All About Christmas and the Christmas Season
Christmas Definition and Meaning
Christmas, also known as the Nativity, means "Christ Mass." The feast celebrates the birth and incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on December 25. Christmastide is another name for the Christmas season, which extends from Christmas Eve until the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which falls in January.
Prayers: Christmas Prayers
Liturgical Color(s): White
Type of Holiday: Solemnity; Holy day of obligation; Liturgical season
Time of Year: December 25 until the Baptism of Our Lord (Sunday after January 6)
Duration: Christmas: one day; Christmastide: varies by year, see above
Celebrates/Symbolizes: The Incarnation, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ
Alternate Names: Feast of the Nativity
Scriptural References: Luke 2:1-20, Matthew 1:18-24, John 1:1-18.
In Western Society, Christmas conjures up many images: Santa Claus, stockings, presents, the Christmas Tree, greenery, lights, snow, and much more. While these images bring joy to many, they are peripherally connected to the original celebration. Modern Western society, and some versions of Christianity, have taken Christmas outside of its place within the Church year, where it follows the expectant season of Advent. Liturgically (i.e. within the Church Year), Christmas does not even begin until December 25, although according to major retailers, the Christmas season practically starts before Halloween.
So, what is the original meaning of Christmas? Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, as a baby in Bethlehem, within time and history. While many Christians recognize Christmas as a celebration of Jesus' birth, the solemnity is also a festival of his Incarnation, that is, God becoming human in the person of Jesus. Outside of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and a few others, the idea of Christmas as a season has nearly disappeared.
The term itself is an abbreviation of the phrase "Christ mass," which reflects the primary understanding of Christmas as a feast day within the Church year, connected to the Eucharist.
Christmastide is the name given for the time surrounding Christmas Day. In the current Catholic calendar, Christmastide lasts from Christmas Day until the Baptism of our Lord, which is the Sunday following January 6. This time includes many other important Christian Holy Days. The 12 days of Christmas, the time from December 25 until the Epiphany (January 6), have often been recognized as a time for special feasting. In fact, Christmastide used to refer only to the 12 Days of Christmas, and some still use "Christmastide" to refer to this period. In the past, the season of Christmas lasted from Christmas until Candlemas, and accompanying superstitions developed, e.g. that there was bad luck ahead for those who left Christmas decorations up after Candlemas. The octave of Christmas lasts from December 25 until January 1, which is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Of note, Christmas falls exactly nine months after the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast day commemorating Jesus' conception.
Even though the Bible does not record a specific celebration of a feast of Christ's birth, the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke form the basis of the Christmas celebration. Thus, the history of Christmas ultimately goes back to the birth of Jesus Christ around 4 BC. At least by the time of Matthew and Luke's Gospels, Christians began to reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ and its significance. A few of the early Church Fathers speculated about the birth of Jesus, but the actual liturgical celebration of Christmas cannot be fixed with certainty before the very early fourth century. Some scholars think that the celebration of Epiphany (originating in the East), which included the nativity and modern Christmastide themes, was celebrated much earlier (possibly late second century). The celebration of Christmas uniquely as the nativity of Jesus Christ, however, originated in the West, probably in North Africa. While various third century Church Fathers (including Saint Hippolytus of Rome and Sextus Julius Africanus) believed Jesus was born on December 25, the earliest surviving reference to December 25 as the liturgical celebration of Christmas is in the Philocalian calendar, which shows the Roman practice in AD 336.
The Apostolic Constitutions (c. AD 380) mandate the celebration of Christ's birth on December 25 and his Epiphany on January 6 (see Book V:III:XIII). The celebration of Christmas spread throughout the whole of the East and the West in the fourth century. By the fifth century, almost all of the Church was observing the Feast of the Nativity on December 25 and Epiphany on January 6, although some Christians still kept January 6 as a holy day that included the nativity. The West was slower to embrace Epiphany, but by the fifth century Rome included it as a feast. Today, in the Western Church, the season of Christmas (called Christmastide) includes Epiphany and the baptism of Jesus. Also, in the Catholic Church we remember and celebrate the divine Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, which falls on January 1.
