A Very Brief History of Advent and Christmas
For most people, “Christmas Season” represents fond childhood memories, snuggling by a fireplace, singing carols, and the promise of desired presents. Non-Christians celebrate Christmas Season beginning the day after Thanksgiving (“Black Friday”) and ending on December 25. That is, for most people, “Christmas season” is over on December 26. People just look forward to New Year’s Eve after that date.
However, the Church follows a liturgical calendar which is divided by themes which revolve around the life of Jesus (Ordinary Time, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost). Each season represents a rich heritage of learning and reflection on the Christ event.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Advent (from the Latin, adventus, which means “coming” or "arrival") is the season which begins the Sunday nearest November 30 until December 24. Churches use different symbols for the season of Advent, but they usually involve symbolic candles, particular Bible verses, and seasonal colors. This season, like Lent, is to be a time of preparation: full of prayer, fasting, repentance, and reflection. Advent reflects on two aspects of Jesus’s coming: (1) the first time the Son of God came in frail, human form in Bethlehem; and (2) His second coming in glory and lordship over all creation. To say it another way, Advent celebrates His first coming; it anticipates His second coming.
The term, “Christmas,” is an Old English expression for “Mass of Christ” (Cristes Maesse). The Western and Eastern Churches disagree over the exact time of Christmas. In the Western Church, Christmas time (or “Christmastide”) begins on December 25 and ends on January 6 (the Day of Epiphany). Hence, this is the origin of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” tune.
WHEN WAS JESUS BORN?
No one knows the precise date of Jesus’s birth. For the first few centuries of the Church, no one really cared about the birth of Jesus; only his life, death, and resurrection was reflected upon. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is debated, and before 525, there was no official date adopted by the Western church (the “Western Church” includes most Protestants and Roman Catholics around the world). The first reference to the birth of Jesus on Dec 25th might come from Theophilus of Antioch (171-183). Some ancient authors agreed; others disagreed.
WHY DECEMBER 25?
It was not uncommon to date Jesus’s birth in association with the vernal equinox (or some other association with the Sun). The vernal equinox in modern times is dated to March 20/21, though the ancient people dated it to March 25. It marks the change from the longest night to the gradual elongation of daylight hours. In the same way, the conception or birth of the Son of God brings “light” to a dark world. For example, a Latin author argues in De Pascha computus (written ca. 243) that the first day of creation was March 25. The author assumes that Jesus must have been born on the same day as the creation of the sun, which is on the fourth day, which would mean March 28.
Other authors believed that since the first day of the universe’s creation was March 25, it must be the case that Jesus, “God’s new creation,” must have also been conceived on March 25. This would date Jesus’s birth nine months later, on December 25.
Other authors agreed with their Jewish counterparts that great prophets were conceived on the same day as their death. And since many Christians believed that Jesus died on March 25, then he must have been born on March 25.
Other authors dated Jesus’s birth to various days in spring, such as April 2, 19, or May 20. To read more on this issue, see Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas or Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas.
It is often argued by skeptics that Christmas is simply a pagan festival because the Roman celebration, Sol Invictus, was held on Dec. 25. It is argued that Christians simply “baptized” that pagan festival. It is true that Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun” festival dedicated to the sun god on Dec. 25th by the Romans, fought for religious attention in the Empire. However, the Christian dating for Dec. 25th had already been suggested by the time the Sol Invictus was established in 274 by Emperor Aurelian.
Finally, because there were shepherds in their fields (Luke 2:8), which could take place during the winter months, having Jesus born in mid-winter is possible.
BUT WHEN DID THEY START CELEBRATING A CHRISTMAS FESTIVAL?
The roots of having a festival celebrating the birth of Jesus begins in controversy. A sect of Gnostic Christians existed in the early second century in Alexandria, Egypt, led by Basilides. This group believed that Jesus was not born divine. Instead, the divine Word united with a human Jesus at His baptism. They believed Jesus’s baptism was the first time the divine Word appeared on Earth. This festival was called “Epiphany,” since this is a Greek word for “appearance.” They celebrated this festival on Jan. 6.
Orthodox churches argued that the divine Word first appeared on Earth at Jesus’s birth, not his baptism. So, many churches celebrated Jesus’s birth and baptism on Jan. 6. In fact, to this day, the Orthodox church celebrates Jesus’s birth and baptism on Jan. 6. The Western church would separate these events: Dec. 25 for His birth; Jan 6 for the visit of the Magi or His baptism (depending on the Church).
In the Western church, Dec. 25, 1 AD, was not standardized until 525, when Pope John I commissioned the monk, Dionysius Exiguus, to make a standard calendar for the Western Church. Unfortunately, his calculation of years was off by nearly five years (Jesus was born between 6-4 BC), and there is no way to know what precise day Jesus was born.
WHO’S THIS ST. NICK CHARACTER?
The chief figure of the secular celebration, Santa Claus, is based upon a Christian saint, St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born in the third century on the southern coast of Turkey in Patara. He was eventually made bishop of Myra, where he constantly took care of the poor, the sick, and children. He was exiled and imprisoned under Diocletian’s rule. After being released, he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died Dec. 6, 343, which is celebrated at St. Nicholas Day. He is buried in Demre, Turkey (ancient Myra).