Origin of the word
The word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038, and Cristes-messe, in 1131. In Dutch it is Kerstmis, in Latin Dies Natalis, whence comes the French Noël, and Italian Il natale; in German Weihnachtsfest, from the preceeding sacred vigil. The term Yule is of disputed origin. It is unconnected with any word meaning “wheel”. The name in Anglo-Saxon was geol, feast: geola, the name of a month (cf. Icelandic iol a feast in December).
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the “birthdays” of the gods.
The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.21) says that certain Egyptian theologians “over curiously” assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ’s birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron., II, 397, n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.] Others reached the date of 24 or 25 Pharmuthi (19 or 20 April). With Clement’s evidence may be mentioned the “De paschæ computus”, written in 243 and falsely ascribed to Cyprian (P.L., IV, 963 sqq.), which places Christ’s birth on 28 March, because on that day the material sun was created. But Lupi has shown (Zaccaria, Dissertazioni ecc. del p. A.M. Lupi, Faenza, 1785, p. 219) that there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth. Clement, however, also tells us that the Basilidians celebrated the Epiphany, and with it, probably, the Nativity, on 15 or 11 Tybi (10 or 6 January). At any rate this double commemoration became popular, partly because the apparition to the shepherds was considered as one manifestation of Christ’s glory, and was added to the greater manifestations celebrated on 6 January; partly because at the baptism-manifestation many codices (e.g. Codex Bezæ) wrongly give the Divine words as sou ei ho houios mou ho agapetos, ego semeron gegenneka se (Thou art my beloved Son, this day have I begotten thee) in lieu of en soi eudokesa (in thee I am well pleased), read in Luke 3:22. Abraham Ecchelensis (Labbe, II, 402) quotes the Constitutions of the Alexandrian Church for a dies Nativitatis et Epiphaniæ in Nicæan times; Epiphanius (Hær., li, ed. Dindorf, 1860, II, 483) quotes an extraordinary semi-Gnostic ceremony at Alexandria in which, on the night of 5-6 January, a cross-stamped Korê was carried in procession round a crypt, to the chant, “Today at this hour Korê gave birth to the Eternal”; John Cassian records in his “Collations” (X, 2 in P.L., XLIX, 820), written 418-427, that the Egyptian monasteries still observe the “ancient custom”; but on 29 Choiak (25 December) and 1 January, 433, Paul of Emesa preached before Cyril of Alexandria, and his sermons (see Mansi, IV, 293; appendix to Act. Conc. Eph.) show that the December celebration was then firmly established there, and calendars prove its permanence. The December feast therefore reached Egypt between 427 and 433.
Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Asia Minor
In Cyprus, at the end of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserts against the Alogi that Christ was born on 6 January and baptized on 8 November. Ephraem Syrus (whose hymns belong to Epiphany, not to Christmas) proves that Mesopotamia still put the birth feast thirteen days after the winter solstice; i.e. 6 January; Armenia likewise ignored, and still ignores, the December festival. (Cf. Euthymius, “Pan. Dogm.”, 23 in P.G., CXXX, 1175; Niceph., “Hist. Eccl,”, XVIII, 53 in P.G., CXLVII, 440; Isaac, Catholicos of Armenia in eleventh or twelfth century, “Adv. Armenos”, I, xii, 5 in P.G., CXXII, 1193; Neale, “Holy Eastern Church”, Introd., p. 796). In Cappadocia, Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on Saint Basil (who died before 1 January, 379) and the two following, preached on Saint Stephen’s feast (P.G., XLVI, 788; cf, 701, 721), prove that in 380 the 25th December was already celebrated there, unless, following Usener’s too ingenious arguments (Religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, Bonn, 1889, 247-250), one were to place those sermons in 383. Also, Asterius of Amaseia (fifth century) and Amphilochius of Iconium (contemporary of Basil and Gregory) show that in their dioceses both the feasts of Epiphany and Nativity were separate (P.G., XL, 337 XXXIX, 36).
