Celebration of Christmas
This is an extract from a book called The Year of Grace of the Lord, written by "A Monk of the Eastern Church". The book is a scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the calendar of the Orthodox Church, and as such, it is a goldmine of information, knowledge and understanding. The monk was called Archimandrite Lev Gillet (1893-1980).There is a good biography of Archimandrite Lev in another book he wrote, called The Jesus Prayer. (Both of these books are published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.) Father Lev became the chaplain of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, which he held the rest of his life. His "Offices" were in Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park, in London, where I had the opportunity to meet him in 1968, perhaps because I lived just around the corner, or for some other reason.
Page 96 - THE YEAR OF GRACE OF THE LORD
Notes to Chapter III (Christmas and Epiphany)
By Lev Gillet - A Monk of the Eastern Church
1 The first signs of this celebration come from Egypt. Clement Alexandria, around the year 200, mentions that certain Egyptians commemorated the birth of Christ on May 20. In the first half of the fourth century, the constitutions of the Church of Alexandria laid down that January 6 was both the feast of the Nativity and the Epiphany of Christ.
We know, however, from the sermons of St Gregory of Nyssa that, in 380, the faithful in Cappadocia celebrated the date of December 25. We also know that, in 385, December 25 was not celebrated in Jerusalem. Christmas continued to be ignored by the Church in Jerusalem until the sixth century. St John Chrysostom introduced the celebration of Christmas at Antioch around 386. It seems, that it was also Chrysostom who introduced Christmas at Constantinople between 398 and 402. In Rome, Christmas was celebrated from 354. Meanwhile, the Council of Saragossa in Spain still ignored Christmas in 380, and St Augustine, in the fifth century, omitted it from a list of feasts of the first class, which he drew up. Christmas was, nevertheless, gradually recognised throughout the Christian world.
Why was December 25 chosen as the feast of the Nativity of Christ? It is more than likely that the Church wished to adapt and 'Christianise' certain pagan feasts which were celebrated around that date, as the birth of Dionysios at Delphi, the Saturnalia (December 1st - 23rd), above all the Natalis Invicti, or the feast of the `invincible' sun (the solstice), celebrated on December 25th itself. The Fathers of the Church, notably Cyprian, declared that this `anniversary of the invincible' was made actual in Jesus's birth, the only `invincible' one and the Sun of Justice. Other considerations also influenced the choice of December 25: the date of the Nativity has been made to depend on the date of the conception of Christ, and the Nativity was celebrated nine months after March 25, the feast of the Annunciation. This date had been chosen for the Annunciation because it was thought that Christ was conceived six months after John the Baptist; and the announcement to Zacharias was fixed for September as Zacharias had arbitrarily been made out to be a high priest, and it was remembered that the high priests entered into the sanctuary on the day of Expiation, in September.
Such calculations are entirely fanciful. Historically, we know neither the month nor the year of Jesus's birth. What we call `the Christian era', whose first year coincides with the year 754 after the foundation of Rome, is an invention of the monk Dionysius Exiguus, in the sixth century. In the same way, we have no historical certainty about the date of Jesus's death, or of his age at the time of his death, or of the duration of his public ministry. All that can be said with some degree of probability is that Jesus, at the time of his death, was about thirty years old, and that the period of his preaching could have lasted between one and three years.
We Wish You a Peaceful Christmas!