The traditions of Christmas are described, including background on the crèche, originated by Francis of Assisi.
The origins of the feast of Christmas, as distinct from the Epiphany, though not completely clear are interesting to review.
The first three Christian centuries have left us no historical record pertaining to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The Gospels do not indicate either the day or the month of Christ’s birth. Modern scholars think Christ was born between 8 and 6 B.C.
The conversion of Constantine in the fourth century and the historical celebration of the feast of Christmas probably are connected. At the time of the winter solstice, the pagans celebrated the Mythric festival of the birthday of the invincible sun god on Dec. 25 in the Julian calendar and on Jan. 6 in the Egyptian calendar.
When Constantine converted to Christianity, he promoted the Christian religion throughout the Roman Empire. To counter worship of the pagan gods in favor of Jesus Christ, Constantine established a festival emphasizing the incarnation of Jesus by uniting the December celebration of the birthday of the Roman sun god with the birthday of Jesus Christ.
Actually, the earliest testimony to a specific feast of Christmas is the sermon of St. Basil, who died in 379. The oldest extant Christmas sermon seems to have been delivered by a priest named Optatus of Numidia, North Africa, around 383. The feast of the Nativity was originally celebrated on Jan. 6. Christmas, as distinct from the Epiphany, gradually became a permanent part of the Church’s liturgy.
As Christ’s pre-eminent position became theologically more precisely understood, the doctrines of the incarnation and the redemption were incorporated into Church liturgy as the feasts of Christmas and Easter. These doctrines comprise the central expressions of belief about Jesus Christ as God and Man. In Christianity, the inaccessible God becomes accessible through Jesus Christ, who is Emmanuel, “God with us.”
In the beginning of the third century, a neo-platonic philosopher named Porphyry, a disciple of Plotinus, together with some of the Roman intelligentia, initiated a devastating assault on the divinity of Jesus Christ. In the following century, a priest named Arius of Alexandria also challenged the divinity of Christ and this led to the famous Arian heresy. Because of these intellectual challenges to Christ’s divinity, the 4th and 5th centuries saw five general Church councils come together — all working to give greater theological clarification to the Church’s belief about the divine and human nature, as well as the personhood of Jesus Christ.
Over the centuries, the basic content of the feast of Christmas developed from:
• St. Augustine (fifth century), who theologized about Christmas as a remembrance of the historical event of the mystery of the incarnation.
• St. Francis of Assisi (13th century), who emphasized the history of the humanity of Christ’s birth in the concrete form of the manger scene with live people and animals. Francis of Assisi’s 13th century world had lost its sense of the spiritual side of Christmas. In the year 1223, St. Francis decided to restore the real spirit of Christmas in the quiet little Italian town of Greccio.
In a cave in the hills above Greccio, Francis prepared a manger with real people and real animals. The townspeople were summoned and Christmas Mass was celebrated. Francis of Assisi is credited with originating the Christmas crèche.
— Fr. Stephen, a frequent writer, is a resident of St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J. His past HNP Today reflections can be found by using the search feature of the Province’s Web site. Readers — both friars and lay persons — are encouraged to submit reflections on seasonal themes.