In 385, Silvia of Bordeaux (or Etheria, as it seems clear she should be called) was profoundly impressed by the splendid Childhood feasts at Jerusalem. They had a definitely “Nativity” colouring; the bishop proceeded nightly to Bethlehem, returning to Jerusalem for the day celebrations. The Presentation was celebrated forty days after. But this calculation starts from 6 January, and the feast lasted during the octave of that date. (Peregr. Sylv., ed. Geyer, pp. 75 sq.) Again (p. 101) she mentions as high festivals Easter and Epiphany alone. In 385, therefore, 25 December was not observed at Jerusalem. This checks the so-called correspondence between Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) and Pope Julius I (337-352), quoted by John of Nikiû (c. 900) to convert Armenia to 25 December (see P.L., VIII, 964 sqq.). Cyril declares that his clergy cannot, on the single feast of Birth and Baptism, make a double procession to Bethlehem and Jordan. (This later practice is here an anachronism.) He asks Julius to assign the true date of the nativity “from census documents brought by Titus to Rome”; Julius assigns 25 December. Another document (Cotelier, Patr. Apost., I, 316, ed. 1724) makes Julius write thus to Juvenal of Jerusalem (c. 425-458), adding that Gregory Nazianzen at Constantinople was being criticized for “halving” the festival. But Julius died in 352, and by 385 Cyril had made no change; indeed, Jerome, writing about 411 (in Ezech., P.L., XXV, 18), reproves Palestine for keeping Christ’s birthday (when He hid Himself) on the Manifestation feast. Cosmas Indicopleustes suggests (P.G., LXXXVIII, 197) that even in the middle of the sixth century Jerusalem was peculiar in combining the two commemorations, arguing from Luke 3:23 that Christ’s baptism day was the anniversary of His birthday. The commemoration, however, of David and James the Apostle on 25 December at Jerusalem accounts for the deferred feast. Usener, arguing from the “Laudatio S. Stephani” of Basil of Seleucia (c. 430. — P.G., LXXXV, 469), thinks that Juvenal tried at least to introduce this feast, but that Cyril’s greater name attracted that event to his own period.
In Antioch, on the feast of Saint Philogonius, Chrysostom preached an important sermon. The year was almost certainly 386, though Clinton gives 387, and Usener, by a long rearrangement of the saint’s sermons, 388 (Religionsgeschichtl. Untersuch., pp. 227-240). But between February, 386, when Flavian ordained Chrysostom priest, and December is ample time for the preaching of all the sermons under discussion. (See Kellner, Heortologie, Freiburg, 1906, p. 97, n. 3). In view of a reaction to certain Jewish rites and feasts, Chrysostom tries to unite Antioch in celebrating Christ’s birth on 25 December, part of the community having already kept it on that day for at least ten years. In the West, he says, the feast was thus kept, anothen; its introduction into Antioch he had always sought, conservatives always resisted. This time he was successful; in a crowded church he defended the new custom. It was no novelty; from Thrace to Cadiz this feast was observed — rightly, since its miraculously rapid diffusion proved its genuineness. Besides, Zachary, who, as high-priest, entered the Temple on the Day of Atonement, received therefore announcement of John’s conception in September; six months later Christ was conceived, i.e. in March, and born accordingly in December.
Finally, though never at Rome, on authority he knows that the census papers of the Holy Family are still there. [This appeal to Roman archives is as old as Justin Martyr (First Apology 34-35) and Tertullian (Adv. Marc., IV, 7, 19). Julius, in the Cyriline forgeries, is said to have calculated the date from Josephus, on the same unwarranted assumptions about Zachary as did Chrysostom.] Rome, therefore, has observed 25 December long enough to allow of Chrysostom speaking at least in 388 as above (P.G., XLVIII, 752, XLIX, 351).
In 379 or 380 Gregory Nazianzen made himself exarchos of the new feast, i.e. its initiator, in Constantinople, where, since the death of Valens, orthodoxy was reviving. His three Homilies (see Hom. xxxviii in P.G., XXXVI) were preached on successive days (Usener, op. cit., p. 253) in the private chapel called Anastasia. On his exile in 381, the feast disappeared.
