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.

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: Denver’s first Catholic classical high school opens under patronage of Our Lady of Victory

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Nearly half a millennium ago, thousands of Catholics heeded Pope Pius V’s call to pray the Rosary requesting Our Lady’s intercession for the deliverance of Europe from Turkish invasion.

In a miraculous triumph, at what came to be known as the “Battle of Lepanto,” the outnumbered Christian “Holy League” overcame the Turkish forces, winning Our Lady of the Rosary a new advocation: Our Lady of Victory.

Today, Denver’s new and first Catholic classical high school has chosen Our Lady of Victory as its patroness, with the mission of developing the whole person and forming students who are holy, well-educated and prepared to engage the present culture and contribute to society.

Our Lady of Victory High School is part of the Chesterton Schools Network, which encourages parent-led Catholic schools across the nation, inspired by the life and work of G.K. Chesterton, who wrote a poem about the victory at Lepanto.

Although the school is not an archdiocesan high school, it has been officially recognized by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila as a Catholic school. This fall’s inaugural 9th grade class will launch at the St. Louis Parish School building in Denver with nearly 20 students.

“Chesterton’s model of joyful Catholicism draws upon the classical tradition but is very evangelical: It engages the culture with a joyful approach to being Catholic… rather than a reactionary one,” said Dr. R. Jared Staudt, President of the school, Director of Formation at the Archdiocese of Denver and Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute. “We want to form saints to go out and do great things for the Lord within our culture.”

The classical education approach highlights the trivium (logic, grammar and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).

“We emphasize Socratic dialogue as well as the trivium: how to read texts carefully and understand them through grammar, how to think about them in a coherent manner through logic, and then how to express yourself well in writing and speech through rhetoric; but also the quadrivium: How do we understand the logical order and beauty of the universe?” Dr. Staudt explained.

The benefits of this type of education are many, he assured.

“It’s not just a practical output, but about forming strong dispositions of thinking, of being able to evaluate things, being able to form a plan of action for your life that will translate into being successful in the future.

“It’s about becoming the person that God wants us to become… We emphasize the fundamental things that shape who we are, so that, secondarily, we are also good at doing things,” Dr. Staudt said.

Part of what makes this goal possible is the communion between faith and reason. Students begin the school day with daily Mass; read Homer, Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dostoevsky, G.K. Chesterton, etc.; and study the Bible and the Catechism. They participate in a curriculum where history, philosophy, literature and theology are “braided together,” as their website states.

Part of what makes it unique is also its approach to the fine arts and to mathematics and science.

“We emphasize the fine arts because we want the students to be engaged with beauty and wonder… We want to humanize them, to make them more fully alive,” Dr. Staudt said.

“I would say we also approach math and science from that perspective. We take math and science very seriously, but not as something dry and textbook based, but something that is engaging the beauty, the logic, the wonder of the universe, and the fact that we can logically understand [it] because it is itself something that is a creative work of a mind, of God’s mind, and his beauty is impressed within it.”

As part of this approach, the school has implemented in its unique formation a lot of time in the outdoors, beginning the year with a three-day backpacking trip with the students and ending with a whitewater rafting trip.
The school also plans on having retreats throughout the year, attending and hosting fine arts events and providing service opportunities for its students.

“I think that’s truly part of what makes us unique, that we want to develop the whole person: body, mind and soul,” Dr. Staudt explained.

“It’s about becoming the person that God wants us to become… We emphasize the fundamental things that shape who we are, so that, secondarily, we are also good at doing things.”

The seed for the foundations of the school began with the desire of a group of Denver Catholic parents for a holistic, classical formation for their children, also motived by the need for a Catholic high school in the South Denver metro area.

Hoping to open a Catholic classical high school for their children in the future, six dads organized a series of monthly talks titled “The First Educators” at St. Mary Parish in Littleton from September to November 2018 as a first step to help in this direction.

Little did they know that their dream would become reality only a few months later, with the help of Dr. Staudt, the Chesterton Schools Network and the support of other parents around the archdiocese.

With six experienced teachers on board, the mission-driven school is set to begin forming students in the classical tradition.

“We want them to be holy. I would say that is our biggest overarching goal, that we want to form saints in the sense that they are thinking people who are well-educated and well prepared to engage the world and make a contribution in society – but [in a way] that holiness integrates everything else that we do,” Dr. Staudt concluded.

For more information, visit ourladyofvictorydenver.com.