The word Christmas comes from the old English "Cristes maesse" meaning
Christ's Mass. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Scriptural
basis for the Christmas scene comes from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
The actual birthday of Jesus is not known; therefore, the early Church
Fathers in the 4th century fixed the day around the old Roman Saturnalia
festival (17 - 21 December), a traditional pagan festivity. The winter
solstice occurs about 21st December each year. It is the day of the year
when the night is longest and the daytime shortest. It was the traditional
date for followers of many different Pagan religions to celebrate the rebirth
of the sun. Following the solstice, each succeeding day has slightly more
sunlight than the previous day. It was seen as a promise that warmth would
return once more to the earth with the coming of Jesus Christ.
The first mention of the birthday of Jesus is from the year 354 AD during
the time of Pope Julius I. Gradually all Christian churches, except Armenians
and Orthodoxs who celebrate Christmas on 6th January (the date of the baptism
of Jesus as well as Epiphany), accepted the date of December 25th.
Customs and Practices
The popularity of the Nativity scene or "crèche", one
of the most beloved and enduring symbols Christmas, originated in Italy
from St. Francis of Assisi in 1224 who wanted to bring the reality of the
first Christmas to common people through real life representation. The
first manger scene involved real people and animals. Later on figurines
The custom of singing carols at Christmas is of English origin. During
the middle ages, groups of serenaders would travel around from house to
house singing ancient carols. The word carol means "song of you." Most
of the popular old carols we sing today were written in the nineteenth
century. Carolling reminds us of the angels who brought the good news to
the shepherds and sang at the birth of Christ, "Glory to God in the highest
and peace to men of goodwill."
The custom of gift-giving on Christmas goes back to Roman festivals
of Saturnalia and Kalends. The very first gifts were simple items such
as twigs from a sacred grove as good luck emblems. Soon that escalated
to food, small items of jewelry, candles, and statues of gods. To the early
Church, gift-giving at this time was a pagan holdover and therefore severely
frowned upon. However, people would not part with it, and some justification
was found in the original gift giving of the Magi, and from figures such
as St. Nicholas.
The hanging of greens, such as holly and ivy, is a British winter tradition
with origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was probably used to
lift sagging winter spirits and remind the people that spring was not far
away. The decorating of Christmas trees was a German custom.
Father Christmas / Santa
The American Santa Claus is also known as the British Father Christmas.
His direct ancestor is a certain pagan spirit who regularly appeared in
medieval summer's plays. The old-fashioned Father Christmas was depicted
wearing long robes with sprigs of holly in his long white hair. St. Nicholas
is a more religious predecessor of Santa Claus who exemplifies generous
For most, Christmas is over by December 26 and life has resumed its
normal activities. The
Church, on the other hand, observes an Octave of Christmas until January
1 (after the Jewish
practice of an 8 day celebration) and an extended Christmastime until
January 6, the Feast of the
Epiphany. (It is now celebrated on the Sunday between January 2 and
January 8.) The popular
Christmas song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas,"
is rooted in the festive celebration of Christmastime and a celebration
of the Catholic faith, from a time in England and Ireland when Catholics
had to disguise their Catholic beliefs.
During Christmastime, there are feasts of three martyrs:
December 26 : St. Stephen
who represents those who went to their death willingly
December 27 : St. John the Evangelist
who represents those who were willing to die but were not put to death,
December 28 : Holy Innocents
who represent those who were put to death without their choice, recalling
the events surrounding the Birth of Christ.
Feast of the Holy Family
On the Sunday between Christmas and January 1, the Church celebrates
the Feast of the Holy Family. This feast is especially important today
as many families today face struggles and challenges in living their Faith.
Feast of Mary, Mother of
1st January being the first day of the new year is also the Feast of
Mary, Mother of God. Mary's title of "Theotokos" which means the
bearer of God fits appropriately in the Christmas season as she bore God
in her and brought him forth on Christmas Day. Formerly 1st January celebrates
the feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus, it being the eight day
after the birth of Jesus in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Epiphany is celebrated on 6th January, although it normally celebrated
on the Sunday between January 2 and 8. It means showing forth or manifestation
of Jesus to the wise men who represent the non Jewish world. It also signifies
the closing of the Christmas season.The names of the wise men are not given
in the Bible, but were supplied by later story tellers to enrich the meaning
and celebration of the Epiphany.
The three kings represent the three major races:
Melchior, an old white man with a long white beard, bearing the gift
of gold for Christís royalty; Caspar, young and of darker hue, carrying
incenses for Christís divinity;
and Balthasar, a black man, offering myrrh for Christís suffering and