According, however, to John of Nikiû, Honorius, when he was present on a visit, arranged with Arcadius for the observation of the feast on the Roman date. Kellner puts this visit in 395; Baumstark (Oriens Chr., 1902, 441-446), between 398 and 402. The latter relies on a letter of Jacob of Edessa quoted by George of Beeltân, asserting that Christmas was brought to Constantinople by Arcadius and Chrysostom from Italy, where, “according to the histories”, it had been kept from Apostolic times. Chrysostom’s episcopate lasted from 398 to 402; the feast would therefore have been introduced between these dates by Chrysostom bishop, as at Antioch by Chrysostom priest. But Lübeck (Hist. Jahrbuch., XXVIII, I, 1907, pp. 109-118) proves Baumstark’s evidence invalid. More important, but scarcely better accredited, is Erbes’ contention (Zeitschrift f. Kirchengesch., XXVI, 1905, 20-31) that the feast was brought in by Constantine as early as 330-35.
At Rome the earliest evidence is in the Philocalian Calendar (P.L., XIII, 675; it can be seen as a whole in J. Strzygowski, Kalenderbilder des Chron. von Jahre 354, Berlin, 1888), compiled in 354, which contains three important entries. In the civil calendar 25 December is marked “Natalis Invicti”. In the “Depositio Martyrum” a list of Roman or early and universally venerated martyrs, under 25 December is found “VIII kal. ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeæ”. On “VIII kal. mart.” (22 February) is also mentioned Saint Peter’s Chair. In the list of consuls are four anomalous ecclesiastical entries: the birth and death days of Christ, the entry into Rome, and martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. The significant entry is “Chr. Cæsare et Paulo sat. XIII. hoc. cons. Dns. ihs. XPC natus est VIII Kal. ian. d. ven. luna XV,” i.e. during the consulship of (Augustus) Cæsar and Paulus Our Lord Jesus Christ was born on the eighth before the calends of January (25 December), a Friday, the fourteenth day of the moon. The details clash with tradition and possibility. The epact, here XIII, is normally XI; the year is A.U.C. 754, a date first suggested two centuries later; in no year between 751 and 754 could 25 December fall on a Friday; tradition is constant in placing Christ’s birth on Wednesday. Moreover the date given for Christ’s death (duobus Geminis coss., i.e. A.D. 29) leaves Him only twenty eight, and one-quarter years of life. Apart from this, these entries in a consul list are manifest interpolations. But are not the two entries in the “Depositio Martyrum” also such? Were the day of Christ’s birth in the flesh alone there found, it might stand as heading the year of martyrs’ spiritual natales; but 22 February is there wholly out of place. Here, as in the consular fasti, popular feasts were later inserted for convenience’ sake. The civil calendar alone was not added to, as it was useless after the abandonment of pagan festivals. So, even if the “Depositio Martyrum” dates, as is probable, from 336, it is not clear that the calendar contains evidence earlier than Philocalus himself, i.e. 354, unless indeed pre-existing popular celebration must be assumed to render possible this official recognition. Were the Chalki manuscript of Hippolytus genuine, evidence for the December feast would exist as early as c. 205. The relevant passage [which exists in the Chigi manuscript Without the bracketed words and is always so quoted before George Syncellus (c. 1000)] runs:
He gar prote parousia tou kyriou hemon he ensarkos [en he gegennetai] en Bethleem, egeneto [pro okto kalandon ianouarion hemera tetradi] Basileuontos Augoustou [tessarakoston kai deuteron etos, apo de Adam] pentakischiliosto kai pentakosiosto etei epathen de triakosto trito [pro okto kalandon aprilion, hemera paraskeun, oktokaidekato etei Tiberiou Kaisaros, hypateuontos Hrouphou kai Hroubellionos. — (Comm. In Dan., iv, 23; Brotke; 19)
“For the first coming of Our Lord in the flesh [in which He has been begotten], in Bethlehem, took place [25 December, the fourth day] in the reign of Augustus [the forty-second year, and] in the year 5500 [from Adam]. And He suffered in His thirty-third year [25 March, the parasceve, in the eighteenth year of Tiberius Cæsar, during the consulate of Rufus and Rubellio].”
Interpolation is certain, and admitted by Funk, Bonwetsch, etc. The names of the consuls [which should be Fufius and Rubellius] are wrong; Christ lives thirty-three years; in the genuine Hippolytus, thirty-one; minute data are irrelevant in this discussion with Severian millenniarists; it is incredible that Hippolytus should have known these details when his contemporaries (Clement, Tertullian, etc.) are, when dealing with the matter, ignorant or silent; or should, having published them, have remained unquoted (Kellner, op. cit., p. 104, has an excursus on this passage.)
