25 Days of Christmas: Day 4 ~ Recognizing Christmas

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Recognizing Christmas

Many early Christians, including Gregory of Nazainzus, spoke out against combining pagan and Christian ways. This isn’t hard to understand: The celebrations, after all, could take on orgiastic proportions. After years of mostly futile attempts to abolish these pagan festivals and rituals, however, the church realized it would be better served by allowing them – revised so that their focus was to honor Christ.

Incorporating Mithraic or solstice rites into the celebration of Christmas was easy to justify: Christ represents life, triumph over death and darkness, and restored hope and light. Rather than celebrating the sun as before, people would be celebrating the Son of God. Simply put, the birth of Christ replaced the birth of the sun as a cause for celebration.

Both church and popular interests were thus satisfied: The people were able to keep their time of fun, while the church ensured that the birth of Christ would be celebrated with all due decorum and festivity. In this way, many parts of the old festivals remained, while others were reformed to honor Christ’s birth. Some of the retained elements that have remained popular to this day are greenery, candles, singing, tree decorating, Yule logs, and feasting.

RomanCatholicChristmasToday, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 by Roman Catholics and Protestants, by not by many Orthodox churches, which continue to combine Epiphany and Nativity celebrations on January 6. A small portion of English believers also observed the January 6 tradition until about 1950 – not because of any connection with the rite of Eastern churches, but because some of their own observances followed the old Julian calendar rather than the current Gregorian version.

The Yule Connection

The so-called “barbarian invasions” of the Roman Empire that began in the fifth century brought the Nordic and Germanic peoples into direct contact with Christianity, and therefore with Christians. In northern and western Europe, the Germanic and Celtic peoples had their own solstice rituals, which were later incorporated into Christmas.

The December Julmond festival, for example (Jul later became Yule), was a celebration of harvest and rebirth, with wheat representing life triumphing over death. Anything made of wheat, such as bread or liquor, was consumed heartily, and also given as gifts. Evergreens were used as a symbol of life, and what we would later cal the Yule log was lit to symbolize the eventual triumph of light over dark. The festive meal was boar’s head. These traditions have been presented in centries-old carols, including wassail songs, holly carols, and boar’s-head carols still sung today.

(Jeffrey, Yvonne, “Everything Family Christmas Book”)

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Christmas Spirit

Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday in 529. Further legislation by the Council of Tours in 567 officially made the pre-Christmas Advent period a season of fasting and preparation. The time from Christmas to Epiphany (the twelve days of Christmas) was also declared part of the festive season. 

25 Days of Christmas: Day 3 ~ Setting a Date

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Setting A Date

Scholars don’t just disagree on the year of Jesus’ birth, they also disagree on the time of the year in when he was born. While there is one record of Christmas being celebrated in Antioch (Turkey) on December 25 in the middle of the second century, there is no record of it being observed on that date in Rome until the year 336. It wasn’t until 350 that Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date.

The Winter Solstice

As Christianity established itself, church leaders wanted to move the general population away from their celebrations of other gods and religions, including the winter solstice festivals that were important to the cultures of pre-Christian Europe and Asia.

Ancient people believed that the days grew shorter in December because the sun was leaving them, perhaps even dying. Festivals held right before December 21, the winter solstice, featured rituals designed to appease the sun and make it return. After the solstice, the shortest day of the year, the days became longer again, and grand celebrations were held in honor of the sun’s return. Along with the idea of the physical presence of the sun were underlying themes of harvest, rebirth, and light.

December 25 was, in the Roman calendar, the day after the solstice, which was why the solar feast, also known as Natalis inviciti solis, or “birth of the unconquered sun,” was one of the celebrations associated with the winter solstice. In fact, in the third century (that is, in the century before Constantine began the Empire’s conversion to Christianity), Emperor Aurelian declared December 25 Dies Invicti Solis (the Day of the Invincible Sun).

The Roman Saturnalia

Although the basic concept of the solstice festival was common to all lands, each area had its unique variations. But the tradition that left its mark most indelibly of Christmas was the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia was observed in December and was a nominal celebration of a number of different events, among them Saturn’s triumph over Jupiter. According to belief, Saturn’s reign had heralded the Golden Age of Rome. Although the god later lost out to Jupiter, during the Saturnalia he was believed to return, allowing Rome to relive the Golden Age for a brief time. It was not surprising that the Romans, who associated Saturn closely with the sun, would celebrate this festival near the solstice.

During the festivities, no one worked except those who provided food, drink, or entertainment. Masters and slaves became equals and there was much feasting, dancing, gambling, and general revelry. Candles were used as decoration to scare away the darkness and celebrate the sun and light.

Another recognizable ritual was the giving of gifts, which was done in honor of the goddess of vegetation, Strenia.  The people felt that in time of darkness and winter, it was important to honor someone who had a hand in the harvest. At first, produce and baked goods were exchanged, but as time went on, inedible gifts became fashionable.

The Saturnalia was followed by the calends of January (the calends marked the first day of the month). Observed on January 1-3, this period meant still more parties.

(Jeffrey, Yvonne, “Everything Family Christmas Book”)

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25 Days of Christmas: Day 1 ~ The First Christmas

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The First Christmas

You might say that Christmas has been celebrated since the very night of Jesus’ birth, when, the Bible says, the angels announced his arrival on the plains of Bethlehem (in what is now Israel) in an event that was later celebrated in a special Christes Masse, or Christ’s Mass. The actual birth date is something that scholars still debate; however, a combination of Bible stories, historical records, and even astronomical events generally set the year between about 6 B.C. and A.D. 6.

Most of the elements of our traditional Christmas story have their origin in the Bible, in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. While the two gospels offer some historical contradictions, there’s no doubt that together, they have created a picture of the birth of Jesus that is loved around the world.

Luke’s gospel offers us not only a time and place for the birth of Jesus, but a real human and religious drama. Focusing on the trials of Joseph and Mary, Luke tells us a story of weary travelers forced to spend the night in a stable because there was “no room for them at the inn.” With its focus on the humble manger birth, the gathering of shepherds and angels, and the enduring message of peace on earth, this passage has given some of Christianity’s best loved Christmas songs and traditions.

(Jeffrey, Yvonne, “Everything Family Christmas Book”)

From the Gospel According to St. Luke

The Birth of Jesus

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

birth-baby-jesus-100So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

 (Holy Bible, NIV)

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