Q. How ancient is the liturgical celebration of three different Masses on Christmas? And how ancient, too, is the placement of the Crèche in our churches for the Christmas season?
A. The liturgy of the three Masses on Christmas day can be traced back to Saint Gregory the Great, at least. (His death occurred in 604 A.D.) In a sermon he preached on Jesus’ Nativity (Homily #8 on the Gospels), he explicitly referred to these three Christmas Masses: (1) Mass at night; (2) Mass at dawn; and (3) Mass during the day. These Christmas Masses, originally Papal Masses, currently appear in the latest Roman Sacramentary, under these headings: (1) Mass at Midnight; (2) Mass at Dawn; and (3) Mass during the Day. In addition, however, there is now a special Vigil Mass for 24 December, on Christmas Eve.
Hence, today there are actually four Masses of Christmas, each with its special Proper prayers and Scripture readings, arranged in the usual three-year cycle (A, B and C). A helpful rubric prior to the Vigil Mass allows the use of readings from the other three Christmas liturgies in accordance with the pastoral needs of each congregation.
Christmas as a special Feast is listed for the first time in 354 within a document known as the Depositio martyrum; such is the scholarly opinion of the world-class liturgist, Aimé Georges Martimort. (The Church at Prayer, 3 volumes, Vol. 3)
According to Martimort, this first mention of Christmas in a Church calendar reads in translation from the Latin: "December 25: Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea." Since the origins of this first reference to Christmas date from 336, shortly after the Roman Church emerged from the catacombs, Christmas celebrations in Rome can be traced back to 330. This means that it was observed during the period of the building of the Emperor Constantine’s Basilica over the site of St. Peter’s Grave.
Historical sources also attest that 25 December was chosen by the Church as the liturgical date for Christmas because 25 December happened to be, in the secular calendar, the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" (based superstitiously on the winter solstice, when the darkness of each day begins again to recede before the light). This pagan annual festival, known in Latin as Sol invictus (literally: "the unconquered sun"), was a major observance. Since Christ was foretold as the "Sun of Justice" (Mal 4:2) and is called the "Light of the World" (Jn 8:12), the 25 December date for marking Christ’s birth was an obvious choice.
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As regards the Crèche (a word that describes not only the cave but also the manger of Christ’s birth), it was already a pilgrimage site prior to the Roman Church’s emergence from the catacombs. The great – incomparably great – Church Father, Origen, wrote about it as early as 248: "at Bethlehem they point out the cave in which Jesus was born and, in the cave, the manger in which he lay swaddled." (Contra Celsum, I, 51)
In other words, Christ’s birthplace is accurately described as semi-troglodytic. Saint Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, renovated the area surrounding the grotto and even raised a Basilica over it. (This renovation, with a few differences, perdures to the present day.) Saint Jerome (d. 420), in a Christmas homily, notes that the clay manger had been transformed into a silver one. Martimort provides this sentence from Jerome’s text: "It is far less precious to me than the one he removed; I do not condemn those who thought to pay homage in this manner, but my wonder is at the Lord, the Creator of the world, who willed to be born not in silver or gold but in clay." (Homilia de Navititate Domini) Incidentally, the cave of Bethlehem may have been fashioned and used, hundreds of years earlier, by King David’s horsemen.
Next in importance to the Crèche in Bethlehem is the one in Rome, at the world’s principal Marian Church, known as St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore). This Crèche dates from the sixth century; and relics of wood, said to be from the original in Bethlehem, were enshrined there in about the 12th century.
The Crèches in or outside our churches today resulted from the medieval liturgical plays performed at Christmastime in abbeys and cathedrals. However, it was Saint Francis of Assisi, a permanent deacon, who gave us today’s Crèche, replete with straw, sheep and ox. Francis preached at the Midnight Mass at Greccio in 1223; beneath the church altar, he stationed – with Papal permission – a live ox and donkey. Following Francis’ example, the Franciscan friars introduced, at least, the representations of the animals with the Christmas crib scene.