Saint Ambrose preserves the sermon preached by Pope Liberius I at Saint Peter’s, when, on Natalis Christi, Ambrose’ sister, Marcellina, took the veil. This pope reigned from May, 352 until 366, except during his years of exile, 355-357. If Marcellina became a nun only after the canonical age of twenty-five, and if Ambrose was born only in 340, it is perhaps likelier that the event occurred after 357. Though the sermon abounds in references appropriate to the Epiphany (the marriage at Cana, the multiplication of loaves, etc.), these seem due (Kellner, op. cit., p. 109) to sequence of thought, and do not fix the sermon to 6 January, a feast unknown in Rome till much later. Usener, indeed, argues (p. 272) that Liberius preached it on that day in 353, instituting the Nativity feast in the December of the same year; but Philocalus warrants our supposing that if preceded his pontificate by some time, though Duchesne’s relegation of it to 243 (Bull. crit., 1890, 3, pp. 41 sqq.) may not commend itself to many. In the West the Council of Saragossa (380) still ignores 25 December (see can. xxi, 2). Pope Siricius, writing in 385 (P.L., XII, 1134) to Himerius in Spain, distinguishes the feasts of the Nativity and Apparition; but whether he refers to Roman or to Spanish use is not clear. Ammianus Marcellinus (XXI, ii) and Zonaras (Ann., XIII, 11) date a visit of Julian the Apostate to a church at Vienne in Gaul on Epiphany and Nativity respectively. Unless there were two visits, Vienne in A.D. 361 combined the feasts, though on what day is still doubtful. By the time of Jerome and Augustine, the December feast is established, though the latter (Epp., II, liv, 12, in P.L., XXXIII, 200) omits it from a list of first-class festivals. From the fourth century every Western calendar assigns it to 25 December. At Rome, then, the Nativity was celebrated on 25 December before 354; in the East, at Constantinople, not before 379, unless with Erbes, and against Gregory, we recognize it there in 330. Hence, almost universally has it been concluded that the new date reached the East from Rome by way of the Bosphorus during the great anti-Arian revival, and by means of the orthodox champions. De Santi (L’Orig. delle Fest. Nat., in Civiltæ Cattolica, 1907), following Erbes, argues that Rome took over the Eastern Epiphany, now with a definite Nativity colouring, and, with as increasing number of Eastern Churches, placed it on 25 December; later, both East and West divided their feast, leaving Ephiphany on 6 January, and Nativity on 25 December, respectively, and placing Christmas on 25 December and Epiphany on 6 January. The earlier hypothesis still seems preferable.
Origin of date
Concerning the date of Christ’s birth the Gospels give no help; upon their data contradictory arguments are based. The census would have been impossible in winter: a whole population could not then be put in motion. Again, in winter it must have been; then only field labour was suspended. But Rome was not thus considerate. Authorities moreover differ as to whether shepherds could or would keep flocks exposed during the nights of the rainy season.
Zachary’s temple service
Arguments based on Zachary’s temple ministry are unreliable, though the calculations of antiquity (see above) have been revived in yet more complicated form, e.g. by Friedlieb (Leben J. Christi des Erlösers, Münster, 1887, p. 312). The twenty-four classes of Jewish priests, it is urged, served each a week in the Temple; Zachary was in the eighth class, Abia. The Temple was destroyed 9 Ab, A.D. 70; late rabbinical tradition says that class 1, Jojarib, was then serving. From these untrustworthy data, assuming that Christ was born A.U.C. 749, and that never in seventy turbulent years the weekly succession failed, it is calculated that the eighth class was serving 2-9 October, A.U.C. 748, whence Christ’s conception falls in March, and birth presumably in December. Kellner (op. cit., pp. 106, 107) shows how hopeless is the calculation of Zachary’s week from any point before or after it.
Analogy to Old Testament festivals
It seems impossible, on analogy of the relation of Passover and Pentecost to Easter and Whitsuntide, to connect the Nativity with the feast of Tabernacles, as did, e.g., Lightfoot (Horæ Hebr, et Talm., II, 32), arguing from Old Testament prophecy, e.g. Zacharias 14:16 sqq.; combining, too, the fact of Christ’s death in Nisan with Daniel’s prophecy of a three and one-half years’ ministry (9:27), he puts the birth in Tisri, i.e. September. As undesirable is it to connect 25 December with the Eastern (December) feast of Dedication (Jos. Ant. Jud., XII, vii, 6).
