Q: Does the Bible tell us the day and hour of Christ’s birth? Was December 25 the actual date? And was the time of birth at midnight?
A: The 25 December date for Christmas is the Church’s liturgical date. The precise historical date is not known. Scholars who study the dating of Christmas suggest that one reason for the 25 December date has to do with the festivities with which the ancient pagans celebrated the Festival of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), marking the Winter Solstice.
(The ancients apparently failed to comprehend the reason for the winter solstice, attributing it to a pagan god who annually reversed the difficult season of winter, allowing the first signs of springtime to appear. Among their superstitions was the belief that seasonal changes were caused by various pagan deities.)
A caution needs to be observed here, however: Christmas on 25 December is not just a "canonized" Catholic festival, or just a re-designation of a popular pagan festival. As Father Francis X. Weiser warns in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (1952), the early Christians "were keenly aware of the difference between the two festivals – one pagan and one Christian – on the same day. The coincidence in the date, even if intended, does not make the two celebrations identical."
Christian writers of the Church at the time testify to this; e.g., Tertullian and St. Augustine. (Father Weiser’s book is especially helpful here; I generally rely on his scholarship.)
As for the midnight hour, traditionally linked to Christ’s Nativity, historical data are lacking. Centuries ago, however, a text from the Book of Wisdom (18:14-15) was associated with Christmas. The text reads (in one translation): "For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, The Almighty Word leapt down from heaven…"
Evidently the first reference to the Midnight Mass reflected the papal custom of celebrating the Eucharist at Rome’s St. Mary Major, the principal Marian church of our faith. Documentation for this dates back at least to the 400s, just after the Church emerged from the catacombs. Pope Sixtus III built an oratory with a manger there. Originally, it seems, the Midnight Mass followed upon a Christmas vigil.
Q: Are Christmas carols hymns or simply songs marking the season?
A: Carols are essentially popular hymns – like compositions, usually less solemn than approved hymns, but definitely of a sacred character, focusing on Jesus’ birth, mostly in the vernacular. The word "carol" derives from a Greek expression describing dancing to the flute – a popular practice among the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Carols in the contemporary sense, according to Father Francis X. Weiser, were born and cradled in Italy. St. Francis of Assisi probably did more than anyone else in their multiplication and international popularity. From Italy they found their way to Spain and France – and then throughout Europe. English carols became more and more popular owing to Charles Wesley and the Methodist revival during the 18th century. (It has occurred to me more than once that caroling could be a rich starting place for ecumenical prayer or activities.)
Q: What is the oldest American carol?
A: For North America, probably the first carol was the native American Huron carol, Jesous Ahatonnia ("Jesus is Born"), whose text was composed by a sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary to the Quebec missions, Father Jean de Brébeuf (1649), who died a martyr and is now canonized.