We note on this second Christmas of our blog, that the tradition of celebrating Christmas is a very specifically Catholic thing. The actual celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was established sometime in the 4th century as it is not entirely certain what time of year Christ was born (or in fact even the exact year as noted by Pope Benedict XVI in his book “Jesus of Nazareth, the Infancy Narratives” . This well known fact is often treated like a shocking and scandalous bit of information for the faithful, and is still a matter of great debate between presumably ignorant Biblical literalists and enlightened scholars. In fact it is neither debated nor particularly scandalous.
In fact it is well known that Christmas adopted December 25th as the date for the celebration of the “Feast of the Nativity”, as it was originally known, as the end of December was also a time for the celebration of a number of Pagan feasts. One common one, popular in Rome, was the birth of Mithra, the God of the unconquerable sun. Pope St. Julius I officially made December 25th the date for celebration of the feast of Christ’s birth ( as well as putting the finishing touches on ending the Arian heresy among the Eastern Bishops and reinstating St Athanasius to his see in Alexandria, but I digress.
In any case none of this is particularly scandalous to a Catholic, it is a well known part of our history, and indeed taking a pagan feast and rededicating it to a celebration of events in salvation history is something to be proud of. As St John Chrysostom said:
“The pagans call December 25 the Birthday of the Unconquered. Who is indeed so unconquered as Our Lord? . . . or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”
The popularity of Christmas grew through the middle ages and evolved into a longer celebration associated with the Nativity and surrounding events, from the Birth of Christ to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th (This corresponding closely to the “12 days of Christmas, December 25 to Jan 5th).
With the reformation and in particular the rise of Puritanism , Christmas fell out of favor as it was associated with Catholicism and in particular the evils of “Popery”. In fact it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in parts of New England during the late 17th Century. This anti-Christmas spirit continued through much of the history of the United States with some exceptions as immigrants from countries with less Puritan influence did celebrate the holiday. Nonetheless it is notable that Washington’s crossing of the Delaware on Christmas 1776 to attack the Hessians at Trenton owes something to the fact the Christmas meant a lot more to the German soldiers at Trenton then to the Washington’s troops, as Christmas in the United States was not universally celebrated at the time. So the attack came on a German holiday of sorts.
Christmas gradually became a major holiday in the United States as the United States was more influenced by waves of immigration from more Catholic countries. Particularly important was the impact of those who celebrated the feast of St Nicholas associated with gift giving on December 5th. The Feast and legends surrounding St Nicholas of course where closely associated with practices of immigrants from Catholic Southern German and Catholic Dutch immigrants. All of this no doubt was an influence that was important in Clement Moore’s famous poem, “ A Visit from St Nicholas”, more popularly known as “Twas the night before Christmas”. After the popularization of the figure of the “Jolly Old elf and his reindeer, well The rest is history as they say….
In any case we pause here to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year;
And We conclude with a few words from St John Chrysostom from his sermon on Christmas morning:
(see the full text here )
Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant¢s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.
To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.
God Bless and Merry Christmas…..