The well-known solar feast, however, of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date. For the history of the solar cult, its position in the Roman Empire, and syncretism with Mithraism, see Cumont’s epoch-making “Textes et Monuments” etc., I, ii, 4, 6, p. 355. Mommsen (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, 12, p. 338) has collected the evidence for the feast, which reached its climax of popularity under Aurelian in 274. Filippo del Torre in 1700 first saw its importance; it is marked, as has been said, without addition in Philocalus’ Calendar. It would be impossible here even to outline the history of solar symbolism and language as applied to God, the Messiah, and Christ in Jewish or Christian canonical, patristic, or devotional works. Hymns and Christmas offices abound in instances; the texts are well arranged by Cumont (op. cit., addit. Note C, p. 355).
The earliest rapprochement of the births of Christ and the sun is in Cyprian, “De pasch. Comp.”, xix, “O quam præclare providentia ut illo die quo natus est Sol . . . nasceretur Christus.” — “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born.”
In the fourth century, Chrysostom, “del Solst. Et Æquin.” (II, p. 118, ed. 1588), says: “Sed et dominus noster nascitur mense decembris . . . VIII Kal. Ian. . . . Sed et Invicti Natalem appelant. Quis utique tam invictus nisi dominus noster? . . . Vel quod dicant Solis esse natalem, ipse est Sol iustitiæ.” — “But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eight before the calends of January [25 December] . . ., But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”
Already Tertullian had to assert that Sol was not the Christians’ God; Augustine denounces the heretical identification of Christ with Sol.
Pope Leo I bitterly reproves solar survivals — Christians, on the very doorstep of the Apostles’ basilica, turn to adore the rising sun. Sun-worship has bequeathed features to modern popular worship in Armenia, where Christians had once temporarily and externally conformed to the cult of the material sun (Cumont, op. cit., p. 356).
But even should a deliberate and legitimate “baptism” of a pagan feast be seen here no more than the transference of the date need be supposed. The “mountain-birth” of Mithra and Christ’s in the “grotto” have nothing in common: Mithra’s adoring shepherds (Cumont, op. cit., I, ii, 4, p. 304 sqq.) are rather borrowed from Christian sources than vice versa.
Other theories of pagan origin
The origin of Christmas should not be sought in the Saturnalia (1-23 December) nor even in the midnight holy birth at Eleusis (see J.E. Harrison, Prolegom., p. 549) with its probable connection through Phrygia with the Naasene heretics, or even with the Alexandrian ceremony quoted above; nor yet in rites analogous to the midwinter cult at Delphi of the cradled Dionysus, with his revocation from the sea to a new birth (Harrison, op. cit., 402 sqq.).
The astronomical theory
Duchesne advances the “astronomical” theory that, given 25 March as Christ’s death-day [historically impossible, but a tradition old as Tertullian (Adv. Jud., 8)], the popular instinct, demanding an exact number of years in a Divine life, would place His conception on the same date, His birth 25 December. This theory is best supported by the fact that certain Montanists (Sozomen, Church History VII.18) kept Easter on 6 April; both 25 December and 6 January are thus simultaneously explained. The reckoning, moreover, is wholly in keeping with the arguments based on number and astronomy and “convenience”, then so popular. Unfortunately, there is no contemporary evidence for the celebration in the fourth century of Christ’s conception on 25 March.
The present writer in inclined to think that, be the origin of the feast in East or West, and though the abundance of analogous midwinter festivals may indefinitely have helped the choice of the December date, the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.
Liturgy and custom
The fixing of this date fixed those too of Circumcision and Presentation; of Expectation and, perhaps, Annunciation B.V.M.; and of Nativity and Conception of the Baptist (cf. Thurston in Amer. Eccl. Rev., December, 1898). Till the tenth century Christmas counted, in papal reckoning, as the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, as it still does in Bulls; Boniface VIII (1294-1303) restored temporarily this usage, to which Germany held longest.
