The Holy Catholic Church celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary as a fulfillment of the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecy, in which details of the nativity are found in the Gospel of Matthew, namely Matthew 1:18, and the Gospel of Luke, specifically Luke 1:26 and 2:40. But, what is Christmas in the first place and how did its celebration begin?
Christmas is a compound word originating in the term Christ’s Mass or Mass of Christ, which was derived from the Middle English Cristemasse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. Crīst (genitive Crīstes) is from Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), a translation of Hebrew Māšîaḥ (מָשִׁיחַ) or Messiah, meaning anointed; and mæsse from Latin missa, i.e. the celebration of the Eucharist. Also, Christmas would originate from the latin expression: Christus missus est (Christ was sent). It is based on the fact that God the Father sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem mankind from eternal damnation. It is the sending of God by God through God into flesh. In John 17:3, it reads: “Et in hoc consistit vitam aeternam — scire te solum verum Deum et quem Iesum CHRISTUM MISISTI.” Christum misisti in latin means Christ sent.
Furthermore, the theory that the celebration of Christmas day on December 25 originated from pagan festivities of Saturnalia, of Sol Invictus, and of Mithras remains historically unsupported and lies. Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17 to December 23; yet there was no any single historical reference from the early Christians to support its connection to Christmas. The cult of Sol Invictus was established on December 25, AD 274 by Emperor Aurelius but its connection to the Iranian Mithraism lies on the belief that Sol Invictus and Mithras were just same god in different manifestations. An explicit expression of this theory only appears in an annotation of uncertain date added to a manuscript of a work by 12th-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi, as written: “It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.” This idea became popular especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
However, the Christian celebration of Christmas pre-dates these pagan feasts. In fact, St. Hyppolytus of Rome, who explains in his Commentary on the book of Daniel (ca. AD 204 — earlier than AD 274 Sol Invictus) that the Lord’s birth was believed to have occurred on December 25th: “For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.” Note that his reference to Adam can be understood in light of his another writings, the Chronicon, where he explains that Jesus was born nine months after the anniversary of Creation. According to his calculations, the world was created on the vernal equinox, March 25, which would mean Jesus was born nine months later, on December 25. See? The identity of the Savior’s birth, Jesus Christ, on December 25th came first before the pagans had it for their non-existant gods.
The Chronography of AD 354 also contains early evidence of the celebration on December 25 of a Christian liturgical feast of the birth of Jesus in Rome, while in Eastern Christianity the birth of Jesus was already celebrated in connection with the Epiphany on January 6th, which absolutely refute the anti-Catholic claim that Christmas is paganic. If the Church enemies would claim that Christmas is of pagan origin because of its connection to December-25th date, then how would they connect the January-6th tradition of Christ’s birth to those pagan deities?
Accordingly, Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. AD 160-240), a Christian traveller and historian, gave March 25 as the day of creation and of the conception of Jesus. In his work Adversus Haereses, Irenaeus (ca. AD 130-202), bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, identified the conception of Jesus as March 25 and linked it to the crucifixion at the time of the equinox, with the birth of Jesus nine months after on December 25 at the time of the solstice. Around AD 200, Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.
March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation — the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.
This idea also appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.
An anonymous work known as De Pascha Computus (AD 243) also linked the idea that creation began at the spring equinox, on March 25, with the conception or birth of Jesus on March 28, the day of the creation of the sun in the Genesis account, as it reads: “O the splendid and divine providence of the Lord, that on that day, the very day, on which the sun was made, the 28 March, a Wednesday, Christ should be born. For this reason Malachi the prophet, speaking about him to the people, fittingly said, ‘Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise, and healing is in his wings.'”
St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, in his On the Trinity (ca. AD 399-419), also writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”
Consequently, Christmas was promoted in the Christian East as part of the revival of Catholicism following the death of the pro-Arian Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378. The feast was introduced to Constantinople in AD 379, and to Antioch in about AD 380. The feast disappeared after Gregory of Nazianzus resigned as bishop of Constantinople in AD 381, although it was reintroduced by John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, in about AD 400.
Pope Julius I (d. ca. AD 352), bishop of Rome, fixed the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th in response to the request by Cyril (AD 313-386), bishop of Jerusalem, to settle differences in the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord between the West and the East. All of Christendom accepted that decree except for the Armenian church, which remains to celebrate it on January 6 each year. Around the 12th century, the season of Christmas has been extended from December 25th up to Epiphany, the commemoration of the manifestation of the Lord especially to the magi, on January 6th, commonly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmastide, or Twelve Holy Days. However, for the Holy Catholic Church at present, “Christmas time runs from the First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6th.”
As what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little. Even more: to become ‘children of God’ we must be ‘born from above’ or ‘born of God’. Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us. Christmas is the mystery of this ‘marvelous exchange’: O marvelous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity” (CCC 526).