Did you know this about Christmas?

Denver Catholic Staff

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 common misconceptions about the most wonderful time of the year.

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.

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).

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.

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 25?

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 were actually 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.

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.

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!

Keep the conversation going with your friends and family this Christmas season. Who knows? You — and they — might learn something new.

COMING UP: Church and state partner to carry out corporal works of mercy during pandemic and beyond

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In times of great need and crisis, we find strength in unity and collaboration, and amid the coronavirus pandemic, this truth remains within the Archdiocese of Denver.

For many years, the Archdiocese of Denver and local Colorado government officials have found ways to work together toward common goals and better serve the people of Colorado, which often includes carrying out corporal works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. And through the COVID-19 pandemic, these partnerships continue to be a crucial part of Colorado’s and the Church’s response to those in need.

The City of Denver and the Archdiocese of Denver have a history of partnering to support people in need. During the pandemic, Mayor Michael B. Hancock and his administration have worked with the archdiocese to safeguard the homeless population and extend testing for COVID-19 to communities at higher risk of struggling with the virus.

“These types of true collaborative relationships really make the difference because you can call on your partners [and] you have established relationships that are built on trust and built on true engagement and true focus on a mutually agreed upon mission,” Mayor Hancock told the Denver Catholic. “Catholic Charities and the archdiocese have been just tremendous partners over the years with us.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver told the Denver Catholic that “the Catholic Church is motivated to care for the poor and needy by Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us.

“The coronavirus pandemic,” he added, “has highlighted this important work and underscored the essential role the Catholic Church plays in fostering a society that upholds the God-given dignity of every person.

“It has been a blessing to be able to work with the City of Denver over many years to serve these vulnerable populations.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and the Archdiocese of Denver have partnered with Mayor Michael Hancock and the City of Denver in the past to better serve people in need, and they’ve continued those collaborative efforts through the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Catholic Charities)

Recently, on July 10 and July 23, Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver hosted events in partnership with Ascension Catholic Parish in Montbello to provide testing for COVID-19 and a mobile food pantry to the local community.

“We have been looking for opportunities to be in the communities, to do the testing, to meet people where they are. And we recognize that Latinos and African-Americans in particular have been most vulnerable to this virus,” Mayor Hancock said. “We needed to really just make sure we took the opportunities for testing to those communities.”

Then, on Aug. 6, Ascension hosted another event in collaboration with the City of Denver where the mayor’s office gave away free backpacks with school supplies, healthy food baskets, baby products, feminine hygiene products and more.

“I am very thankful for Mayor Hancock’s collaboration to help the people of Montbello,” said Father Dan Norick, pastor of Ascension Parish. “I also thank God for the people in Montbello who are caring for each other in these difficult times. May Jesus be praised!”

Mayor Hancock said that hosting these events at Ascension Parish made sense because of the established relationship the City of Denver and the Archdiocese of Denver have developed over the years.

“When you’re looking for who you partner with during these opportunities, you turn to who’s most familiar with you and who you’ve had a trusting collaboration with,” he said. “And it just so happens the archdiocese and the parish there have been the ones that we’ve worked with over the years. So it was very natural. It’s a place where people are familiar and a place they trust.”

It’s not only during the pandemic that this partnership has been fruitful, though. A strong partnership between Samaritan House and the city has existed for quite some time, and this relationship has borne much fruit over the years. Samaritan House strives to be more than a just a homeless shelter, providing education, life skills classes and one-on-one support for its residents to empower them to break free from the cycle of poverty and support themselves independently.

In August 2017, the City of Denver and Catholic Charities of Denver cut the ribbon on the first all-women’s shelter in the city. Called Samaritan House Women’s Shelter, it follows Samaritan House’s established model of helping those experiencing hard times find a way out of poverty and ultimately, bring hope to their lives. Each night, it offers 225 beds for women who are in need of immediate shelter.

Back in April, Catholic Charities teamed up with the City of Denver and took the lead on an auxiliary women’s shelter set up at the Denver Coliseum. (Photo by Catholic Charities)

Back in April, in response to the pandemic and out of a need to maintain social distancing protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the City of Denver and Catholic Charities of Denver partnered to set up the Denver Coliseum as a 24/7 auxiliary emergency women’s shelter that’s that was able to accommodate up to 300 women. Catholic Charities staff took the lead at the shelter with full support from the City of Denver. The auxiliary shelter has since returned to the regular women’s shelter facility, but this collaboration between the city and Catholic Charities was crucial as cases of COVID-19 climbed in April.

“When the pandemic hit, Catholic Charities had to find a way to social distance the ladies in its Women’s Emergency Shelter,” said Mike Sinnett, Vice President of Shelters and Community Outreach. “We also had to provide them 24/7 care to honor the governor’s Stay-at-Home order and triage for the virus. Working with the City of Denver staff, we came together as a shelter community and obtained the use of the Denver Coliseum downtown. We were able to better provide social distancing, 24/7 shelter with three meals a day and other amenities, including showers and case management.

“We believe this effort with the city protected our most vulnerable community and helped prevent the spread of the virus. But more importantly, we made it safer for women experiencing homelessness during this pandemic.”

Featured image: Father Dan Norick hands out supplies during a community giveaway event hosted at Ascension Catholic Parish in Montbello in conjunction with the City of Denver. (Photo provided)