There is surely no day during the year in the lives of Christians of several generations down to our own, that is better known, better loved and better celebrated than the 25th of December. All over the world, people prepare well in advance for Christmas. Children specially look forward to it and to the presents they will receive and the parties and special meals they will attend during this gracious period. I believe each one of us here has got some fond memories of our childhood and how we longed for Christmas and the special attraction it had on us. Many people celebrate Christmas every year without understanding its real meaning. Their minds are taken up with material and secular considerations. Even good Christians can be misled by the joy and merriment that accompanies Christmas and fail to recognise the reason for their happiness. In this reflection, we shall briefly explore this season of Christmas, highlighting the history behind it. This includes a discussion of the key events of Christmas such as the advent, the Christmas day and how this has evolved over the years down to our present time. We shall end this reflection by briefly discussing the New Year day and its connectedness to Christmas. This reflection aims at helping us understand why Christians are filled with joy at Christmas and to tell our own story of this gracious season.
For a whole month before hand, the church too prepares spiritually for a worthy celebration of the great feast of Christmas. This is the time we know as Advent. Advent is a Latin word which means ‘coming’. It is a period of preparation for the greatest coming of all, the coming of God to our sinful world and his birth among us as man, Jesus of Nazareth.
It is true that some of the customs associated with Christmas have their origin deep in the past before the good news of the Gospel was made known. Other customs however, which may seem to have no religious meaning, are full of significance for Christians. How many people, for instance, know that the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was first introduced by St. Boniface into Germany more than twelve hundred years ago? At that time, the people of Germany were mainly pagan and St. Boniface was a missionary. In order to counteract the pagan custom of offering sacrifice to a sacred oak tree, he commanded that Christians decorate a fir tree in honour of the Child Jesus at Christmas time and so the custom of the Christmas tree spread from Germany throughout the world.
Another instance is the custom of Santa Claus. In many countries of the world, children believe in a mysterious being named Santa Claus. If they have behaved themselves well during the year, he will visit the children on Christmas night and bring them a gift. How many children know that Santa Claus is actually St. Nicholas, a bishop and saint who lived in Turkey more than sixteen hundred years ago. Santa means ‘saint’ or ‘holy’ in Latin while Claus is a contraction of the name ‘Ni – Claus, Nicholas’. He was well loved for his generosity in giving unexpected gifts to the poor, especially at Christmas time. Much later in Holland, he was made the patron saint of children and would reward them with a present if they were good and well behaved.
Other countries have different customs and legends connected with Christmas. In Mexico, for example, children bring gifts to the Church on Christmas eve to lay at the feet of the infant Jesus. One story tells of a little boy who wanted to give a gift to the child, but he was poor and had nothing to give. “But I can at least pray, he thought. And so, he knelt down outside the church window where he could see the people inside and made a fervent prayer to Jesus. When he rose to his feet, there was a beautiful red plant in the spot where he had knelt. He reverently plucked a red flower from the plant and laid it at the feet of the infant Jesus in the Church. This they say was the origin of the beautiful poinsettia plant and even today in Mexico, it is still called the “flower of the holy night”.
“Do not be afraid: for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David, a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord”. With these words, as recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke, an angel of the Lord announced to the shepherds on Christmas night that Jesus was born, that the word was made flesh, that God the son has become man. As they were still, talking, suddenly with the angels, there were great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to men who enjoy his favour.” It is this same hymn of praise and joy that we sing in the Mass: Gloria in Excelsis Deo, Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
On the blessed feast of Christmas every year, Christians throughout the world praise and thank God for the good news proclaimed by the angel. We have good reason to express our happiness and to rejoice in celebration. For this child, born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem is the prince of peace. And so we rejoice as members of a great family spread throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, Americas, Australia and all over the world. Christmas has always been regarded as a family occasion. Every Christian wants to spend Christmas day at home with their families and people. People save their money and travel long distances just to be reunited with their loved ones at Christmas. They see the figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and then think of their own families.
