In modern times, we spend two months in hectic preparation for Christmas, only for the day to whizz past and disappear in the revels of New Year’s Eve. But that was not how it used to be.
Christmas is not one day long. It’s not even twelve days long. Christmastide lasts forty days, until Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple (Luke 2:22), on 2nd February. Forty days to contemplate and celebrate the marvellous mystery of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.
The month leading up to Christmas is traditionally known as Advent. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Dogma and Preaching:
“Advent” does not mean “expectation,” as some may think. It is a translation of the Greek word parousia which means “presence” or, more accurately, “arrival”, i.e., the beginning of a presence. In antiquity the word was a technical term for the presence of a king or ruler and also for the god being worshipped, who bestows his parousia on his devotees for a time.
“Advent,” then, means a presence begun, the presence being that of God. Advent reminds us, therefore, of two things: first, that God’s presence in the world has already begun, that He is present though in a hidden manner; second, that His presence has only begun and is not yet full and complete, that it is in a state of development, of becoming and progressing toward its full form.
His presence has already begun, and we, the faithful, are the ones through whom He wishes to be present in the world. Through our faith, hope, and love He wants His light to shine over and over again in the night of the world.
That night is “today” whenever the “Word” becomes “flesh” or genuine human reality. The Christ child comes in a real sense whenever human beings act out of authentic love for the Lord.
How did all this change? Thanks to war.
Advent, of course, is the season during which we meditate on man’s sinfulness and prepare for Christmas. At least, we used to.
Up until World War II, every Christian treated Advent in that way. Stockings, ornaments, even Christmas trees were not erected in any house until Christmas Eve. Advent was a time of preparation and repentance. During Advent, everyone meditated on the world’s wickedness prior to God come in the flesh (past), and prepared themselves for the Last Day, when God comes as Judge (future). For centuries, Christmas was at once both a reminder of the Incarnation, the First Coming, and a reminder of Dooms-Day, Judgement Day, the Second Coming.
That’s why Christmas gifts were exchanged only during Christmas season (which doesn’t start until Christmas Eve). The exchange of gifts not only recalled the gifts of the Magi to the Christ child (past), they also reminded us of the wonderful exchange of Persons we enter into in Heaven after Judgement Day (future).
World War II changed all that. Because it took six weeks to transport anything by ship over the ocean, Americans were told to buy their Christmas gifts for their sons overseas by Thanksgiving, or their sons would not receive those gifts during Christmas season. American businesses liked the extra income generated by the much longer selling season six weeks beats twelve days hands down.
Sixty years of advertising broke two millennia of Christian practice. Halloween has now become the closest thing we have to an Advent season. Advent is now a four-week long Christmas season, and Christmas season is now Purgatory. The season during which we are supposed to celebrate our life in heaven with the Christ child is now the time we pay all the bills.
What a crying shame! I say we reclaim Christmas from commercialism and celebrate the Birth of Our Lord in all its glory.
How did 25th December become Christmas Day anyway? You may have heard the pernicious rumour that it was a replacement of a pagan festival. However, there are Biblical and other sources which contradict this narrative.
The Emperor Aurelian introduced the cult of the Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) to Rome in AD 274. Aurelian found political traction with this cult, because his own name “Aurelian” derives from the Latin word aurora denoting “sunrise.” Coins reveal that Emperor Aurelian called himself the Pontifex Solis or “Pontiff of the Son.” Thus, Aurelian simply accommodated a generic solar cult and identified his name with it at the end of the third century.
Most importantly, there is no historical record for a celebration of Sol Invictus on December 25 prior to AD 354. Even in AD 354, the date is simply designated as “Invictus” without mention of a birthday. The date only explicitly became the “Birthday of the Unconquered Son” under (drumroll please) the Emperor Julian the Apostate who had been a Christian but who had apostatised and returned to Roman paganism. History reveals that it was a former Christian Emperor (who hated Christ) that erected a pagan holiday on December 25. Think about that for a moment.
William Tighe, Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, writes in Touchstone:
Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.
