Important Feasts in the Liturgical Year: Christmas
The Celebration of Christmas
From the 15th November of every year, the Orthodox Churches commence the ‘Christmas fast.’ This fast is also known as the ‘fast of St Philip’ because it is immediately preceded by the feast day of this apostle. This time of preparation also corresponds to the Roman Advent. We do not know precisely at what date the celebration of Advent was introduced into the Church. However, early Christian documents testify to the fact that only towards the end of the fourth century was the Nativity of Christ celebrated on the 25th December and only by some since others celebrated Christmas on the 6th January.
The first sign of a Christmas celebration comes from Egypt. Clement of Alexandria (ca 200) mentions that certain Egyptians commemorated the birth of Christ on 20th May. In the first part of the fourth century, the constitutions of the Church of Alexandria laid down that the 6th January was both the feast of the Nativity and the Epiphany of Christ. Therefore we know for certain that in the early Christian centuries Christmas and Theophany (which is celebrated today on the 6th January and marks the baptism of Jesus) were celebrated together. For this reason, liturgically speaking, the period from Christmas to Theophany is considered to be one continuous day of celebration marking the coming of Christ into the world.
From the sermons of St Gregory of Nyssa we know that in 380AD the faithful in Cappadocia celebrated Christmas on the 25th December. It is also known that, contrary to this practice, the Church of Jerusalem did not adhere to the date of the 25th December even up to the sixth century. We know for certain that in 385AD, when Etheria had visited the city of Jerusalem, the festival of Christmas had not yet been accepted into its liturgical calender. In Antioch the celebration of Christmas was introduced by St John of Chrysostom around 386AD. Modern scholarship also contends that Christmas was introduced to Constantinople between 398AD to 402AD by St John Chrysostom. From 354AD Christmas began to be celebrated in Rome. However the Council of Saragossa in Spain still ignored Christmas in 380, and St Augustine, in the fifth century omitted it from a list of the major feasts, which he himself drew up. Christmas nevertheless soon began to be recognized in the liturgical calendar of the universal Church.
In reflecting upon the introduction of the feast day of Christmas into the liturgical calendar, the first claim would be that the reason why 25th December was chosen for the celebration of Christ''s birth is not that this is the actual day in which this historical birth took place. Rather there are two reasons why this day was chosen. The first is that Christmas was chosen as the feast day for this celebration because the Church wanted to adapt and ‘christianise’ certain pagan feasts which were celebrated around that date, such as the birth of Dionysius at Delphi, the Saturnalia (December 1st - 23rd), and above all the Natalis Invicti (the feast of the Invincible sun) celebrated on the 25th December itself. Many Fathers of the Church, most notably St Cyprian of Carthage, declared that this ‘anniversary of the invincible’ was realized in the birth of Jesus, the only invincible One and the Sun of Justice. Christ was the only Invincible Sun who by His birth illuminated the world and inaugurated the dawn of a new age. It is for this reason that the dismissal hymn refers to Christ as the "sun of righteousness" since He is the true sun shining on the world. Therefore the 25th December was chosen in order to transform a pagan festival into a Christian one.
The second reason why the 25th December was chosen for Christmas is that the day of Christ’s birth was made to depend on the date of the conception of Jesus, which is celebrated on 25th March (the Annunciation of the Theotokos). The reason why the date of the Annunciation was thought to be in March was because Jesus Christ was conceived, according to the Scriptures six months after St John the Baptist. From the New Testament, we would claim that St John the Baptism was conceived in September. The reason this can be inferred is that the announcement to Zacharias, the father of St John''s the Baptist, of the birth of his son took place when Zacharias, as the high priest went into the sanctuary on the day of Expiation. And the feast day was believed to have taken place in the month of September. From all the above calculations we must nevertheless state that, even though they may seem logical are still historically unfounded as we actually do not know the actual day and month in which the Messiah was born.
Even the year of Christ''s birth is uncertain. Some scholars have attempted to trace the actual date by studying ancient records of astronomy to examine if there is any evidence of a "brilliant star" which the magi saw and followed. In reference to this, three theories have been postulated. The first is that it is believed that Christ was born approximately 11BC, since there is evidence in that year of Halley''s comet shooting brilliantly across the skies. The second theory posited for the year of Christ''s birth is about 7BC. Scholars have argued that there was a brilliant conjunction of two planets in the year 7BC, that of Saturn and Jupiter. The proximity of these two planets resulted in an effulgence of strong light which, some scholars believe could have been the brilliant star seen by the magi. The last, and perhaps most plausible theory is that the birth of Christ took place between 5-2BC during which an unusual astronomical phenomenon took place. In those years, on the first day of the Egyptian month of Mesori, a star by the name of Sirius rose heliacally at sunrise and shone with extraordinary brilliance. Now, Mesori means the birth of a prince and such a star could have undoubtedly meant the birth of some great king.
From the above, all that can be said is that the birth of Christ was introduced into the ecclesiastical calendar on the 25th December in the third century - a relatively late date. In the first centuries the Church concentrated on Epiphany, where it celebrated the glorious manifestation of the Lord and His birth. By the fifth century Christmas and Epiphany became two distinct feasts. In the East, the Armenians alone have never accepted the feast on December 25th, and still keep Epiphany as the Lord’s birth.
However what is important in all the above is not whether the exact day and year of Christ''s birth is known but, quintessentially more important is the importance of this event. All people, whether they affirm the importance of the Christian meaning of Christmas or not would still agree that it is an event that is celebrated. The fact that Christmas is celebrated by all, irregardless of their religious background is already an indication of its festive and joyous meaning. During the Christmas season, all would agree that there is a different feel in the air and an entirely different attitude between people. Even those who may not know what is celebrated during Christmas, still would affirm that it is a joyous period of the year. During this time, most people seem to take off their defense barriers and human masks, which the cares of daily life may have enforced upon them and there is a spontaneity in their faces just like those of children. So from this detail alone, we would have to accept that something so significant must have taken place 2000 years ago that is still remembered and celebrated today. Just like all countries have national days on which is celebrated some joyous event, like their independence from a ruling regime, so too the Church remembers and celebrates the most remarkable event in the history of humankind – the birth of God into the world.
The meaning of Christmas is summed up in a single verse in the Bible.
"She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (Mt 1:21).
In Hebrew the name of Jesus is Yeshua, and that means "God saves" or "God is salvation". Therefore the birth of Christ commemorates not simply the birth of a religious genius or an inspired prophet but the Lord and Savior of life. The meaning of Christmas is summed up in Christ''s coming into the world as God, taking on our human form so that we could take on the form of God. Christ came, and as the second Adam recapitulated or reconciled life and history into an intimate relationship between Creator and creature, between eternity and time. Christ took on our bodies which decay and grow old day by day and through the body conquered death. Therefore in essence Christmas is the message about God''s victory over death and His gift of eternal life to the entire created order.
Mr. Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew''s Greek Orthodox Theological College