We also know that the message of Christmas is that of peace. Our world is continually ravaged by war and hatred between peoples and nations. The most senseless and destructive of wars include the first and second world wars, the Iraq war and the senseless killings of September. The evils of Heroshima and Nagasaki remains unforgettable. So are the mayhem in Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the British Civil War, the Nigerian Civil War, the on going war in Sudan, the carnage in Afrighanistan, the recent war between the Israelis and Hisbollah in Lebanese territory, the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, etc. During the first world war [1914-1918], the German army faced that of France and Britain and soldiers defended lines of opposing pits and trenches. All was quiet on the frontlines in 1914. Soldiers could not fire their shots on that blessed night. It was so quiet. Suddenly, from the German lines, the French soldiers heard the words, in German, of a Christmas carol they knew: “Silent night, holy night. All is Calm, all is bright, round you virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace…” This hymn meant so much for the German soldiers. It had been composed by a young German priest. It was then translated into French and English and indeed several languages of the world. The German soldiers dropped their guns and came forward, singing all the time, ‘silent night, holy night…”. The French soldiers too climbed out of their trenches and soon the opposing armies had really met: they met for the first time as human beings and as brother Christians, and they celebrated that Christmas night as best they could. On the day after Christmas, they were commanded to resume fighting again and the slaughter went on for another three years. Even in the Vietnam war [1964-1975], the soldiers agreed to a truce on Christmas day. They didn’t think they should be fighting on such a sacred and blessed night. Other cease fires had been proclaimed in several other places of conflict because of Christmas.
The Early Celebration of Christmas
Christmas has not always been celebrated as we know it today. For nearly three hundred years after the death of Jesus, the Christians formed a small and persecuted community who were often killed because of their faith. Throughout the pagan roman empire, Christians were not allowed to build churches or to celebrate publicly the memory of the birth of Christ. It was not until Constantine became Emperor of Rome that Christians received their freedom in the year 313 AD. He was also responsible for building the first Christian church and it was dedicated to St. John, the beloved disciple of Jesus. This church is still the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome [the Pope]. The early Christians began to observe the birth of Jesus on the 6th of January every year. It was only later that this feast day was called CHRISTMAS. This word means exactly what it says : the mass of Christ, Christ-mass. Many Christians today are shocked to hear or learn that 25th December was not the actual date of Christ’s birth. In fact, no one knows what date is Christ’s exact birthday. In the Gospel of St. Luke, we heard that Christ was born when Augustus was emperor and a man named Quirinius was governor of Syria. The early Christians therefore had a good idea of the year in which Christ was born, but they did not know the actual date. They began to record dates and count years from the birth of Christ. Therefore, every new year was for them another year of the Lord [Anno Domini] This is why we use the capital ‘AD’ for years of the Christian calendar. For instance, the year 2006 means Two thousand and six years after the birth of Christ.
As emphasised earlier on, the early Christians celebrated the feast of Christmas on the 6th of January. This is still the custom of most Christians of the ancient Coptic Church in Egypt and Ethiopia. It was in Rome that Christians first began to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December. They did this to counteract the a pagan festival of the Sun god held on that day and quite common in Rome in those days. Gradually, other Christians from other several regions joined in and it spread throughout the known world. Even today in our Latin rite, the 6th of January is still linked to Christmas and is still called ‘the little Christmas’.
Bethlehem today is a small town on the west bank of the river Jordan in Palestine. The inhabitants are Arabs and the majority of these are Christians. On Christmas night they are joined by thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who pray and sing together in many languages the beautiful ‘adeste fideles’ “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem…”. As we cannot all go to Bethlehem, we try to bring the picture of the birth of Christ into our homes and our hearts. Like Jim Reeves, we too can sing with certainty that ‘man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day. Many families make small cribs with pictures of the infant Jesus and Mary and Joseph and the animals and a bight star overhead. It was St. Francis of Asisi more than seven hundred years ago that made the first crib or a representation of the birth of Jesus.
Many people celebrate Christmas every year without bothering to find out what they celebrate. Their minds are taken up with material considerations: new dress they must wear, presents, meals. Modern day Christians are easily deceived by the merriment that accompanies Christmas and fail to recognise the reason for their happiness. The tendency to take Christ out of Christmas is very high today. The danger of reviving it as a pagan orgy today is very high especially in our secular and anti-god/anti-religion, post Christian world of today.
