The Christmas Season
Among all the festivals and holidays of the Christian Church year, Christmas remains the most observed and most popular. Of course, much of that popularity, especially in the West, is due to the commercial promotion of the holiday. In many Protestant churches through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Christmas was noted but not really celebrated. While observed in some church liturgies, there was very little in the way of gift giving and family celebration that marks the season today. In fact, until relatively recently, in the middle to latter nineteenth century, Christmas was a regular work day. In many areas of the world today, it remains a comparatively insignificant holiday even among Christians. Still, the Christmas story captures the heart in a way that transcends all the commercial hype.
The degree to which the holiday is valued in Christian culture sometimes goes beyond the other most Holy Day of Christianity, Easter or Resurrection Sunday. There is something about human nature that would rather focus on the birth of babies than on the torture and death of accused criminals! Especially for the young, the story of Christmas with all the images of angels and a young mother, of shepherds and a stable, of wise men and royal intrigue make the season captivating. Perhaps that is part of the intent of the different ways the story is told in the Gospel accounts, as well as the preservation of so many traditions in the Church surrounding this holiday.
Historically, Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth to a young maiden from Galilee. Theologically, Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ, the self-revelation of God to the world in human form for the reconciliation of humanity to Himself. All the details of the various accounts concerning Jesus’ birth revolve around that central truth (see The Meaning of Christmas below).
While we most often think about Christmas as a single day, it is actually a season of the year. In its popular sense, it extends four weeks before Christmas Day and for two weeks after. However, the time before Christmas is a special season called Advent, comprising the four Sundays before Christmas Day. While the entire season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany can be seen together, they each have distinctly different roles in the Church year. The term "Advent" means "coming" and is a season of expectation and hope, the time of waiting for the coming of the Messiah that is celebrated at Christmas. This time of waiting symbolizes the waiting throughout the Old Testament for the new act of God that would bring deliverance to his people. For Christians this season of expectation also symbolizes the waiting in anticipation for the Second Coming of the Christ when he will return and restore all things (see The Season of Advent).
Contrary to advertising campaigns that tout Christmas as beginning with Advent (or Halloween!), the actual Christmas Season in most Western church traditions begins at sunset on Christmas Eve, December 24, and lasts through January 5. Since this time includes 12 days, the season of Christmas is known in many places as the Twelve Days of Christmas. January 6 is usually celebrated as Epiphany, although it carries different significance in various church traditions. Due to different calendars in use in various eras and locations of the church, some cultures and church traditions celebrate Christmas on January 6 (in the older Julian calendar still used as the religious calendar in Eastern Churches, January 6 corresponds to December 24 on our modern calendar).
The Origin of Christmas and Epiphany
The origins of the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, as well as the dates on which they are observed, are rooted deeply in the history of the early church. There has been much scholarly debate concerning the exact time of the year when Jesus was born, and even in what year he was born. Actually, we do not know either. The best estimate is that Jesus was probably born in the springtime, somewhere between the years of 6 and 4 BC. The lack of a consistent system of timekeeping in the first century, mistakes in later calendars and calculations, and lack of historical details to cross reference events has led to this imprecision in fixing Jesus’ birth. This suggests that the Christmas celebration is not an observance of a historical date, but a commemoration of the event in terms of worship.
As important as Christmas is in our modern religious culture today, the actual celebration of this holiday as a central part of the church year is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most historians agree that the celebration of Christmas did not begin until about the fourth century, although they are not certain exactly how or why Christmas began as a Christian festival.
The most commonly accepted conclusion is that Christmas originated in Roman culture that celebrated the winter solstice on December 25 (the solstice is the point where the sun’s ecliptic, or apparent path in the sky, is at its furthermost northern and southern point, occurring by our calendar around June 22 and December 22; in the northern hemisphere, we note these days today as the beginning of Summer and Winter). This was a pagan celebration of the birth of the sun (Natalis Solis Invicti ) as it once again began its annual journey back north from its southernmost point through the heavens. This marked the change of seasons that promised springtime and renewal of the earth. Christians were reluctant to participate in the pagan festivals, yet the cultural and social pressures to participate were enormous. By the early fourth century, Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus at this time, so it is likely that Christmas was as an alternative to the pagan observance of the winter solstice.
Because of the differences in calendars, some Eastern Churches celebrate the Incarnation on what is January 6 on our western calendars (although on their calendars this corresponds to December 24), also as an alternative to pagan solstice festivals. -1- Today, most of the Eastern churches follow the Western practice of celebrating Christmas on December 25. However the Western churches also adopted the January 6 date and used it to observe what is now called Epiphany. In effect, the Eastern churches adopted December 25th from the West and the western churches adopted January 6 from the East, and now both are observed in both traditions, although with different emphases (as noted below, the specific details are much more complicated).
