The Christmas Season

Posted On December 2, 2006

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Among all the festivals and holidays of the Christian Church year, Christmas remains the most observed and most popular.

Of course, much of that popularity, especially in the West, is due to the commercial promotion of the holiday. In many areas of the world, it is still a rather insignificant holiday even among Christians. Still, the Christmas story captures the heart in a way that transcends all the commercial hype.

The degree to which the holiday is valued in Christian culture even goes beyond the other most Holy Day of Christianity, Easter or Resurrection Sunday. There is something about human nature that would rather focus on the birth of babies than on the torture and death of accused criminals! Especially for the young, the story of Christmas with all the images of angels and a young mother, of shepherds and a stable, of wise men and royal intrigue make the season captivating. Perhaps that is part of the intent of the different ways the story is told in the Gospel accounts, as well as the preservation of so many traditions in the Church surrounding this holiday.

Historically, Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth to a young maiden from Galilee. Theologically, Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ, the self-revelation of God to the world in human form for the reconciliation of humanity to Himself. All the details of the various accounts concerning Jesus’ birth revolve around that central truth.

While we most often think about Christmas as a single day, it is actually a season of the year. In its popular sense, it extends four weeks before Christmas Day and for two weeks after. However, the time before Christmas is a special season called Advent, comprising the four Sundays before Christmas Day. While the entire season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany can be seen together, they each have distinctly different roles in the Church year. The term “Advent” means “coming” and is a season of expectation and hope, the time of waiting for the coming of the Messiah that is celebrated at Christmas. This time of waiting symbolizes the waiting throughout the Old Testament for the new act of God that would bring deliverance to his people. For Christians this season of expectation also symbolizes the waiting in anticipation for the Second Coming of the Christ when he will return and restore all things.

Contrary to advertising campaigns that tout Christmas as beginning with Advent (or Halloween), the actual Christmas Season in most Western church traditions begins at sunset on Christmas Eve, December 24, and lasts through January 5. Since this time includes 12 days, the season of Christmas is known in many places as the Twelve Days of Christmas. January 6 is usually celebrated as Epiphany, although it carries different significance in various church traditions. Due to different calendars in use in various eras and locations of the church, some cultures and church traditions celebrate Christmas on January 6 (in the older Julian calendar still used as the religious calendar in Eastern Churches, January 6 corresponds to December 24 on our modern calendar).

Editor’s Note > For example Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 6, while Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on December 25. This is due to the different calendars used (Julian vs Gregorian). The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate, (or the Fanar as it is often called which is based in Constantinopole, the capital of the late Byzantium Empire, Constantinopole is today’s Instanbul with the famous Christian church of Aghia Sophia-St. Sophia turned into an Ottoman mosque and today a Museum by the Ottomans/Turks. Aghia Sofia, the perfectly-domed 6th-century Byzantine church converted to a mosque after the conquest of 1453.) the spiritual head of all Orthodox Churches, also celebrates Christmas on December 25.

The Head of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate is His All Holiness Bartholomew I. The Cathedral is the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George church. For additional information please visit > and For additional information on the two calendars see > and

The Origin of Christmas and Epiphany > The origins of the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, as well as the dates on which they are observed, are rooted deeply in the history of the early church. There has been much scholarly debate concerning the exact time of the year when Jesus was born, and even in what year he was born. Actually, we do not know either. The best estimate is that Jesus was probably born in the springtime, somewhere between the years of 6 and 4 BC. The lack of a consistent system of timekeeping in the first century, mistakes in later calendars and calculations, and lack of historical details to cross reference events has led to this imprecision in fixing Jesus’ birth. This suggests that the Christmas celebration is not an observance of a historical date, but a commemoration of the event in terms of worship.

As important as Christmas is in our modern religious culture today, the actual celebration of this holiday as a central part of the church year is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most historians agree that the celebration of Christmas did not begin until about the fourth century, although they are not certain exactly how or why Christmas began as a Christian festival.

The most commonly accepted conclusion is that Christmas originated in Roman culture that celebrated the winter solstice on December 25 (the solstice is the point where the sun’s ecliptic, or apparent path in the sky, is at its furthermost northern and southern point, occurring by our calendar around June 22 and December 22; in the northern hemisphere, we note these days today as the beginning of Summer and Winter). This was a pagan celebration of the birth of the sun (Natalis Solis Invicti) as it once again began its annual journey back north from its southernmost point through the heavens. This marked the change of seasons that promised springtime and renewal of the earth. Christians were reluctant to participate in the pagan festivals, yet the cultural and social pressures to participate were enormous. By the early fourth century, Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus at this time, so it is likely that Christmas was as an alternative to the pagan observance of the winter solstice.

Because of the differences in calendars in use at that time, the Eastern Church celebrated the Incarnation on what is January 6 on our western calendars (although on their calendars this corresponded to December 24), also as an alternative to pagan solstice festivals. Today, most of the Eastern churches (with the exception of Russian Orthodox) follow the Western practice of celebrating Christmas on December 25. However the Western churches also adopted the January 6 date and used it to observe what is now called Epiphany. In effect, the Eastern churches adopted December 25th from the West and the western churches adopted January 6 from the East, and now both are observed in both traditions, although with different emphases.

Christmas Traditions > The traditions surrounding the celebration of this season are almost as numerous as the people who celebrate it. Through the years, the holiday has been adapted to local customs, culture, and history and so has produced an amazing variety of Christmas traditions around the world. Some, such as the giving of gifts or the use of a star, arose directly or indirectly out of the biblical nativity stories. Some, such as the legends of Saint Nicholas, have their origin in church history, historical fact that became legendary as it was embellished in story. Others, such as the use of evergreens and the yule log, have pagan origins but were transformed into distinctively Christian traditions. Others, such as the use of a crèche or caroling, arose first as local traditions in certain countries or regions that became widely adopted. And still others, such as, reindeer, elves, the North Pole, etc., have largely secular origins and are only loosely associated with the holiday in popular imagination or marketing techniques.

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