Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas is NOT a Day; Christmas is a SEASON; learn more; celebrate it all

Christmas is the annual feast commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, a little over 2000 years ago. For Christians, it is not just a single day (Dec. 25), but an extended liturgical season of joy and celebration, involving many different symbols and traditions, special music and activities, which vary significantly among different countries and cultures. Here are a few interesting things to know about Christmas:
  • When and how long is Christmas?
    • Christmas Day, liturgically called "The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord" in the Catholic Church, technically includes both Christmas Eve (Dec. 24, after sunset) and Christmas Day (Dec. 25) itself. For religiously observant Christians, however, Christmas is not just one day, but an entire season, lasting anywhere from 12 days to 40 days in different ecclesial traditions.
    • In the modern secular world, Dec. 26 already begins the "after-Christmas" sales, and Christmas decorations are often removed before New Year's Day! The "Christmas Season" (for shopping, decorating, parties, music, etc.) used to begin just after Thanksgiving Day (in the United States), but now seems to begin just after Halloween (Oct. 31), if not before! When people hear about the "Twelve Days of Christmas" (or sing the song by that title), they might think it refers to the last 12 shopping days before Christmas.
    • In most Christian traditions, however, the "Christmas Season" properly begins with Christmas Eve (after sunset on Dec. 24), while the "Twelve Days of Christmas" refers to the period from Dec. 25 to Jan. 5.
    • In different Churches, the Christmas Season might end on Jan. 6 (the traditional date of the Feast of the Epiphany), or might last until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (usually the Sunday after Epiphany), or might even last all the way to Feb. 2 (the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, 40 days after Dec. 25).
  • Was Jesus really born on Dec. 25?
    • Probably not! We simply do not and cannot know the exact day on which Jesus was actually born.
    • However, Jesus' birth has been celebrated on Dec. 25 since the early fourth century, when most of the Roman Empire adopted the Christian religion. It replaced the mid-winter Roman festival of "the birth of the sun god" (sol invictus), celebrated just after the winter solstice.
    • The fact that we don't know the exact historical day or date of Jesus' birth should not bother anyone, or mean that Dec. 25 is somehow "wrong." In some countries and cultures, even in today's world, the exact day or date of a baby's birth is not remembered or celebrated. When such people move to another culture that places greater importance on the date of people's births, they must choose a date randomly.
    • Even when someone's birth date is known, the day on which they celebrate it may be different for various reasons: a family might gather on a nearby weekend rather than on a weekday; an office or community might have a combined monthly birthday party; or a school might have a party in the Spring or Fall for all children whose birthdays actually occur during the summer vacation months).
  • What does the word "Christmas" mean?
    • "Christmas" properly refers to the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, Dec. 25 on most calendars, or to the season (Christmastide or Christmastime) which begins on that day (or the night before).
    • In the modern secular world, "Christmas" may also refer non-religiously to Dec. 25, or to the mid-winter legal holiday (in the Northern hemisphere; or a mid-summer holiday below the Equator) observed on that day.
    • Etymologically, the word derives from Old English "Cristes mæsse" (lit. Christ's festival). It is similar to Dutch Kerstmis, but is significantly different in derivation and meaning in many other European languages: German Weihnachten ("Blessed Night"), Italian Natale, Spanish Navidad, French Noël (all ultimately derived from Latin natalis, "birth"), Scandinavian jul (similar to English yule).
  • What are the liturgical colors for Christmas?
    • The official liturgical color of the Christmas Season for most Churches is white or gold, not green and red, as many people assume.
    • Popular culture often associates Christmas with a combination of greens and reds (such as in Poinsettia plants), in addition to the use of white (snow?) and silver, gold, or other shiny metallic colors (stars? bells? musical instruments?).
    • By contrast, green is the proper liturgical color for "Ordinary Time," while red is used on feasts of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles, or martyrs.
  • Christmas CrecheWhat is a Crèche and where does this tradition come from?
    • In the weeks before or during the Christmas season, many people set up a "manger scene" in their churches, homes, or public places, depicting the baby Jesus surrounded by Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, sheep and other animals, and possibly also the magi or "wise men."
