Today we celebrate Christmas which is one of the most important days of the Church year. Christmas is the feast of the incarnation, the feast of God becoming flesh, the Nativity of the Lord. We celebrate God becoming man bringing salvation to all of mankind.
Though we as Catholics differentiate the Christmas season from the Advent season, culturally Christmas has become much more than a liturgical day. For us our Christmas Season begins today, but culturally the Christmas season has been going strong since the day after Thanksgiving. For the past 4 weeks we have heard songs about a snowman who comes alive, a reindeer with a glowing nose, and a drummer boy who had nothing to give but a song. For the past 4 weeks we have been baking cookies, writing and mailing Christmas cards, covering homes with brightly colored lights, attending Christmas parties, and greeting each other and strangers with good cheer and best wishes. Though, liturgically, Christmas begins today, that is not true of for us culturally. Culturally, Christmas is even now beginning to come to an end.
Considering the modern-day grandeur and scope of Christmas, its beginnings as a liturgical day and season is not easy to pinpoint. The early church was more concerned about the return of Christ than they were his beginning. In fact, the church celebrated annual feast days of Saints and martyrs before the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord became a tradition.
Though the actual date of the birth of Jesus is unknown, we do know that sometime in the late 3rd to early 4th century December 25 was selected as the Nativity of the Lord. Though still debated today, the theories as to why and how the early church came upon the date of December 25 are based on observable tendencies of the early church.
The early church had a high respect for symbolism. On the Julian calendar the winter solstice fell on December 25, and the symbolism of Jesus Christ, the light of world, coming on the darkest night of the year was not lost on the early church. The early church had a tendency to borrow from the world around them. It is possible that in an attempt to offset the influence of pagan festivals the early church selected the date to coincide with a harvest festival to the Roman god Saturn. Regardless of the specific reason as to why December 25 was chosen, we do know that the date of the Celebration of the Nativity of the Lord has not changed since the early 4th century when it was established.
Since then the traditions surrounding this day have been influenced by culture, both civil and religious alike. From Santa Claus, whose beginnings are found in the stories of the charity and the humility of a 4th century saint named St. Nicolas, to the Christmas tree, which emerged from 17th century Germany when pre-Christian traditions surrounding evergreens and lights melded with the early Christian tradition of a “paradise tree”. Christmas candles, window lights, luminaries, nativity scenes, los posadas, Christmas carols, mistletoe, holly, poinsettias, and Christmas pageants all came from a culture and a people from somewhere other than the 1st century, out-of-the-way, nowhere town called Bethlehem.
Even in my own family our Christmas traditions have evolved and morphed based on cultural and personal tastes. My Norwegian grandfathers would not have dared celebrate Christmas without oyster stew or lutefisk and lefsa, a Christmas tradition that my family gladly abandoned in favor of Red Baron Pizza and spring rolls. In my childhood home my brother and I opened presents on Christmas Eve. My wife, on the other hand, could not even conceive of a Christmas morning without the frantic unwrapping of presents.
To pretend that Christmas, the season, liturgical or otherwise, is not a wonderful, beautiful, fantastic hodge-podge made up of cultural, religious, and personal traditions would be to miss out on the very reason for this glorious day. That reason, that Jesus Christ, son of God, fully man and fully God, came to earth that ALL who believed in him may become children of God. The traditions of this season are what make this season truly unique and significant for during no other time of the year do we celebrate, what we celebrate this day, the way we celebrate it.
We celebrate hope, love, charity, and peace. We celebrate our acceptance of one another and tolerate those who we otherwise would not. It is not our traditions, customs, and practices that make Christmas so special, rather it is the fact that during this time of year, unlike any other, we celebrate that which we share in common…a desire for light in a dark world…a desire for peace and harmony with our fellow man… a desire for salvation and the hope that it brings.
Our challenge this day is not to defend our traditions from the culture around us, rather it is to share our traditions with the culture around us. Our traditions allow us to express the love, hope, charity and peace which were given to all of mankind as a gift, in the form of an infant. Our challenge is to share our hope, love, charity and peace with those around us, and to do so again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day after that, until the Lord comes again in power and glory.
We come to this altar to today in celebration. Celebrating that God came to us…that God is here with us…and that God will someday come again for us.