It appears that Roma locuta est beat me to the post, but I have been wanting to write about why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th . . .
Christmas and the Calendar
Accurate or not, in the calendar, the celebration of Jesus’ birthday comes at a very poignant time of year. We don’t know when Jesus’ birthday actually was, nonetheless the day on which we celebrate the anniversary of His birth is significant for many reasons.
The December Debacle
|A Mithraic “tauroctony”–Mithras killing a sacred bull
This is the main icon in a Mithraic temple.
There are multiple reasons historians propose as to why December 25th was chosen as the date on which we celebrate Christmas. Probably the most commonly heard argument is that the Church “Christianized” a pagan celebration. At that time of the year, the Mithras Cult celebrated the Birth of the Undying Sun. It happens just after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (December 21st); beyond that, the days start getting longer again. The ancients obviously weren’t as accurate with their observations of the heavens as our contemporary equipment is, so we can easily forgive them for being 4 days off. The Christians may very well have seen something good in this celebration of the Undying Sun. The sun, which begins to increase (in the Northern Hemisphere) after this time, can be seen as a metaphor for Christ bringing light into the darkness. In addition, the idea of the “undying sun” was a common Christian symbol for Jesus, the “undying Son” (or, rather, He who conquered death). St. John Chrysostom wrote: “Who is indeed so unconquered as Our Lord? If they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He [Jesus] is the Sun of Justice.” (Of Solstices and the Equinox, 386 AD) The Church is never opposed to finding what is good in other religions, pointing out how that good is a “preparation for the Gospel” (CCC 843), separating it from what is not good, and elevating it to the use of honoring God.
Not only was this idea related to the extra light after the solstice, but also to every sunrise. In early Christianity, the worshippers turned from their Jewish gaze, which was toward the temple. (All synagogues faced where the temple was in Jerusalem and Jews would point themselves toward the temple when they prayed.) The Christians, recognizing that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross ended the need for the temple sacrifice, re-oriented their prayer direction. They faced east both to greet the metaphor of the rising sun/Son and to look for His return from the east. This is evidently seen in older liturgies where the priest faces the same direction as the people and most older churches are built so that all the worshippers face east.
The difficulty of arguing that Christmas was set on December 25th to Christianize a pagan holiday is that many suggest the motive would have been an attempt to appease the pagan converts who were used to celebrating at this time of the year–as if Christianity would seem more attractive if people were able to still have a celebration at this time of year. Speculation on the attractiveness of merely celebrating a timely festival aside, the more serious challenge to dating Christmas based on the Mithras festival comes when we realize that the Mithras cult was a geographically small group. It wouldn’t make sense to Christianize a holiday of a local group to appease the whole of Christianity’s pagan converts. Perhaps it was an influence on the decision, but I don’t think it was by any means the main reason.
The second reason posited for December 25th is that, on that date in the year 325 AD, the Council of Nicea promulgated the doctrine of the Homouusis–the statement that Jesus, the Son, is consubstantial, “one in being,” with the Father, meaning that He is everything that the Father is, except the Father. The anniversary of this date may have had some influence over setting the date for the celebration of Christmas. Although, if the celebration of Christmas goes back even farther than 325 AD (as some historians believe), then the influence might just as possibly have gone the other way.
The third reason for the selection of December 25th requires us to look into Jewish folklore. I’m still trying to find a solid source for this, but I’ve been told that there was a tradition in the Jewish culture that great prophets were conceived and would eventually die on the same day of the year. Jesus died on what was, in the Jewish calendar, the 14th of Nisan (our March 25th). On March 25th, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation (the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, announcing the good news that she will bear God in her womb). At the Annunciation, Mary’s Fiat (yes, acceptance, “Be it done unto me according to your word”) was her response to God. She was open to the Holy Spirit and through that openness, the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in her womb. March 25th is the day we celebrate Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb. Nine months to the day after March 25th (enough time for a woman to carry a baby to term), we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. These aren’t necessarily the exact dates on which these historic events happened, but for purposes of selecting a day to celebrate Christmas and the Annunciation, the Church may have been influenced by it’s Jewish roots and set the date of Christmas based on the tradition of Jewish lore.
We celebrate Mary’s conception and birth in the same way. Mary was conceived immaculately (without original sin), in her mother’s (St. Anne’s) womb. We celebrate the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. We celebrate Mary’s birthday nine months later on September 8th.
We also remember that, at the time of the Annunciation, Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant (with John the Baptist in her womb) and Mary rushed off to Judea to help Elizabeth for the last 3 months of gestation. Three months after the Annunciation, we celebrate the Solemnity of the birth of John the Baptist (June 24th). This is interesting because whereas Jesus’ birthday marks the change from shortening days to lengthening, John’s birthday (in contrast to Jesus’) comes as the days begin to get shorter–this follows in line with his quote: “He must increase; I must decrease.” [John 3:30] After Jesus’ birthday, the days increase. After John’s birthday, the days decrease. Again, these may not be the exact dates on which the historic events took place, but their placement in the calendar is poignant for celebration and for teaching the faithful.
