The early church had to confront these pagan religions and they needed to overcome the beliefs these religions had cultivated in the people's minds. Tragically, religion to these people meant festivals, ceremonies, rites, revelries, the making of artifacts with religious connotations and such like.
However, the early church was free of all these things. Christianity did not look like "religion" to the pagans. In reality, they considered Christianity as another form of atheism! The early Christians did not observe any type of annual celebration to commemorate the birth of Jesus. In fact, during its first 300 years, the Church in Rome strongly discouraged any type of such "pagan" rituals. Prior to the 3rd Century AD, there is little documentation supporting the celebration of Christmas amongst early church participants. However, some traditions say that Christ's birth has been celebrated by some since as far back as the year AD 98!
Early Christian holidays were called feast days. In AD 137, Pope Hyginus ordered the birthday of Christ celebrated as a solemn and holy feast. It became known as the "Feast of the Nativity". The word "Nativity" comes from the Latin word "Natalis", meaning "birthday". A special church service called a Mass was celebrated to honour the Nativity. This newly introduced festival slowly spread throughout the Roman Empire from the mid-2nd Century AD. As the Christian religion continued to grow strong, many Christians began to observe Christ's birthday. Since no-one knew when His birthday was, some people celebrated it in the spring and others in the winter.
In the third century, many local assemblies began to commemorate this event each year on January 6th. Initially, this day was set aside to recognize the Epiphany of Christ, or His divine manifestation to the Magi or "wise men" (Matthew 2:1). Later, the celebration also included His birth.
There were many immigrants into the ranks of the Church by this time, but the Church Fathers discovered that they were facing an invasion of pagan customs. Christianity and Paganism began contending, and, for a while, Mithraism was Christianity's greatest contender. But how was the church to convert the pagans with their December 25th sun-worship festival? It became the policy of the church to "transform" pagan festivals wherever possible instead of trying to abolish them and give the ancient practices a "Christian" significance. It was definitely a clever trick, and the Church was eventually successful in taking the merriment, lights and gifts from the Saturnalia festival and bringing them to the celebration of Christmas.
However, as the Church went about the business of converting the Romans to Christianity, a problem arose. As Christianity spread, the Christians were increasingly tempted to be like those around them, and many of the new converts continued to observe some of the traditional Roman celebrations which were so familiar to them.
In order to appeal to the people, in the hope of winning them to Christianity, one by one, most of the pagan practices were adopted by the church! The church historian Mosheim wrote concerning this problem: "The Pagans had been accustomed to numerous and splendid ceremonies from their infancy, and when they saw the new religion to be destitute of such ceremonies, they thought it too simple. The Christians were pronounced atheists, because they were destitute of temples, altars, victims, priests and all the pomp which the Pagans supposed to be the essence of religion; for the unenlightened persons are prone to estimate religion by what meets their eyes. To silence this accusation, the Christian leaders thought they must introduce some of the rites and ceremonies which would strike the senses of the people."
The Church was alarmed by the continuing celebration of pagan customs and Saturnalia among their converts. At first, the Church forbade this kind of celebration, but it was to no avail. Pagan midwinter festivals remained popular centuries after Christ was born. Eventually it was decided that the celebration would be tamed and made into a celebration fit for the Christian Son of God.
Tertullian (a "Church Father") in about 230 AD lamented over all this. He wrote: "By us, who are strangers to Sabbaths, and new moons, and festivals, once acceptable to God, the Saturnalia, the feasts of January, the Brumalia, and Matronalia, are now frequented; gifts are carried to and fro... Oh, how much faithful are the heathen to their religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians."
With so many members of the Church celebrating this pagan Roman holiday, some Christians sought to legitimize the celebration by designating December 25th as the birthday of Christ. This would allow the Christians to celebrate this time of year along with the rest of the population, only now with the blessing of the Church. By choosing December 25th, the Church grasped the opportunity to turn the people away from a purely pagan observance to a day of adoration of Christ the Lord.
