The Origins of Christmas

The celebration of Christ’s birth did not become a Christian holy day until the fourth century. Then December 25 was chosen in part because of its connection to pagan solstice celebrations—the idea being, perhaps, that the Feast of the Nativity would give Christians something to celebrate during these raucous pagan festivities or would make Christianity more palatable to pagans.

Whatever the pragmatic reasons for choosing this date, the church’s choice was also theological and symbolic: how better to embody the mystery of the incarnation than by celebrating the birth of the Word, the Light of the World, the Son of God, in the middle of the darkest time of year?1 “The light shines in the darkness,” the apostle John writes (John 1:5), and so the Feast of the Nativity was appointed for one of the very darkest days of the year.

By the twelfth century, Christmas was the most widely celebrated holy day in Europe. This is reflected by the three masses held on Christmas Day in the Middle Ages. These three masses corresponded to the three births that medieval Christians saw in the Nativity of Christ. The first birth occurred in the Godhead before time began, and so the midnight mass, shrouded in darkness, celebrated the “creative fecundity of the Father” in begetting the Son in eternity.2 The second mass was at dawn, its morning light mirroring the coming of light into the darkness of the world in the celebration of the “maternal fruitfulness” of Mary as she birthed Jesus, the Son of God, into the world.3 The third mass, at noon, celebrated the birth of Christ in the souls of each individual Christian through the “fertile indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of humankind.” 4

In those days, Christmas did not end when midnight struck on December 25, and even today in more liturgical churches, Christmas is a season of the church year, its twelve feast days spanning from Christmas Day through Epiphany on January 6.5 The twelve days of Christmas are among the most joyous of the church year. The liturgical color of these days is white, symbolizing the light of Christ as well as his purity and innocence, and sometimes gold, symbolizing Christ’s kingship and triumph over sin and death.

A Long, Slow Christmas

 

“Midnight on Christmas Eve,” writes Wendy Wright, “is the still, silent point of the entire Advent and Christmas season.” 6 We are not used to silence. Our lives are encased in sound: the radio, the TV, Muzak in the grocery store, car horns, car engines, ringing cell phones.

Throughout December, we are bombarded with Christmas songs wherever we go, whatever radio station we tune in to. Christmas specials fill prime-time TV slots. By the time Christmas Day arrives, many people are sick of Christmas. They just want it to be over with. December is too full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. No wonder people experience post- Christmas blues. One friend of mine says she has to spend all of January recovering from Christmas.

But what if we have been faithful to observe Advent? What if we have been waiting with joyful expectation through the weeks of December for the advent of the Christ? What if we have been preparing our hearts to receive the greatest gift humanity has ever been given?  

In that case, midnight on Christmas Eve really is the still point when Advent silently turns into Christmas, when our waiting is finally over and the One for whom we have been waiting appears in our midst.

Gathering for a candlelit Communion service on Christmas Eve is one of my favorite childhood memories, and it continues to be one of the most treasured rituals of my year. Walking through the brisk, cold night from the car to the candlelit church, the anticipation is palpable. The dimly lit church is filled with poinsettias—and candles. As we enter the darkened sanctuary, each person is handed a small taper. We listen again to the Christmas story. We sing, at last, the Christmas carols we have been waiting through all of Advent to sing. We receive Communion. We pass the light, the only sound the murmur of soft voices. “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world,” we whisper to one another as each person’s candle kindles another’s until the church is bright with the flames of hundreds of candles. And then, at midnight, we raise our candles high and sing “Joy to the World.” It is Christmas! The waiting of Advent is over, and we rejoice: the Lord is come!