The New Year’s Day
It is quite interesting noting the difference between the Christian calendar and that of the Muslims, or the African traditional religion, or even the Jews, for instance. The Christians count their years from the time that our Lord Jesus Christ was born. The early Christians counted their the years and record of events as happening before or after the birth of Christ. For us, that God took a human body like ours and became man was clearly the most important event in the history of the world, therefore world history has to be recorded or remarked based in relation to this great event. The Christians adopted the old Roman calendar of Julius Ceaser and that is still being followed throughout the world today. The Muslims count their dates from the time that Prophet Muhamad fled from Mecca to medina and the people there accepted his preaching. This in Arabic is called heijira and so the years in Muslim calendar are prefixed with the initials A.H., meaning Anno Hejira or in the year of the flight. In the same way, the years in the Christian calendar are prefixed, A.D., meaning ‘in the year of the Lord’. The Muslim has special names for the lunar months of the year. For instance, the name ‘Ramadan’ is the month of fasting according to Muslim calendar. In ATR, special events are used to count or reckon events. There are basically four days in the week and sixteen days in one month. Several months make one year. Each of these months have got special events and sacred meanings attached to them.
The Jews also follow a lunar calendar like the Muslims and they count the years from what they believe was the creation of the world. This took place, they believe 3761 years before Christ; and so, this present year for them is 5767. The first Christians were all converts from the Jewish religion, so they naturally followed the Jewish calendar for their religious practices. But in civic affairs, they followed the roman calendar. This was known as the Julian calendar introduced by the emperor Julius Ceaser in 46 BC. His successor Ceaser Augustus slightly modified this calendar which was used for over 1,600 years. The names July and August are named after those two emperors. The other months were named after the roman gods or festivals or were known by their numerical position. The new year began for the Romans with March so, September, October, November, December merely mean 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th month in Latin.
The Christian Calendar and the New Year’s Day
Everything would have been perfect had the early Christians had the kind of knowledge we have today. There were no printed books and the Christians were fighting for survival in a hostile and pagan roman empire. There were no newspapers or radios or televisions to help in those far off days. It seems that the redactor of the Gospel of St. Luke made a mistake when he referred to the census which occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. From other historical records, this census took place in the year AD 6 or 7. We also learnt that King Herod the Great died in the year 4 BC. And both Matthew and Luke concur that Jesus was born when Herod was king. From this, it seems that a mistake of 4 to 5 years was made in calculating the birth of Christ.
Emperor Augustus corrected the calendar introduced by Julius Ceaser to the Roman Empire. A much bigger correction was on the instruction of Pope Gregory XIII just over 4oo years ago, in October 1582. It was discovered that the calculations made in the Julian calendar was not quite correct and that each year was about 11 minutes too long. In the following years, the calculations was widened and the calendar time and the movement of the earth around the sun had increased by ten days. Pope Gregory decreed that ten days be suppressed and hat Thursday 4th October 1582 be followed immediately by Friday 15th October 1582. Because of this, for instance, St. Teresa of Avila in spain died on 4th October 1582, but her feast day is observed the next day, 15th October. This new calendar was the most exact and definitive. This calendar which is still in use till today is the full product and responsibility of the Church and has ever been called the ‘Gregorian Calendar’. Many non catholic countries refused at first to accept the new calendar simply because it came from the Pope. For instance, it was not until the year 1782, that Great Britain agreed to adopt this Gregorian new calendar, though not without protests and resistance from some people. New year day, the first of January is a truly Christian feast. On this day we thank and praise God that another year of the Lord has passed and a new one has begun. We honour the blessed Virgin Mary on that day as we celebrate the feast of Mary, the Mother of God. It is also a world day of prayer for peace between peoples and nations.
This short essay has tried to tell the story of Christmas. Efforts has been made to explore as briefly as possible, the story of advent, the highpoints of Christmas starting from the time of the early Christians to this present day. A little reference was made on the new year and the difference and similarity between calendars of some religious groups. The aim is to show that all history and all events are related to the birth of Christ. All history is therefore salvation history. The Church proclaims in the liturgy of the Easter Virgil, “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end. The Alpha and the Omega, all time belongs to him and all the ages. To him be glory and power, through every age and forever, amen”.
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!! Deo Gratias!!!