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!
When I was a child, my sister and I would leave the church after the Christmas Eve service exuberantly, wild with excitement that Christmas was finally here. It was usually foggy in the middle of the night in California’s Central Valley, thick blankets of cold pressing on us as we walked (or rather, my parents walked; my sister and I skipped and hopped and ran) back to our car. Once home, we did not open gifts. Instead, we cuddled up in front of the fireplace and drank hot cocoa before heading to bed.
Though many of my friends would come to the Christmas Eve service having already opened their presents, in my family, the opening of gifts was reserved for Christmas morning. My father’s mother had died on Christmas Eve, so the day was a painful one for him. He wanted to honor her memory by refraining from the distraction of opening presents.
Now that I’m grown, I also refrain from opening gifts on Christmas Eve, in part because I grew up that way, but also because my husband’s birthday is December 24. I want him to have the chance to celebrate his birthday without it being co-opted by Christmas. So Doug is the only one who gets to open gifts on Christmas Eve, and they’re wrapped in birthday paper, not Christmas paper.
Some people have grown up with family traditions of opening one or all presents on Christmas Eve, and this can certainly be meaningful. One family I spoke with chooses to open their Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve because their oldest daughter was born on Christmas Day, and they want her birthday to be a separate celebration from Christmas. She, therefore, is the only one who gets to open presents on her birthday. The challenge for us is to reflect on our practices, as this family has done, and filter them in light of the rhythm of the church calendar.
As Anna, the mother of two college-age sons, said, “There’s a lot of tension in observing the church year. You find you’re really bucking the culture. And this is more true during Advent and Christmas than any other time of year.” She recounts a particularly “disastrous” Christmas morning fifteen years ago, which changed the way she and her family celebrated Christmas:
“There were piles and piles of paper and boxes. Everybody was glassy-eyed by 9 a.m. I found myself sitting there in the middle of the chaos, almost in tears, thinking, ‘This is awful!’ ”
From then on, she and her family spread their gift giving over the twelve days of Christmas. “People thought we were nuts, but I found it really diffused the wretched excess of Christmas Day. The guys opened one present each day, and then they could read that book or play with that toy, rather than throwing it aside right away in order to open something else.”
There were other, unexpected benefits as well, both environmentally and financially: they recycled wrapping paper (“It became a bit of a joke,” Anna says, “to see how many times we could use the same piece of wrapping paper”), and they shopped after-Christmas sales for their gifts for the latter days of Christmas.
Hayley, the mother of two school-age boys, also spreads the giving of gifts over the twelve days of Christmas, but she wants the focus of those days to be on Christ rather than on the gifts. To this end, she has purchased twelve ornaments, one for each day of Christmas. Each ornament represents a name of Jesus and has a Scripture passage that corresponds to it. Every evening during Christmas, one of her sons chooses an ornament, hangs it on the Advent wreath that sits in the center of the dining table and reads the Scripture.
In addition, Hayley brings out the Magi for her crèche on Christmas Day, starting them in a back room or the corner of the kitchen. Over the course of the twelve days, the boys move the Magi and their camels ever closer to the manger and the stable, thus preparing them for the culmination of Christmas in the celebration of Epiphany, but also reminding them that Christmas is about seeking—and finding—Jesus.
Christmas—the season, not just the day—is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, a time to be lingered over and delighted in. If we as the church have been actively waiting through the weeks of Advent for the coming of Christmas, then, unlike our cultural counterparts, we will not be ready to simply toss aside the Christmas season along with the wrapping paper and ribbons on December 26— and we will not need to. We will have eleven more days to celebrate with joy what my pastor calls “a long, slow Christmas.”
Taken from The Circle of Seasons by Kimberlee Conway Ireton. (c) 2008 by Kimberlee Conway Ireton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.
Kimberlee Conway Ireton lives in a cozy home in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood with her husband and two young children. She has written for Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, ThoughtfulChristian.com and Relevant magazine's Deeper Walk blog.