Codex Theod., II, 8, 27 (cf. XV, 5,5) forbids, in 425, circus games on 25 December; though not till Codex Just., III, 12, 6 (529) is cessation of work imposed. The Second Council of Tours (can. xi, xvii) proclaims, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the “twelve days” from Christmas to Epiphany, and the duty of Advent fast; that of Agde (506), in canons 63-64, orders a universal communion, and that of Braga (563) forbids fasting on Christmas Day. Popular merry-making, however, so increased that the “Laws of King Cnut”, fabricated c. 1110, order a fast from Christmas to Epiphany.
The three Masses
The Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries give three Masses to this feast, and these, with a special and sublime martyrology, and dispensation, if necessary, from abstinence, still mark our usage. Though Rome gives three Masses to the Nativity only, Ildefonsus, a Spanish bishop, in 845, alludes to a triple mass on Nativity, Easter, Whitsun, and Transfiguration (P.L., CVI, 888). These Masses, at midnight, dawn, and in die, were mystically connected with aboriginal, Judaic, and Christian dispensations, or (as by Saint Thomas, Summa Theologica III:83:2) to the triple “birth” of Christ: in Eternity, in Time, and in the Soul. Liturgical colours varied: black, white, red, or (e.g. at Narbonne) red, white, violet were used (Durand, Rat. Div. Off., VI, 13). The Gloria was at first sung only in the first Mass of this day.
The historical origin of this triple Mass is probably as follows (cf. Thurston, in Amer. Eccl. Rev., January, 1899; Grisar, Anal. Rom., I, 595; Geschichte Roms . . . im Mittelalter I, 607, 397; Civ. Catt., 21 September, 1895, etc.): The first Mass, celebrated at the Oratorium Præsepis in Saint Mary Major — a church probably immediately assimilated to the Bethlehem basilica — and the third, at Saint Peter’s, reproduced in Rome the double Christmas Office mentioned by Etheria (see above) at Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The second Mass was celebrated by the pope in the “chapel royal” of the Byzantine Court officials on the Palatine, i.e. Saint Anastasia’s church, originally called, like the basilica at Constantinople, Anastasis, and like it built at first to reproduce the Jerusalem Anastasis basilica — and like it, finally, in abandoning the name “Anastasis” for that of the martyr Saint Anastasia. The second Mass would therefore be a papal compliment to the imperial church on its patronal feast. The three stations are thus accounted for, for by 1143 (cf. Ord. Romani in P.L., LXXVIII, 1032) the pope abandoned distant Saint Peter’s, and said the third Mass at the high altar of Saint Mary Major. At this third Mass Leo III inaugurated, in 800, by the coronation of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire. The day became a favourite for court ceremonies, and on it, e.g., William of Normandy was crowned at Westminster.
The history of the dedication of the Oratorium Præsepis in the Liberian basilica, of the relics there kept and their imitations, does not belong to this discussion [cf. CRIB; RELICS. The data are well set out by Bonaccorsi (Il Natale, Rome, 1903, ch. iv)], but the practice of giving dramatic, or at least spectacular, expression to the incidents of the Nativity early gave rise to more or less liturgical mysteries. The ordinaria of Rouen and of Reims, for instance, place the officium pastorum immediately after the Te Deum and before Mass (cf. Ducange, Gloss. med. et inf. Lat., s.v. Pastores); the latter Church celebrated a second “prophetical” mystery after Tierce, in which Virgil and the Sibyl join with Old Testament prophets in honouring Christ. (For Virgil and Nativity play and prophecy see authorities in Comparetti, “Virgil in Middle Ages”, p. 310 sqq.) “To out-herod Herod”, i.e. to over-act, dates from Herod’s violence in these plays.
The crib (creche) or nativity scene
Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223 originated the crib of today by laicizing a hitherto ecclesiastical custom, henceforward extra-liturgical and popular. The presence of ox and ass is due to a misinterpretation of Isaiah 1:3 and Habakkuk 3:2 (“Itala” version), though they appear in the unique fourth-century “Nativity” discovered in the Saint Sebastian catacombs in 1877. The ass on which Balaam rode in the Reims mystery won for the feast the title Festum Asinorum (Ducange, op. cit., s.v. Festum).