Regardless of the reason for December 25th, the timing is also interesting. Jesus’ birthday comes at the very end of the calendar year. This echoes the idea that all of ancient history (BC) anticipated His coming and all of contemporary history (AD) looks forward to His Second Coming at the end of time. Consider the verse in Hark the Herald Angels Sing: “Late in time behold Him come.” Also, if you go to the day Mass on Christmas, you would hear Paul’s words to the Hebrews (1:2) “in these last days, [God] has spoken to us through the Son.” The final preparations of the calendar year are summarized in the season of Advent, waiting for the celebration of the Lord’s coming. Christmas, however, doesn’t end on Christmas Day. It is so large of a celebration that it gets spread over an octave (8 days), taking up the rest of the year and spilling over to the first day of the next year, after which, the celebration continues in the season of Christmas, which lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Christmas is, then, the culmination of the calendar year, bridging us into the next year to celebrate the cycle all over again–just as Christ bridges the gap between this life and the next.
Taking it up an Octave
Octaves are interesting celebrations in the Church. They extended the celebration of a particularly Holy day into 8 days. The Octave of Christmas begins on Christmas Day and ends eight days later (inclusively) on January 1st, the Solemnity (and Holy Day of Obligation) of Mary, the Mother of God (defined by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD). Each day in that octave is celebrated as Christmas Day all over again. If we pay attention to the prayers at Mass on those days, we will notice the theme of Christmas in a present tense as opposed to a past tense. When praying the Liturgy of the Hours on those days, one reuses the Hymns, Antiphons, Psalms, and Canticles from Christmas Day.
The Christmas Octave is interesting in another notable way. If we celebrate Jesus’ birth on the first day, then, on the 8th day, we also recognize the significance of His circumcision. All Jewish boys were circumcised at 8 days old. This was the manner of entering them into God’s covenant. This made them members of God’s family. Of course, for Jesus, the eternal Son of God, circumcision as entrance into God’s family would seem unnecessary. However, circumcision was the law, and Jesus, who was “born under the law” (Gal. 4:4) and obedient to both the law and his family, was a model Jew. Mary and Joseph had Him circumcised. With this act, we can also see Jesus’ flesh being offered to God–the flesh, which He received from Mary, his Mother. We begin the New Year, on the 8th day after the celebration of Jesus’ birth. We begin the New Year with both the celebration of Mary’s Motherhood of God and, with it (in a way), we celebrate Jesus’ circumcision.
There used to be more octaves in the year, but currently the only other octave that is officially celebrated is the Easter octave, during which every day is a Solemnity (a high feast day, but not a holy day of obligation). Easter is always a Sunday and the end of the octave is now Divine Mercy Sunday (linking the Resurrection to God’s Mercy). In a certain way, every Sunday is an extended octave of Easter. In honor of Jesus’ Resurrection, we come together every Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s Day–a continual octave of Easter.
Although not an official octave, we celebrate the Assumption of Mary (body and soul) into the glory of Heaven on August 15th, and eight days later (inclusively), we celebrate the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth.
My “Truelove” Gave to Me…
The Christmas Season extends beyond the octave (forwards, not backwards, as our retail society might have you believe). Think of the 12 Days of Christmas song. That song is about the Christmas Season on the old calendar, which lasted 12 days. It ended on January 6th, the Solemnity of the Epiphany. There are 13 days in there, so (if I’m not mistaken) they didn’t actually start counting the days until the day after Christmas. Today, on the new calendar, Epiphany can be held on January 6th or the Sunday between January 2nd and 8th, but the Christmas Season doesn’t end there, it lasts until the Baptism of Jesus (the Sunday after January 6th or Monday if the 6th is a Sunday and Epiphany is celebrated then).
Critique of Criticism
Recently, I have come to notice that some people criticize Christianity for celebrating Christmas on December 25th. They claim that because Jesus was probably not born on that day and that the Church simply “Christianized” a pagan holiday, this somehow refutes all of Christianity’s claims . . . I know. When you actually write it out, the syllogism falls apart by itself, but let’s just cover it just to be sure. When we celebrate a festival, what is more important, that we celebrate together or the fact that the date is accurate? It wouldn’t really be a festival if we didn’t celebrate it together on the same day; would it? If the celebration of Christmas was such that there was no set date, it would be a chaotic mess, with people celebrating not only on December 25th, but on all sorts of other days, relatively few on the same day. So, we must admit that, if we are going to celebrate Christmas, we must set a date. If we see elements of truth in certain celebrations of other religions, do we admit that those religions must be correct, too? Yes and no. Yes, we admit that what pieces of the truth they have found are true, but they do not possess the fullness of the truth. Nonetheless, there is nothing wrong with recognizing elements of practice that express truth and appropriating such practices as one’s own. If the early Christians saw truth expressed in celebrating a festival as the sun’s course appears to change for the better, it would only seem good that they make their own festival at that time to express the Son’s appearance to change humanity for the better. Whether the Mithras cult had an influence on the celebration of Christmas or not, it wouldn’t make any difference as to legitimacy of Christianity.
Preparing to rejoice in the celebration of the birth of our Lord,