century, the French in Canada in the seventeenth century. The feast was celebrated with all the splendor of liturgical solemnity and with the traditional customs of the respective nationalities in Florida, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, in Canada, and in the territory of the present State of Michigan.

In the colonies of New England, however, the unfortunate and misdirected zeal of the Puritans against Christmas persisted far into the nineteenth century. Christmas remained outlawed until the second half of the last century.32

The Pilgrim fathers worked as usual on their first Christmas Day in America (1620), although they observed the most rigid Sabbath rest on the preceding day, which was Sunday.33 December 25 until 1856 was a common workday in Boston, and those who refused to go to work on Christmas Day were often dismissed. In New England, factory owners would change the starting hours on Christmas Day to five o'clock in order that workers who wanted to attend a church service would have to forego it or else be dismissed for being late for work. As late as 1870, classes were held in the public schools of Boston on Christ-mas Day, and any pupil who stayed at home to observe the feast was gravely punished, even shamed by public dismissal.34

It was not until immigrants from Ireland and from continental Europe arrived in large numbers toward the middle of the last century that Christmas in America began to flourish. The Germans brought the Christmas tree. They were soon joined by the Irish, who contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of putting lights in the windows. All Catholic immigrants, of course, brought the crib, their native carols and hymns, the three Masses on Christmas Day, and the religious obligation of attending Mass and abstaining from work on the Feast of the Nativity.35

Very soon their neighbors, charmed by these unusual but attractive innovations, followed their example and made many of these customs their own. For some years, however, many clergymen continued to warn their congregations against celebrating Christmas with these "new" customs. But eventually a powerful surge of enthusiasm from people of all faiths swept resistance away. New Englanders especially were so won over by this friendly, charming way of celebrating Christmas that a revival of deeper and richer observance followed in many of their churches. One by one, the best of the old traditions were lovingly studied, revived, and became again common practice. Catholics and Protestants co-operated, uniting in a sincere effort to restore the beauties of a truly Christian celebration of the Nativity.


To be continued