The traditions surrounding the celebration of this season are almost as numerous as the people who celebrate it. Through the years, the holiday has been adapted to local customs, culture, and history and so has produced an amazing variety of Christmas traditions around the world. Some, such as the giving of gifts or the use of a star, arose directly or indirectly out of the biblical nativity stories. Some, such as the legends of Saint Nicholas, have their origin in church history, historical fact that became legendary as it was embellished in story. Others, such as the use of evergreens and the yule log, have pagan origins but were transformed into distinctively Christian traditions. Others, such as the use of a crèche or caroling, arose first as local traditions in certain countries or regions that became widely adopted. And still others, such as, reindeer, elves, the North Pole, etc., have largely secular origins and are only loosely associated with the holiday in popular imagination or marketing techniques.
The abbreviation of "Xmas" for Christmas, long reviled by many conservative and Low Church Christians, is not nearly as blasphemous as many contend. Rather than a sacrilegious removal of "Christ" from Christmas and replacing him with an unknown, as some claim, the "Xmas" abbreviation has a long history in the church. In Greek, the language in which the New Testament was first written, "chi" (c or C), which is almost identical to the Roman alphabet "X," is the first letter of the word "Christ" (cristoV, or as it would be written in older manuscripts, CRISTOS). In fact, the symbol of the fish in the early church came from using the first letter of several titles used for Jesus (Jesus Christ Son of God Savior) that when combined spelled the Greek word for fish (icquV, ichthus).
In the early days of printing when typesetting was done by hand and was very tedious and expensive, abbreviations were common. The church began to use the abbreviation "X" for the word "Christ" in religious publications. From there, the abbreviation moved into general use in newspapers and other publications, and "Xmas" became an accepted way of printing "Christmas" (for a more detailed explanation see The Origin of "Xmas").
The Biblical Nativity Narratives
Even though Christmas is the most popular and most celebrated of the Christian Holy Days, it is interesting that it does not play such a central role in the biblical traditions or the Gospel accounts. Nativity narratives are conspicuously absent in both Mark and John who begin their Gospels with the ministry of John the Baptist, some 30 years after Jesus’ birth. This helps explain why John the Baptist and his ministry is usually the focus of one Sunday during Advent (usually the second Sunday). Nativity narratives are only present in Matthew and Luke. But even there, the story is not told as a single narrative in either Gospel, but rather each emphasizes different aspects of what we have come to celebrate as the Christmas story.
Matthew tells the story from the perspective of Joseph, and his deliberations about what he should do with his pregnant wife-to-be. The story unfolds with reassurance from God’s messenger that God is at work in this extraordinary circumstance. It is Matthew who introduces the Isaiah quotation from which we get the title Emmanuel for Jesus (see Immanuel in Isaiah and Matthew). However, Matthew gives us no details about the actual birth of Jesus, only a few events leading up to the birth, and than an account of what happened "after Jesus was born" (Matt 2:1).
It is only in Matthew that we learn of the visit of the Magi ("wise men") and the miraculous star in the East that led them to Jesus. It is popular imagination, and perhaps the need to construct a concise story that can fit into a crèche (the traditional manger scene), that places the Magi at the Bethlehem stable. It was probably much later, perhaps as much as two years, when they actually visited the Christ child. And it is likewise legend or tradition that assumes three Magi, probably from the fact of three gifts. However, the biblical narrative never says how many Magi came.
Only Matthew recounts God’s warning to Joseph, telling him to flee to Egypt with Mary and the child to escape the wrath of Herod. He also tells of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem as the deranged Herod sought to eliminate any competition for his throne. Matthew also again tells of messenger from God that directs the Holy Family to settle in Nazareth
Most of the nativity narrative with which we are most familiar from Christmas plays and public Scripture readings comes from Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s account is much different than Matthew’s. It is told from the perspective of Mary, and her struggle to come to terms with this astonishing event. Luke actually begins his narrative with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist and the disbelief of his father Zechariah. The entire narrative places two women, Elizabeth and Mary, at the center of the story. A messenger of God, in Luke’s account named Gabriel, also plays an important role announcing the births of both John and Jesus.
Only Luke incorporates Elizabeth's blessing of Mary that became part of the "Hail Mary" prayer of the Roman Catholic Rosary. -2- Likewise, it is only Luke who tells the nativity narrative through the beautiful songs of Mary (the Magnificat), Zechariah (the Benedictus), and Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis), and the praises of Anna. It is Luke who places the entire story in the context of Roman taxation and tells of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It is again largely legend and tradition that has made "no room at the inn" an important feature of the story. This detail and mention of the manger occupies only a single verse in the story, and is never referred to again in the New Testament beyond Luke 2. From Luke we learn of the visit of the shepherds, and the messengers of God proclaiming Jesus’ birth. Again, it is tradition that has the angels singing in the heavens; Luke only tells us that they were "praising God." Finally, Luke tells us of the return of the Holy Family to the temple eight days after Jesus’ birth for his official naming and ritual circumcision.
These differences suggest that even though the early church knew many details of Jesus’ birth, the Gospel writers were not too concerned with making those details the center of the Gospel story. That should provide us a large caution in considering the role we allow these events to play in the life of the Church. A careful examination of both Matthew and Luke reveals that the differing details they include are not for the purpose of constructing a nativity narrative for its own sake. Rather, those varying details are incorporated into the larger narrative for specific reasons that have to do with the overall theological structure and communication of each Gospel (see The Synoptic Problem). That does not mean that we must abandon the celebration of Christmas! But at the very least, it should lead us to ask questions of the significance of this season in the cycle of the Christian Church Year.