    • The French word crèche is similar to German Krippe and English "crib", while the word "manger" comes from the French mangeoire (derived from mangier = "to eat"); these words correspond to Latin praesēpe or Greek phatne (Luke 2:12), all of which originally referred to a "feeding trough" for animals, but also came to be used for an "infant's bed."
    • The Gospel of Luke says, "While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her [Mary] to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:6-7)
    • The tradition of displaying a crèche did not arise until the mid-12th century; it is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to emphasize the poor and humble circumstances in which Jesus was born.
    • The use and design of crèches reflects a wide variety of artistic and cultural traditions. Some people set up a simple crèche long before Christmas, add more figures as Christmas approaches, with the baby Jesus not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve, and the wise men not arriving until Jan. 6.
    • A church's or family's crèche is usually blessed on Christmas Eve with a simple blessing prayer. For online samples, see Blessing Rituals for Advent or Advent Blessings & Prayers.
  • What other liturgical celebrations usually occur during the Season of Christmas?
    • A variety of other feasts and memorials are celebrated during the Christmas Season, some closely related to the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth, others commemorating seemingly unrelated saints, even including some martyrs!
    • Some of these are celebrated on fixed dates on the calendar, others are always on Sundays, and thus have moveable dates. See my chart of Moveable Feasts during the Christmas Season for more details on the following:
      • Dec. 26 - The Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr
      • Dec. 27 - The Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
      • Dec. 28 - The Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs
      • Sunday after Dec. 25 - The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (transferred to Dec. 30 if the Sunday is Jan. 1)
      • Jan. 1 - The Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God (always on New Year's Day, the Octave Day of Christmas, which takes precedence over the Feast of the Holy Family)
      • Jan. 6 or the Sunday after Jan. 1 - The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (traditionally Jan. 6; but in some countries, such as the USA, it is now transferred to the first Sunday after New Year's Day)
      • Sunday after Jan. 6 - The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (transferred to Monday, Jan. 8 or 9, if Epiphany is celebrated on Sunday Jan. 7 or 8, respectively, in certain years.
    • Less important "Memorials" or "Optional Memorials" of certain saints may also be celebrated, but are omitted in years when their dates fall on a Sunday or on one of the moveable "solemnities" or "feasts" listed above:
      • Dec. 29 - St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr; Dec. 31 - St. Sylvester I, pope; Jan. 2 - Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, bishops and doctors of the Church; Jan. 3 - Holy Name of Jesus; Jan. 4 (in USA) - St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, religious; Jan. 5 (in USA) - St. John Neumann, bishop; Jan. 6 (in USA) - Bl. André Bessette, religious; Jan. 7 - St. Raymond of Peñafort, priest
  • What are the liturgical readings for the Christmas Season?
    • Christmas itself is the only day on the liturgical calendar which has four different sets of biblical readings for the four different Masses that can be celebrated at various times: Vigil Mass (Christmas Eve), Mass at Midnight, Mass at Dawn, and Mass during the Day.
      • The Gospel readings for the first three Masses contain excerpts from the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus (from Matthew and Luke), while the Gospel reading for the Mass of Christmas Day is the Prologue of John's Gospel (John 1:1-18).
      • The first readings are various selections from the book of the prophet Isaiah, while the Responsorial Psalms, the Second Readings, and the Gospel Acclamations are chosen thematically.
    • The readings for the other major feasts of the Christmas Season include the biblical accounts of the various events being commemorated.
      • For example, the Gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord is always Matthew 2:1-12, the biblical account of the visit of the Magi from the East. Similarly, the Gospel readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which concludes the Christmas season, are the accounts of the Baptism of Jesus as found in Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3, for Years A, B, and C, respectively.
      • The first and second readings for all feast days are chosen thematically from a variety of Old Testament books and New Testament letters.
      • For most weekdays during the Christmas season, the first reading is taken from the First Letter of John.
    • For detailed charts listing all the readings for particular days, see the following pages of this website:

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