In fact, early Christians avoided celebrating birthdays, seeing it as a pagan tradition. In more traditional parts of Europe today, especially in Eastern Europe, “name days” are still celebrated instead of birthdays, in honour of Baptism, the “new circumcision” (Colossians 2:11), when children receive their Christian names as they enter the New Covenant.
There is an ancient Jewish tradition, known as “integral age”, that the prophets died on the same day as they were conceived. Andrew McGovern, Dean and President of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, explains:
Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover… Around A.D. 200 Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognised as the Feast of the Annunciation — the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.
As for those who argue that December 25 was far too frosty for shepherds to be out with their flocks:
Now, some think that Christ couldn’t have been born in December because the shepherds were out in their fields, and it would’ve been too cold for them to be there. This is untrue. First, the average Winter temperature in Israel is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Second, the shepherds would have been with their sheep in the fields because the sheep in Israel give birth then, not in the Spring. The breed of sheep that is most commonly found in that area of the world is the Awassi sheep, who give birth in December-January.
Here is even more Biblical calculation:
You can find out more at the website Born on Christmas Day, referring to the writings of the early Christians, such as Hyppolytus of Rome (c. AD 204):
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.
Now that’s sorted, here’s why New Year’s Day is on the eighth day following the Nativity of the Lord (after all, human history is divided into “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” — the Year of Our Lord):
Given that Christmas is a very high holy day, the Church goes back to ancient, Old Testament roots (think about the Jewish feasts of Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Hanukkah), allowing 8 days for the continued celebration of Christmas. This is the CHRISTMAS OCTAVE. Every day is the Christmas feast during the Octave which ends on January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
Fifty years ago, the 1st of January was actually the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, when, in accordance with Jewish tradition, Jesus was circumcised and received His name eight days after His birth (Luke 2:21).
Msgr Charles Pope explains:
The “Octave” is really considered one long day. Upon the completion of this long day, on January 1 the Birth”day” of Christ is complete and our calendars advance to the next year. Hence it is fortunate that the Ancient Roman practice of January 1 and the Christian notion of the Octave both coincide to have New Year’s Day on January 1. January 1st is really the completion of Christmas Day, marking another Birthday of Christ and thus the year advances.
During the Octave, several martyrs are commemorated: Boxing Day is the Feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7); this is followed by the Feast of St John, Apostle and Evangelist; then Childermas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents massacred by King Herod (Matthew 2:16); after which is the memorial of the English martyr St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (killed by supporters of King Henry II, who repented).
Msgr Pope reflects:
“Why all this blood, why this martyrdom? It is almost as though the red poinsettias that we put out in festive Christmas spirit look back to us in testimony. For it is clear that Jesus came to this world, ultimately to die. His crib (likely of wood) in which he was laid, arms and feet bound by swaddling clothes, points inevitably to the wood of his cross where, once again, his arms and legs were bound by nails and, after dying, he was wrapped tightly in a linen shroud.
The blood of the Christmas octave also reminds us that many of us too will share in Christ’s lot.”
So why do we sing about the Twelve Days of Christmas? Why did Shakespeare have a play called Twelfth Night?
On the 6th of January, which is Christmas Eve for the Eastern Churches (because they follow the Julian instead of the Gregorian calendar), the Western Churches celebrate Epiphany, when the Wise Men — representing Gentiles — visited Jesus. (Matthew 2:1) In some countries like Spain, children visit the Three Kings in shopping centres instead of Santa Claus.
If you have a Nativity set, it is customary for the Wise Men to travel around your church or your home, inching closer towards the Infant Jesus until they finally arrive on Epiphany. (Visiting St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, I was quite tickled to see that it is somebody’s job to move the Wise Men a few steps every day.)
In recent years, Christmastide has ended on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Sunday after Epiphany. This commemorates Jesus’ second divine manifestation after the visit of the Magi. However, I much prefer to keep the decorations up till Candlemas! What about you? Will you continue to celebrate Christ’s birth when all the shops have moved on?
“Celebrate the feast of Christmas every day, even every moment in the interior temple of your spirit, remaining like a baby in the bosom of the heavenly Father, where you will be reborn each moment in the Divine Word, Jesus Christ.”
~ St Paul of the Cross