The Romans' antiquated and idolatrous pagan holiday looked to excite its believers by celebrating the winter solstice, whereby "light" (that which is good) would have its eventual victory over temporal "darkness" (or evil). The church quickly upstaged the pagan festival commemorating the struggle between "light" and "darkness" by appropriately (and perhaps, divinely) applying Malachi's prophecy regarding the true "Sun of Righteousness" (Mal. 4:2) to the December 25th event: for, in God's Son, the real "Light" (John 8:12) defeats darkness for evermore. The birth of Christ as the "Light of the World" was thus linked to the rebirth of the sun. The Church Fathers sought to point the pagan festival's sun worshippers towards Christ as the "Sun of Righteousness", and so draw away the adorers of the god whose symbol and representative was the earthly sun. If this could be done then the festival in its turn must of necessity grow worthy of Him it celebrated. The Church, in choosing December 25th to celebrate the birthday of Christ, would persuade the followers of Mithras and Saturn to forsake them and turn to Christ.
An early Roman calendar from AD 336 is the first time that December 25th is mentioned as the date for celebrating Christ's birth.
Eventually, December 25th was selected as the official day of commemoration for the Nativity, as the church looked to replace the older December 25th celebration of the Roman pagan sun god, "Sol Invictus". In AD 350, Pope Julius I declared December 25th as the birthday of the Son of God. However, Eastern churches disagreed with this date, and kept their celebrations on January 6th. The Armenians and the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate it on that date even now!
Churchmen hoped that, by celebrating on December 25th, the pagan customs would be forgotten and everyone would just celebrate Christ's birthday instead. When the Church found it impossible through repeated bans to abolish all pagan customs, it "Christianized" a number of them, divesting them of their worst features, and finally incorporated them into the Christian observance of Christmas.
The Church, by making the pagan festival also the Feast of the Nativity, had "sanctified" it, and thus, as Christianity gained ground, it slowly but surely changed the ancient worship of the material sun into that of the true Light of the World. The Church had finally succeeded in taking the merriment, the greenery, the lights, and the gifts from Saturn and giving them to the babe of Bethlehem.
One of the earliest mentions of a special feast for the Nativity on December 25th is in the early church calendar compiled by Furius Dionisius Philocalus in the year AD 354 (although this does refer back to the earlier Roman calendar from AD 336). However, in AD 388, St. Chrysostom wrote that the observance of the festival of the Nativity on December 25th was not yet ten years old!
Church leaders made the four-week period before Christmas a time to pray and prepare for the coming holy festival. They called it "Advent", which means "coming". In addition, so that the new festival should not be lacking in splendour and appeal, the days between December 25th and January 6th, i.e. the days between Saturnalia and the Calends of January, were caught up into one "holy" season, with the birth of Jesus at the beginning and the coming of the Magi (or wise men) to visit the Christ Child at the end. The days between Christmas and Epiphany (which is Greek for "appearance") became known as the "Twelve Days of Christmas".
The practice of celebrating the Nativity on December 25th soon spread from Rome to Antioch in AD 375, Constantinople (Istanbul) in AD 380, Alexandria in AD 430 and Jerusalem in AD 450. By the 5th and 6th Centuries, the Nativity was well on its way to being an established holy day for Christians across the Western world.
The Twelve Days of Christmas became a time of continuous rejoicing. In medieval England, for example, each town or village appointed a man to lead all the entertainment. The "Lord of Misrule" had a group of helpers called jesters. Twelfth Night brought the holiday season to a close. Most families had a Twelfth-Night cake to honour the wise men.
Incidentally, the word "Christmas" came into use through the English medieval custom of celebrating mass at midnight on Christmas Eve, the only time in the year when this was permitted. Because of the opposition to the traces of paganism surviving in the Christmas customs, the church created special masses to be performed at midnight, daybreak and morning. Hence, the word "Christmas" ("Christ's Mass").
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