Christmas is More Than You Realize

Denver Catholic Staff

Ah, Christmastime. The perfect occasion to come together with family  – either in-person in a non-pandemic world or over Zoom in its current state – and celebrate the birth of our savior with lots of prayer, fellowship, food and conversation.

That last one comes with a caveat, however: As long as the conversation isn’t about politics or religion, you’re safe. Well, we disagree. It’s more important than ever for Christians to make their voices heard in the public square, and we especially take issue with keeping our faith to ourselves, especially on such a central celebration as Christmas. What better time to explain to your skeptical Uncle Tom how there’s a lot more to the Christmas holiday than presents and eggnog?

We all have questions about Christmas. Where did it come from? What’s the history? Why is it when it is? So, we did some research to come up with answers — or, better yet, more questions — in response to some of the things your Uncle Tom thinks he already knows about Christmas.

Don’t be afraid of these conversations! Sometimes they happen because you’ll encounter someone who just wants to argue (the most likely scenario when around family). But we need to be bold and see these conversations as an opportunity to share our heart with someone else. Every single one of these conversations is a chance to engage someone in a meaningful conversation: about life, faith, Christmas, God, and even each other.

So don’t be afraid — keep the conversation going with your friends and family this Christmas season to help them see that the joy of this time of year truly is more than you realize.

What does “Christmas” even mean? 

The word “Christmas” is derived from the Middle English word Cristemasse, which comes from the Old English Cristes Maesse, a phrase which means “Christ’s Mass” and was first recorded in 1038.

Photo Flickr

Over time, it became easier for people to just say “Christmas.” And contrary to popular opinion, the even shorter version, Xmas, doesn’t take “Christ” out of Christmas — the “X” is actually the first letter of the Greek word for Christ (chi). Take that!

Isn’t Christmas just a stolen idea from the ancient pagan celebration of Sol Invictus or New Winter Solstice? 

Not quite. In fact, the earliest reference to Christmas being celebrated on December 25 was by Hippolytus of Rome in his Commentary on the Book of Daniel in 204 A.D., which predates any mention of a celebration honoring the pagan god Sol Invictus.

Photo Flickr

It’s also worth noting that December 25 falls at the time when the ancient world celebrated the winter solstice, which historically has been important for agricultural reasons and therefore an opportune time for different celebrations and rituals by many different peoples and cultures of the era. So, different celebrations around that time were common — no one stole or appropriated anything!

So, why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th?  

Way back in the 5th century, Pope Leo I established the Feast of the Nativity to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. Now, this didn’t “create” the Feast Day — we know that many Christians had been celebrating Christmas for centuries before this, too. Rather, just like the dogmas or teachings of the Church on the Eucharist or the Communion of Saints, for example, this was not the invention of a new teaching but the formal articulation of something that was believed from the beginning — in some cases even predating the Bible!

So, why did he settle on this date? It actually goes back to a celebration from even earlier in history: Anno Mundi, the traditional celebration of the Creation of the World. While the date of this celebration was different across many ancient calendars, March 25 emerged as the date of its celebration because of its proximity to the spring equinox. Early Christians also adopted March 25th as the date of the Annunciation, the day when an angel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus, the savior of the world. How are these dates connected? Because both dates celebrate events when God entered the world: first through the act of Creation and again through the Incarnation. So, nine months after the celebration of this glorious conception, we celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth on Dec. 25. And, once again, that date also aligns with the winter solstice, which marks the time when the days began to grow longer. How fitting that the birth of Christ, the Light coming into the world, coincides with this day of more light.

Wait, so was Jesus even born on December 25, 0 A.D.? 

There’s no way to empirically prove the exact year Jesus was really born. However, there are several curious facts surrounding the day of Dec. 25 that make a strong case that this day was indeed Jesus’ birthday. The first is the Star of Bethlehem, which modern-day astronomers have theorized to possibly be a series of extraordinary astronomical events — specifically, a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and the star Regulus, which they’ve dated to right around the time Jesus was supposed to have been born. The Wise Men — who really were ancient astrologers — would certainly have paid attention to events like these and followed them closely, right to a little town called Bethlehem! The second detail that helps us date Jesus’ birth accurately is census data. The nativity story in the Gospel of Luke opens with mention of a census taken by Quirinius, the governor of Syria at the time. Historical records verify that a widespread census indeed occurred in 6 A.D., thus adding another layer of historical truth to the story of Jesus’ birth.

Photo Pixabay

Last but not least, the consensus among the early Church Fathers seemed to be that Jesus was born sometime between 3 and 2 B.C. Further, the tradition maintained by several of the Church Fathers is that Jesus was indeed born on Dec. 25. As St. Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Commentary on Daniel 4:23:3, “the first advent of Our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was eight days before the Kalends of January, the fourth day [i.e., Wednesday] … .” The Kalends was the first day of the month, and eight days before January 1st is December 25th. So, while it’s hard to definitively know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, the evidence provided based on historical records and early Church tradition safely points to December 25th as the birthday of Christ. But keep in mind: The actual date he was born is a matter of history, not doctrine. What matters is that he was born!

Is it true that Christmas used to be illegal? 

Yes! Christianity itself was illegal across the Roman empire until the 4th century, and it wasn’t until the 6th century that Emperor Justinian declared Christmas to be a public holiday. But the history gets even crazier. In the United States, Puritans objected to the celebration of Christmas because they felt it to be too unbiblical and rooted in too much lewd partying.

Photo Flickr

Their disapproval went so far that Christmas was totally outlawed in Boston from 1659 until the ban was lifted in 1681. By the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the celebration of Christmas still was not widespread in the United States. As a matter of fact, even churches were closed during Christmas! Alabama was the first state to declare it a public holiday in 1836, and it wasn’t officially proclaimed a federal holiday until 1870. But today, the holiday is widespread and common — well over 85 percent of the U.S. population celebrates Christmas!

Where does Santa fit in? Also, who’s St. Nicholas and what’s his deal with shoes? 

Photo Pixabay

Santa Claus has been around for a while, but his popularity really increased in the first half of the 20th century, largely due to an ad campaign by Coca-Cola. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch Sinterklass, which translates to St. Nicholas, who was a fourth-century Bishop of Myra. He was born into a super wealthy family and used his inheritance to perform acts of charity. One story tells that he kept a widower from selling his three daughters into prostitution by tossing a bag with golden coins into their home one Christmas night. He did this for several more years, until the widower caught him and discovered it was Bishop Nicholas. Notice the similarities?

Photo Flickr

Oh, it’s also worth mentioning that there is a popular tradition that St. Nick punched a guy in the face at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Seriously, look it up. As for the shoe thing, what can we say — the dude had impeccable fashion sense.

We’ll leave you with a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, from his book Jesus of Nazareth:

Photo Flickr

“What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and the lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.”

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!