The earliest observance of Christmas was in the Fourth Century C.E.
The idea of celebrating the Nativity on December 25 was first suggested early in the fourth century, a clever move on the part of the Church fathers, who wished to eclipse the December 25 festivities of a rival pagan religion, Mithraism, that threatens the existence of Christianity.
It is important to note that for two centuries after Christ’s birth, no one knew, and few people cared, exactly when he was born. Birthdays were unimportant; death days counted. Besides, Christ was divine and his natural birth was deliberately played down. In fact, the Church even announced at one point that it was sinful to contemplate observing Christ’s birthday “as though He were a King Pharaoh.” [Origen]
On December 24, pagan Romans, still in the majority, celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “Birthday of the Invincible Sun God,” Mithras. The Mithras cult originated in Persia and rooted itself in the Roman world in the first century B.C.E. By the year 274 C.E., Mithraism was so popular with the masses that Emperor Aurelian proclaimed it the official religion. In the early 300s, the cult seriously threatened Christianity, and for a time, it was unclear which faith would emerge victorious.
Church fathers debated their options.
It is well known that Roman patricians and plebeians alike enjoyed festivals of a protracted nature. The Church, then, needed a December celebration.
Thus, to offer converts an occasion in which to be pridefully celebratory, the Church officially recognized Christ’s birth. And to offer head-on competition to the sun worshipper’s popular feast, the Church located the Nativity on December 25. The mode of observance would be characteristically prayerful: a Mass; in fact, Christ’s Mass. As one theologian wrote in the 320s: “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.” [St. Augustine] Although centuries later, social scientists would write of the psychological power of group celebrations – the unification of ranks, the solidification of collective identity, the reinforcement of common objectives – the principle had long been intuitively obvious.
The celebration of Christmas took permanent hold in the Western world in 337, when the Roman emperor Constantine was baptized, uniting for the first time the Crown and the Church. Christianity had become the official state religion in 313. And in 354, Bishop Liberius of Rome reiterated the importance of celebrating not only Christ’s death but also his birth.
Saint Francis of Assisi popularized the Christmas crib or crèche in his celebration of the Nativity in Greccio, Italy, in 1223. Francis used wooden figures of Mary, Joseph, the infant, sheep and shepherds, starting a tradition still popular to this day.
The period of time leading up to Christmas – from the Sunday nearest November 30 until Christmas Eve – is known as Advent, Latin adventus, “coming,” and was first celebrated in the late fourth century. At one time, Advent was observed by strict fasting, prayer, and meditation, but now it must compete with Christmas parties and shopping.
Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World’s Religions by Charles Panati
Images: Nativity by Gustave Dore, Mithras (Louvre Museum)