Hymns and carols
The degeneration of these plays in part occasioned the diffusion of noels, pastorali, and carols, to which was accorded, at times, a quasi-liturgical position. Prudentius, in the fourth century, is the first (and in that century alone) to hymn the Nativity, for the “Vox clara” (hymn for Lauds in Advent) and “Christe Redemptor” (Vespers and Matins of Christmas) cannot be assigned to Ambrose. “A solis ortu” is certainly, however, by Sedulius (fifth century). The earliest German Weihnachtslieder date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the earliest noels from the eleventh, the earliest carols from the thirteenth. The famous “Stabat Mater Speciosa” is attributed to Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306); “Adeste Fideles” is, at the earliest, of the seventeenth century. These essentially popular airs, and even words, must, however, have existed long before they were put down in writing.
Cards and presents
Pagan customs centering round the January calends gravitated to Christmas. Tiele (Yule and Christmas, London, 1899) has collected many interesting examples. The strenæ (eacute;trennes) of the Roman 1 January (bitterly condemned by Tertullian, de Idol., xiv and x, and by Maximus of Turin, Hom. ciii, de Kal. gentil., in P.L., LVII, 492, etc.) survive as Christmas presents, cards, boxes.
The yule log
The calend fires were a scandal even to Rome, and Saint Boniface obtained from Pope Zachary their abolition. But probably the Yule-log in its many forms was originally lit only in view of the cold season. Only in 1577 did it become a public ceremony in England; its popularity, however, grew immense, especially in Provence; in Tuscany, Christmas is simply called ceppo (block, log — Bonaccorsi, op. cit., p. 145, n. 2). Besides, it became connected with other usages; in England, a tenant had the right to feed at his lord’s expense as long as a wheel, i.e. a round, of wood, given by him, would burn, the landlord gave to a tenant a load of wood on the birth of a child; Kindsfuss was a present given to children on the birth of a brother or sister, and even to the farm animals on that of Christ, the universal little brother (Tiele, op. cit., p. 95 sqq.).
Gervase of Tilbury (thirteen century) says that in England grain is exposed on Christmas night to gain fertility from the dew which falls in response to “Rorate Cæli”; the tradition that trees and flowers blossomed on this night is first quoted from an Arab geographer of the tenth century, and extended to England. In a thirteenth-century French epic, candles are seen on the flowering tree. In England it was Joseph of Arimathea’s rod which flowered at Glastonbury and elsewhere; when 3 September became 14 September, in 1752, 2000 people watched to see if the Quainton thorn (cratagus præcox) would blow on Christmas New Style; and as it did not, they refused to keep the New Style festival. From this belief of the calends practice of greenery decorations (forbidden by Archbishop Martin of Braga, c. 575, P.L., LXXIII — mistletoe was bequeathed by the Druids) developed the Christmas tree, first definitely mentioned in 1605 at Strasburg, and introduced into France and England in 1840 only, by Princess Helena of Mecklenburg and the Prince Consort respectively.
The mysterious visitor
Only with great caution should the mysterious benefactor of Christmas night — Knecht Ruprecht, Pelzmärtel on a wooden horse, Saint Martin on a white charger, Saint Nicholas and his “reformed” equivalent, Father Christmas — be ascribed to the stepping of a saint into the shoes of Woden, who, with his wife Berchta, descended on the nights between 25 December and 6 January, on a white horse to bless earth and men. Fires and blazing wheels starred the hills, houses were adorned, trials suspended and feasts celebrated (cf. Bonaccorse, op. cit., p. 151). Knecht Ruprecht, at any rate (first found in a mystery of 1668 and condemned in 1680 as a devil) was only a servant of the Holy Child.
But no doubt aboriginal Christian nuclei attracted pagan accretions. For the calend mumming; the extraordinary and obscene Modranicht; the cake in honour of Mary’s “afterbirth”, condemned (692) at the Trullan Council, canon 79; the Tabulæ Fortunæ (food and drink offered to obtain increase, and condemned in 743), see Tiele, op. cit., ch. viii, ix — Tiele’s data are perhaps of greater value than his deductions — and Ducange (op. cit., s. vv. Cervula and Kalendæ).
In England, Christmas was forbidden by Act of Parliament in 1644; the day was to be a fast and a market day; shops were compelled to be open; plum puddings and mince pies condemned as heathen. The conservatives resisted; at Canterbury blood was shed; but after the Restoration Dissenters continued to call Yuletide “Fooltide”.
- Cyril Charles Martindale. “Christmas”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 3 December 2013. Web. 31 July 2015. <>