Christmas was universally celebrated until the Reformation, but many Protestant reformers rejected Christmas. The English Puritans were particularly hostile to Christmas and went to lengths to suppress it. During the brief Calvinist reign in England, Parliament forbade the celebration of Christmas, even going so far as to force shops to be open. This attitude carried over into the Americas, where Christmas was outlawed or criminalized in Puritan states. For example, in Massachusetts, until the 1830s, anyone who missed school or work on December 25 was subject to a fine. During the earliest days of the United States, with the exception of Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, the religious and secular celebration of Christmas would have been quite rare. Even in the 21st century, many people, for a variety of reasons (all suspect from a Catholic viewpoint), reject the celebration of Christmas.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Christmas Prayers and Collects
Christmas Prayers of the Faithful I
The Troparion, Kontakion, and Canon of the Nativity
Eastern Hymns for the Pre-Feast of the Nativity
Traditions, Symbols, and Typology
Traditions and Customs Decorating buildings with greenery, Christmas carols, sending Christmas cards, feasting on the 12 Days of Christmas, Santa Claus/Father Christmas legends, Christmas plays, the creche/nativity scene, eating unique foods, Christmas lights/Christmas candles, Christmas trees, Christmas ornaments, various world customs
Symbols Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (the Holy Family), nativity scene, greenery, holly, ivy, mistletoe, bayberry, poinsettia, the star, hawthorne, angels, Santa Claus/Father Christmas (Saint Nicholas), various foods.
Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing Christmas Flowering of Aaron's Rod, Birth of Eve, Moses in the bulrushes
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are the 12 Days of Christmas? While different authorities and Churches seem to reckon the beginning and end of the "12 Days of Christmas" slightly differently, the "12 Days of Christmas" are a time of continued Christmas celebration running from Christmas until Epiphany. Contrary to popular assumptions, the 12 days do not begin before Christmas, but after. Some reckonings begin the period on Christmas Day itself, while others begin the "12 days" on Christmas night or December 26. Some reckonings end the 12 days on January 5, while others include Epiphany. Whatever the reckoning, since there has always been a strong historical connection between Christmas and Epiphany, it makes sense that these two major feasts would be connected by a period of celebration. The 12 days of Christmas are rather ancient, as the Second Council of Tours in 566 (or 567) proclaimed their importance.
2. Don't you know Jesus wasn't born on December 25? Actually there is a possibility that Jesus was born around December 25, and that His conception occurred in March. Ultimately, nobody knows, or can ever know, exactly when He was born. Some people use this doubt about the exact date to try to discredit Christmas. However, this attitude shows a profound misunderstanding of what Christmas is about. In the Church, Christmas is a feast of the Incarnation, a day set aside to celebrate and remember that God became man to save us from our sins and redeem the world. That God would become a little baby, born to a human mother, in our hostile world to deliver us from death and sin is quite a testament to His love. Christmas is about celebrating what happened – God became man out of love for us – not about when it happened.
3. Was December 25 chosen for pagan reasons? Many sources promote the idea that early Christians chose December 25 as Christmas day because this date coincided with a pagan feast. Thus, they say, Christmas is a "pagan" feast. However, the belief that Christians chose December 25 based on the date of a pagan festival is rooted in discredited 17th and 18th century scholarship. There is no clear understanding of how December 25 was chosen as the date of Christmas Day, but it is unlikely that it stemmed from a desire to "piggyback" on a pagan feast. For one thing, there are mentions of celebrations of Christ's birth around this date as far back as AD 200, and at that time the Church was not in the habit of borrowing dates or customs from pagan celebrations. A likelier explanation is that the date was chosen based on Jesus' conception: there was an ancient belief that prophets always died on the same day of the year as they were conceived. Around AD 200, it was widely believed that the crucifixion took place on the equivalent of March 25, which would have meant the date of His conception (the Feast of the Annunciation) would also be March 25. As December 25 falls nine months after March 25, it is logical that Jesus' birth would be celebrated on that date.
6. Aren't red and green Christmas colors?
7. Is Santa Christian?
"St. Nicholas of Myra" from the Catholic Encyclopedia
All About the Feast of the Holy Family
Calculating Christmas by William Tighe
This page written by Jonathan Bennett and David Bennett.
Updated 03-29-2023 by Elizabeth Craig