Christmas is the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. This feast of the nativity is kept by almost all churches on 25 December. Its celebration in some Orthodox churches 13 days later than elsewhere is due to the current gap between the Julian or old-style calendar and the Gregorian calendar followed in other churches and in the civil sphere (see church calendar) .
The origins of the feast and its date are contested among historians. While there is some evidence that Christ’s birth (and baptism) were earlier celebrated on 6 January (a date still kept for the feast among the Armenians), the date of 25 December for the nativity is attested from the 4th century (first in Rome, for the year 336). Two types of theory, not mutually exclusive, have been advanced for the fixing of this date. One is based on the supposed date of Christ’s passion on 25 March; if the earthly life of the Incarnate Son was to last a number of complete years, his conception must have occurred on 25 March and thus his birth on 25 December. The other assumes a Christian take-over of a pagan festival of the winter solstice, with Christ as Sun of Righteousness replacing the Unconquered Sun, the name used in the solar celebration instituted by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 274. Although Origen had earlier dismissed the keeping of birthdays as a pagan affair, 4th-century Christians may in this case have been led by their own reflection on the mystery of the incarnation,* rather than simply imitating their pagan neighbours.
January 6 was left as the feast of the Epiphany, or manifestation. In the Eastern churches, this is the feast of Christ’s baptism, at which he was manifested as the Son of God (Matt. 3:13-17 and par.). In the West, the Epiphany is kept as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, in the persons of the wise men or three kings (Matt. 2:1-12). Further liturgical associations of the feast bring in the wedding at Cana, where Christ’s turning of the water into wine was the first of his signs to manifest his glory (John 2:1-11).
Historically, Christmas (and its twelve days) has been a popular feast around which many folk customs have grown up. Today it is perhaps the most widely observed holiday in the world, kept also by many who are not Christian. Seasonal sentiments of peace on earth are expressed (cf. Luke 2:14). Gifts are exchanged (cf. John 3:16).
The year 2000 was promoted as the focus of a jubilee celebration of Christ’s nativity (see, e.g., Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter of 1994, Tertio Millennio Adveniente ).
n H. Förster, Die Feier der Geburt Christi in der Alten Kirche , Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2000 n R. Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain , Oxford, Oxford UP, 1996 n S.K. Roll, Towards the Origins of Christmas , Kampen, Kok Pharos, 1995.
The text above is extracted from Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)