4. Of Christmas, the Festival of Christ's Nativity
Antiquities of the Christian Church
XXI. Sacred Seasons, Festivals and Fasts
4. Of Christmas, the Festival of Christ's Nativity.
This festival begins with the advent on the last of November, and continues until epiphany, January 6th. But both the Latin and Greek church, since the latter end of the fourth century have agreed in observing the 25th of December more particularly. The advent is preliminary and preparatory to this, and the epiphany closes this sacred festival in honor of the incarnate Saviour. Many, misled by the term *, advent, as it occurs in the earliest of the fathers, have supposed that the advent, as a festival, was of apostolic origin; whereas the first authentic mention is in the council of Mascon, c. 3, A. D. 582.
In regard to the nativity, it appears from an oration of Chrysostom on this occasion, in the year 386, that this festival had been introduced ten years before, for the first time, into Antioch and Syria, and that others claimed for it a high antiquity, asserting that it was known from Thrace even unto Spain. Epiphany was observed at an earlier period; his entrance upon his public ministry being an event of greater interest than that of his birth, Clemens Alexandrinus censures those who seek too anxiously the Saviour's birth.
Epiphanius affirms that the birth of Christ occurred on the 6th of January, which again Jerome denies.
Augustine recommends a suitable remembrance of the day, but does not honor it as a solemn festival. He expressly asserts that the church, by common consent, held it on the 25th of December. Indeed it may be confidently affirmed that in the third century, and the first half of the fourth, the church were not agreed, either in regard to the time, or reasons for observing this festival; and that the Eastern and Western churches differed totally in their manner of celebrating it. About the end of the fourth century, it was finally agreed that Christmas and Epiphany should be observed as two distinct festivals, the one, on the 25th of December; the other, on the 6th of January." From that time, this arrangement has been very generally observed.
The reason for celebrating Christmas eve with so much solemnity was, that though neither the day nor the year of our Saviour's birth was known, it was received as an acknowledged truth that he was born in the night. Accordingly whilst other vigils had fallen into disuse, or been exchanged for evening vespers, this was extended to continue through the whole night. But these watchings finally were discontinued, and instead of them, three services were read on that day.
When the representatives of Adam and Eve on Christmas eve was first introduced is not known. It had a mysterial relation to the first and second Adam, and was a device of the fourth or fifth ceiitury.
The death of the martyr Stephen was commemorated December 26th. The event evidently occurred in August, A. D. 36. But after the pretended discovery of his relics, it was commemorated on the 6th or 7lh of January, and then again, was changed to December 26th as above mentioned.
On the third of the Christmas festivals, was St. John's day; and the fourth was celebrated in memory of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem by Herod, styled Innocents day. Authorities are given in the index to show that the entire interval between Christmas and Epiphany was observed as a continued festival.
To show in what consideration this festival, commemorative of our Lord's nativity was held by the ancient church, a brief extract from Chrysostom is here inserted. After asserting that this is more venerable than any other relating to Christ, inasmuch as all others depended upon his incarnation, he adds: "But we do not give this festival the preference merely on this account; but because the transaction on this day was, of all others, the most stupendous. For that Christ when once man should die, was a thing of course. But that when he was God he should be willing to become a man, is beyond measure wonderful, and astonishing. Transported with this thought St. Paul in rapture exclaims, 'Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness, God was manifest in the flesh.' For this reason chiefly 1 love and venerate this day, and commend it to your consideration that I may make you partakers of the same sentiments. I therefore pray and beseech you. Come with all diligence and alacrity, every man first purifying his own house, to see our Lord wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger! Tremendous thought! Oh sight of wonder!" "I am not now astonished," exclaims another, "at the creation of the world, at the heavens, at the earth, at the succession of days and seasons; but I wonder to see God enclosed in the womb of a virgin, the Omnipotent lain in a manger, the eternal Word clothed with flesh!"
J. G. Hasse, de rituum circa Nai. Chr. prima origine ex Graecorum et Roman. Saturnalibus. 1804. 4.: G. J. Planck variaruin de origine festi Nat. Chr. sententiarura epicrisis. 1796. 4.: Fr. Gedike, über den Ursprung derWeihnachts-Geschenke. S.Berlin. Monatsschr. 1784. Jan. S. 73. ff.: Fr. Schleiermacher's Weihnachts-Feyer; ein Gesprach. 1806. 12.
Expos. Fidei. c. 22: Haer. li. c. 29.
Chryost. Horn. 24, 33: Cassian, Collat. x. c. 2: Apost. Constit. lib. V. c. 13: vii. c. 3: Krabbe, liber ursprung der Apost. Constitut. 1829. S. 163 seq. 228–232.
Jacob Edessen in Assemani, Bibl. Or. torn. ii. p. 1636.
Ephraem Svnis, Serm. de Nativ. Chr. V. torn. ii. p. 417–419: Serm. 8. p". 424: Serm. 12. p. 431: Vgl. p. 324, 328.
Concil. Turon. ii. c. 18: Constant. Porphyr. de cerem. eccl. Byzant. lib. i. c. 83. ed. Bonn.: torn. i. p. 381: torn. ii. p. 360: Ephraem Syrus, Opp. Syr. tom. ii. p. 396 seq.
Horn. 31. de Philogonio, tom. i. p. 39. 9.
Arnoldus Bonnerallis, Serm. De Nativ. in Opp. St. Cyprian.
The following passage from Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromat, 1. i. p. 340, ab. 249, is almost the only genuine passage of an Ante-Nicene writer which can be supposed to allude to any festival commemorative of the advent of our Lord. After giving a list of the Roman emperors till the death of Commodus, A. D. 192, and stating what years of certain emperors the Saviour was either born, or baptized, or crucified, he says: "There are some who over curiously assign not only the year, but the day also of our Saviour's nativity, which they say was in the 28th year of Augustus, on the 25th of Pachon, (20i/t of May). And the followers of Basilides observe also the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the whole previous night in reading; and they say it was on the 15th year of Tiberias Caesar, on the 15th of Tybi, (lOth of January), but some say it was on the 11th, (6th) of that month. Among those who nicely calculate the time of his passion, some say it was on the 16th year of Tiberias Caesar, the 25th of Phemenotb , (22d of March); others say, the 25th of Pharmuthi, (21st of April); and others, that it was on the 19th of Pharmuthi, (15th of April), that the Saviour suffered. Nay, some of them say that he was born in Pharmuthi, the 24th or 25th day, (April 20th or 21St)."
The reasons for observing the 25th of December in commemoration of our Lord's advent, may have been various. Some may have honestly believed this to be the true day of his nativity, and others may have felt it desirable to have a christian festival at some other season of the year than the fifty or sixty days immediately succeeding the vernal equinox, into which all the older festivals were clustered. The designation of this day was first made about the middle of the fourth century.
From the first institution of this festival many of the western nations seem to have transferred to it many of the follies which prevailed in the pagan festivals at the same season, such as adorning fantastically the churches, mingling puppet-shows and dramas with worship, universal feasting and merry-making, (>hristmas visits and salutations, Christmas presents and jocularity, and Christmas revelry and drunkenness. Christmas holidays have borne so close a resemblance, whenever they have been observed, to the Roman Saturnalia, Sigillaria, etc., and to the Juel feast of the Goths, as to afford strong presumption of an unhappy alliance between them from the first. See Murdock's Mosheim, second ed. pp. 279, 280, from which the above note is taken. – TR.
(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)