Christmas is More Than You Realize

Denver Catholic Staff

Ah, Christmastime. The perfect occasion to come together with family 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. While we tend to agree about the politics bit, we 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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? 

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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?

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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:

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“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: The Pell case: Developments down under

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In three weeks, a panel of senior judges will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of the unjust verdict rendered against him at his retrial in March, when he was convicted of “historical sexual abuse.” That conviction did not come close to meeting the criterion of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is fundamental to criminal law in any rightly-ordered society. The prosecution offered no corroborating evidence sustaining the complainant’s charge. The defense demolished the prosecution’s case, as witness after witness testified that the alleged abuse simply could not have happened under the circumstances charged — in a busy cathedral after Mass, in a secured space.

Yet the jury, which may have ignored instructions from the trial judge as to how evidence should be construed, returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. At the cardinal’s sentencing, the trial judge never once said that he agreed with the jury’s verdict; he did say, multiple times, that he was simply doing what the law required him to do. Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be just as devastating to the prosecution’s case as was his defense at both his first trial (which ended with a hung jury, believed to have favored acquittal) and the retrial. What friends of the cardinal, friends of Australia, and friends of justice must hope is that the appellate judges will get right what the retrial jury manifestly got wrong.

That will not be easy, for the appellate judges will have been subjected to the same public and media hysteria over Cardinal Pell that was indisputably a factor in his conviction on charges demonstrated to be, literally, incredible. Those appellate judges will also know, however, that the reputation of the Australian criminal justice system is at stake in this appeal. And it may be hoped that those judges will display the courage and grit in the face of incoming fire that the rest of the Anglosphere has associated with “Australia” since the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

In jail for two months now, the cardinal has displayed a remarkable equanimity and good cheer that can only come from a clear conscience. The Melbourne Assessment Prison allows its distinguished prisoner few visitors, beyond his legal team; but those who have gone to the prison intending to cheer up a friend have, in correspondence with me, testified to having found themselves cheered and consoled by Cardinal Pell — a man whose spiritual life was deeply influenced by the examples of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More during Henry VIII’s persecution of the Church in 16th-century England. The impact of over a half-century of reflection on those epic figures is now being displayed to Cardinal Pell’s visitors and jailers, during what he describes as his extended “retreat.”

Around the world, and in Australia itself, calmer spirits than those baying for George Pell’s blood (and behaving precisely like the deranged French bigots who cheered when the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to a living death on Devil’s Island) have surfaced new oddities — to put it gently — surrounding the Pell Case.

How is it, for example, that the complainant’s description of the sexual assault he alleges Cardinal Pell committed bears a striking resemblance — to put it gently, again — to an incident of clerical sexual abuse described in Rolling Stone in 2011? How is it that edited transcripts of a post-conviction phone conversation between the cardinal and his cathedral master of ceremonies (who had testified to the sheer physical impossibility of the charges against Pell being true) got into the hands (and thence into the newspaper writing) of a reporter with a history of anti-Pell bias and polemic? What is the web of relationships among the virulently anti-Pell sectors of the Australian media, the police in the state of Victoria, and senior Australian political figures with longstanding grievances against the politically incorrect George Pell? What is the relationship between the local Get Pell gang and those with much to lose from his efforts to clean up the Vatican’s finances?

And what is the state of serious investigative journalism in Australia, when these matters are only investigated by small-circulation journals and independent researchers?

An “unsafe” verdict in Australia is one a jury could not rationally have reached. Friends of truth must hope that the appellate judges, tuning out the mob, will begin to restore safety and rationality to public life Down Under in June.

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images