The Meaning of Christmas
What is the true meaning of Christmas? It is a perennial question. It is a question heard often during the Christmas season year after year, from pulpits, TV personalities, newspaper writers, and just ordinary people bewildered by the hectic pace of the season. It seems a little strange that as popular as this season seems to be, we should continually have to ask that question. The meaning of Christmas seems to be forever in danger of being obscured by all the commotion and promotion of the season. Perhaps we continue to ask the question for fear that the answer will be lost, or already is lost, in the shuffle.
So, the search for the true meaning of Christmas is a recurring one. And yet, too often the answers we provide, even from the church, are more sentimentality, comfortable traditions, or "warm fuzzies" than they are any deep reflection on the significance of the Incarnation for humanity. As much as those things are a part of the season, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" is not the meaning of the season. It is not about the "spirit of giving" or the quest for global peace, or the importance of family, or the beauty of a snow-decorated "silent night."
Certainly we can immediately say that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. But exactly why is that fact so significant beyond the affirmation of a historical fact or a creedal confession? How does, or how should, the meaning of Christmas impact our lives on a daily basis as the people of God?
Perhaps for an answer, we need to return to the biblical narratives, apart from all the traditions that we have heaped around them to make them more entertaining and more coherent to modern ways of thinking. At the heart of the nativity narratives in both Matthew and Luke, is a simple fact: amid the struggle of a people who had longed for 500 years for God to act in the world in new ways, God came to be with them in a way that totally identified himself with us, as human beings. Amid the most unlikely of circumstances, to the most unlikely of people, God became a human being to reconcile all peoples to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19).
I think that the true meaning of Christmas is about possibility in the midst of the impossible. It is not the kind of possibility that comes from a confidence in our own skill, knowledge, ability, or a positive mental attitude. It is possibility that comes solely from the fact that God is God, and that he is the kind of God who comes into our own human existence to reveal himself and call us to himself. It is a possibility that is so surprising at its birth that we are caught unaware, and so are left with wonder at the simplicity of its expression in this infant child. It is a possibility that is easily symbolized by a helpless infant that has nothing of its own by which to survive; yet an infant that, because he is Immanuel, God with us, will forever change the world and all humanity. It is this same God who has promised to be with us, with his people, with the church and with us individually, as we live as his people in the world.
It is not just hope, as if it were wishful thinking that things will get better when they cannot. It is hope incarnated into flesh, a hope that can be held in a mother’s arms, a hope that expresses a reality that will live beyond endings and death itself. It is the hope, the possibility, that springs from impossible and insignificant beginnings, infused with the power of God through the Holy Spirit, that will blossom into a light to the nations.
It is this possibility, this God, that we celebrate at Christmas. And we do so with a confidence born, not of our own desire for it to be so, but from the birth of a child over 2,000 years ago, a child who was the Son of God!
1. The differences between Western and Eastern traditions relating to when Christmas is celebrated is a complicated issue that cannot be covered adequately here. It is largely a matter of which calendar is used to calculate dates. Most of the world today uses the Gregorian calendar [external link], introduced in the 16th century as a means to correct a slight inaccuracy in the older Julian calendar. This inaccuracy of about 11 minutes a year resulted in an accumulated "drift" of dates in relation to the solar year. This means that "fixed" solar dates, for example the summer and winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinox, would fall on increasingly earlier dates. Of course this would also apply to religious festivals that fall on fixed dates, such as Christmas on December 25. The Gregorian calendar, which was approved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, intended to correct the inaccuracy and stabilize this "drift" of dates. As a result it soon became the standard civil calendar throughout the world.
However, the Orthodox and Eastern churches continued to use the older Julian calendar as a religious calendar, which meant that religious holidays fell on different days in the Eastern and Western churches. However in 1923, a synod convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch Meletius IV of Constantinople adopted a Revised Julian Calendar [external link] for the daily feasts of the year. This revised calendar was, for all practical purposes, identical with the Gregorian calendar. This calendar has by now been adopted by the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Antioch, Poland, Bulgaria, Finland, Estonia and the Orthodox Church of America, as well as by some parishes within the Russian Orthodox church in Western Europe. The churches of Russia, Serbia, Jerusalem, and Georgia, together with the other ancient churches of the East and some conservative groups in Greece, have not adopted it and continue to use the older Julian calendar. All Orthodox churches, however, continue to celebrate Pascha (Easter) following calculations made according to the Julian calendar.
The result of all this is that the Orthodox churches that follow the Revised Julian Calendar, which is functionally equivalent to the Western Gregorian calendar, celebrate Christmas on December 25, while those that follow the (unrevised) Julian Calendar celebrate it on January 7 (which is actually December 25 in the unrevised Julian calendar). [Return to text]