Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNQ. Would you please answer some Christmas questions? First, how do we know that Christ was born on the 25th of December? Where is the Biblical text designating the date?

A. The traditional date for Christmas, 25 December, is described as the liturgical date; the historical date is unknown. (It could have been 25 December.) The Church chose 25 December as early as the fourth century (c. 330 A.D.). The fourth century marked the end of the Great Persecutions. (In the East, however, adoption of 25 December was somewhat delayed, as Christ’s Birth was celebrated within the context of Epiphany, recognized from the start as a very sacred Solemnity.)

Why, however, was 25 December selected as the Nativity date? Why not 25 June or 25 January – or any other time? No reason has yet been discovered for choosing 25 December for the liturgical celebration – a date widely preferred even by great Churchmen such as St. John Chrysostom. It was argued by many that the Messianic prophecy referring to Christ as the "Sun of Justice" (Malachi 4:2) suggested that Christmas occurred at the time of the winter solstice. Another theory argued that because the Romans observed 25 December as the "Birthday of the Sun," Christians might be inspired to redirect their celebrations with Christ, "The Light of the World," in mind.

However, it is absolutely incorrect even to hint that the Christmas observance was "borrowed" from a pagan festival. Early Church theologians such as Tertullian (third century), St. Augustine (430) and Pope Leo I (461) strongly cautioned the faithful in this regard.

Christmas was introduced to Ireland by St. Patrick (461), to England by St. Augustine of Canterbury (604), to Scandinavia by St. Ansgar (865), to the Slavic nations by SS. Cyril and Methodius (869, 885), to Hungary by St. Adalbert (997), to German lands (prior to 813); etc. Europe in general had accepted the Feast and the date by about 1000 A.D.

After the Protestant Reformation, of course, Christmas was downgraded or suppressed. In England, the Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas; in 1644, Christmas was designated as a day of fasting. In 1645, a two-year campaign began to eradicate the Feast. In 1647, riots occurred in parts of England by crowds who demanded Christmas back again.

These efforts to ban the Feast only made Christians more resolute in celebrating it. Eventually, however, the Feast of Christmas all but disappeared until it was revived in England in 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy. But the Feast had lost most of its soul; hence, in England, it was characterized by songs (not carols), plum pudding, goose, mince pie, roast beef, etc. The "good will" of the "revived" Christmas celebration hardly surpassed that described by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. But some solid caroling did reoccur – Charles Wesley’s "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is an example.

In Germany, the Lutheran tradition was so strong that the "soul" of Christmas was not forgotten. Thus, the Germans kept the Christmas tree and some solid carols and, thank God, devotion to the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary. Martin Luther gave us the carol, Vom Himmel Kam der Engel Schar. "Away in a Manger" is attributed to him although the attribution is debated.

(Most of this article relies on the scholarship of Father Francis X. Weiser, in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1952. I have long depended on this work for Christmas issues.)