Saturday, December 24, 2016

Celebrating Christ on Christmas




I grew up enjoying Christmas with family, special foods, and visits from Santa, and now my family also enjoys celebrating the birth of Christ on this day. For me, the beauty of the incarnation is that, as Mary held God in her arms, we can know God dearly, too. This is the beginning of our salvation. Earlier this year, I wrote about the Christian origins of Easter, and I thought I'd do the same for Christmas. I've put together a brief list of Christmas facts and some of their origins. I'm not a historian, but I offer my sources.

1. "Christmas" or "The Nativity According to the Flesh..."
Most people know that the word "Christmas" is a shortened form of "Christ's Mass" from the Latin. The name of this feast in the Eastern Orthodox Church is officially "The Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ." Admittedly, this is quite a mouthful, and it is casually called "Nativity" or "Christmas" by most American Orthodox Christians I know. Still, the name points to the theological importance of the feast: Christ, who was God before the ages, was born as a child for our sake, as proclaimed in the kontakion of the feast.

I love Christmas carols, byzantine hymns included! You can hear the 
rich theology in the English (1:10) which is so beautifully chanted.

2. Why We Have Religious Holidays 
Jewish Christians initially kept the Jewish calendar of feasts (see, for example, Acts 12:3, 20:16, 27:9). The Jewish Passover was clearly imbued with new meaning in Christ's resurrection (I Cor. 5:7), and became a distinctly Christian feast by the 2nd century. At the same time, during the persecutions of the early church, local communities commemorated the martyrs with celebrations on the anniversary of their death. The remembrance of these holy days were the beginning of the liturgical calendar, which developed somewhat organically as the church deemed what was instructive and beneficial to the ongoing life of the church. During the 4th century, with the legalization of Christianity, feasts celebrating occasions in the earthly life of Christ became popular especially on the actual or supposed historical sites of the events, and this is when the feast of the Nativity arose. Source

The liturgical calendar is like the most beautiful church school curriculum, worship plan, and memorial service combined. In the course of a year, the average liturgical Christian will learn theology by singing the hymns of the feasts; she will hear how the Old Testament is fulfilled by Christ through the scripture readings; see the many ways that the light of Christ can be shown in our lives by hearing the lives of the saints; and she will grow in understanding of all of Christ's saving work through his incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection. More on the Orthodox liturgical calendar, and a cool infographic.



3. December 25th
Remember the calendar is primarily liturgical, even though it is rooted in historical events, so it doesn't mean that Christ was actually born on December 25th. The early church initially celebrated the feast of Theophany, or God's revelation of himself to us on January 6th. Later, the various aspects of God's self-revelation were separated into two feasts. Theophany, celebrating the public manifestation of the Trinity at Christ's baptism, remained on January 6th, and Christ's humble and hidden birth was celebrated on December 25th.

One theory is that the date was chosen to replace the pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun as an opportunity to introduce pagans to the true Son, or else to use the winter solstice as a reference to Christ. The hymns illustrate this beautifully, "For by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a Star to adore You, The Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!" (Source) Christmas lights are similarly reminders of Christ, the true light.

A second reason for this date is that it is exactly 9 months from the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th. This feast was celebrated very early, and its date was chosen in relation to the date of Christ's death because of the ancient concept of "integral age." Both reasons are theological in nature, not necessarily historical, and show the church finding ways to redeem the time. (Source)

Many Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar which differs by 13 days. So, they celebrate the Nativity on January 7th, but the reasoning is the same.


The Gospel Reading during the Liturgy for the  Nativity 

4. Christmas Services

Since Christmas began as the celebration of Christ's birth, it began as a church service. In the Orthodox Church, Christmas services are modeled after the services of Pascha, because we understand Christ's death and resurrection to be the cause of all things. (Orthodoxwiki) Like Pascha, we begin the season with a 40 day fast (often called Advent), and end it with an evening vigil and feast. (Western Christians have a shorter Advent beginning on December 1st.) Advent is also full of fun activities that prepare us for the coming of Christ like gift-making, almsgiving, keeping a Jesse Tree, or preparing a manger or nativity scene for Christ. (I really really love this season, so you'll find lots of stuff here under the Nativity-related tags.)

At our parish, the Christmas vigil is late at night on Christmas Eve followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy. The timing means that we are sharing in the Eucharist around midnight, welcoming Christ's birth. This makes a long, but joyful, service as we sing the canon, "Christ is born, glorify him!" and children fall asleep on the floor.  We break the fast together at church with sausage balls, spanakopita, chocolate, and other foods we've been missing, then hurry on to bed. When everyone wakes up the next morning, we enjoy the usual presents and time with family, and we rejoice to find the baby Christ in the manger.

baby not-sleeping during the Nativity vigil

5. The 12 Days of Christmas
While most Americans start celebrating Christmas sometime in November (or before), Orthodox Christians fast to prepare for this feast. But, not to worry, when the feast arrives, we celebrate for 12 days! Since Christmas and Theophany were linked from the beginning, the 12 days between them became the festal period, full of caroling, food, and decorations. So you don't have to take your tree down until January 6! (Fr. Andrew has a more detailed and humorous take on the length of Christmas here.)

Christopsomo!

6. St. Nicholas and Stockings
I've written about St. Nicholas many times before, so I'll be brief now. Because this great saint is remembered during Advent, he became associated with Christmas. He is known for his generosity, especially in the story of St. Nicholas tossing gold coins through the window into stockings of three poor maidens. Orthodox families incorporate St. Nicholas (or Santa) into their celebrations in many different ways, but the Church remembers him liturgically on December 6. Its worth learning about this historical saint and incorporating his feast day into your celebrations!

St. Nicholas is our church's patron, so we have a big festival every year!


So, don't worry about the historical accuracy of the December 25th; you can keep celebrating into January; and yes, Virginia, there is a St. Nicholas. May your Christmas be filled with with anticipation, joy, and thanksgiving! Christ is born!

1 comment:

Emmie said...

Thank you for all of your wonderful posts and liturgical education. Many blessings to you during this Nativity season and for the New Year. Christ is Born!