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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 77. The Christmas Cycle.


Besides the general literature given in the previous section, there are many special treatises on the origin of the Christmas festival, by Bynaeus, Kindler, Ittig, Vogel, Wernsdorf, Jablonsky, Planck, Hagenbach, P. Cassel, &c. Comp. Augusti: Archaeol. i. 533.


The Christmas festival718718   Natalis, or natalitia Domini or Christi,ἡμέρα γενέθλιος, γενέθλια τοῦ Χριστοῦ. is the celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God. It is occupied, therefore, with the event which forms the centre and turning-point of the history of the world. It is of all the festivals the one most thoroughly interwoven with the popular and family life, and stands at the head of the great feasts in the Western church year. It continues to be, in the entire Catholic world and in the greater part of Protestant Christendom, the grand jubilee of children, on which innumerable gifts celebrate the infinite love of God in the gift of his only-begotten Son. It kindles in mid-winter a holy fire of love and gratitude, and preaches in the longest night the rising of the Sun of life and the glory of the Lord. It denotes the advent of the true golden age, of the freedom and equality of all the redeemed before God and in God. No one can measure the joy and blessing which from year to year flow forth upon all ages of life from the contemplation of the holy child Jesus in his heavenly innocence and divine humility.

Notwithstanding this deep significance and wide popularity, the festival of the birth of the Lord is of comparatively late institution. This may doubtless be accounted for in the following manner: In the first place, no corresponding festival was presented by the Old Testament, as in the case of Easter and Pentecost. In the second place, the day and month of the birth of Christ are nowhere stated in the gospel history, and cannot be certainly determined. Again: the church lingered first of all about the death and resurrection of Christ, the completed fact of redemption, and made this the centre of the weekly worship and the church year. Finally: the earlier feast of Epiphany afforded a substitute. The artistic religious impulse, however, which produced the whole church year, must sooner or later have called into existence a festival which forms the groundwork of all other annual festivals in honor of Christ. For, as Chrysostom, some ten years, after the introduction of this anniversary in Antioch, justly said, without the birth of Christ there were also no baptism, passion, resurrection, or ascension, and no outpouring of the Holy Ghost; hence no feast of Epiphany, of Easter, or of Pentecost.

The feast of Epiphany had spread from the East to the West. The feast of Christmas took the opposite course. We find it first in Rome, in the time of the bishop Liberius, who on the twenty-fifth of December, 360, consecrated Marcella, the sister of St. Ambrose, nun or bride of Christ, and addressed her with the words: “Thou seest what multitudes are come to the birth-festival of thy bridegroom.”719719   Ambrose, De virgin. iii. 1: “Vides quantus ad natalem Sponsi tui populus convenerit, ut nemo impastus recedit? This passage implies that the festival was already existing and familiar. Christmas was introduced in Antioch about the year 380; in Alexandria, where the feast of Epiphany was celebrated as the nativity of Christ, not till about 430. Chrysostom, who delivered the Christmas homily in Antioch on the 25th of December, 386,720720   Opp. ii. 384. already calls it, notwithstanding its recent introduction (some ten years before), the fundamental feast, or the root, from which all other Christian festivals grow forth.

The Christmas festival was probably the Christian transformation or regeneration of a series of kindred heathen festivals—the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia, and Brumalia—which were kept in Rome in the month of December, in commemoration of the golden age of universal freedom and equality, and in honor of the unconquered sun, and which were great holidays, especially for slaves and children.721721   The Satumalia were the feast of Saturn or Kronos, in representation of the golden days of his reign, when all labor ceased, prisoners were set free, slaves went about in gentlemen’s clothes and in the hat (the mark of a freeman), and all classes gave themselves up to mirth and rejoicing. The Sigillaria were a festival of images and puppets at the close of the Saturnalia on the 21st and 22d of December, when miniature images of the gods, wax tapers, and all sorts of articles of beauty and luxury were distributed to children and among kinsfolk. The Brumalia, from bruma (brevissima, the shortest day), had reference to the winter solstice, and the return of the Sol invictus. This connection accounts for many customs of the Christmas season, like the giving of presents to children and to the poor, the lighting of wax tapers, perhaps also the erection of Christmas trees, and gives them a Christian import; while it also betrays the origin of the many excesses in which the unbelieving world indulges at this season, in wanton perversion of the true Christmas mirth, but which, of course, no more forbid right use, than the abuses of the Bible or of any other gift of God. Had the Christmas festival arisen in the period of the persecution, its derivation from these pagan festivals would be refuted by the then reigning abhorrence of everything heathen; but in the Nicene age this rigidness of opposition between the church and the world was in a great measure softened by the general conversion of the heathen. Besides, there lurked in those pagan festivals themselves, in spite of all their sensual abuses, a deep meaning and an adaptation to a real want; they might be called unconscious prophecies of the Christmas feast. Finally, the church fathers themselves722722   Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyassa, Leo the Great, and others. confirm the symbolical reference of the feast of the birth of Christ, the Sun of righteousness, the Light of the world, to the birth-festival of the unconquered sun,723723   Dies or natales invicti Solis. This is the feast of the Persian sun-god Mithras, which was formally introduced in Rome under Domitian and Trajan. which on the twenty-fifth of December, after the winter solstice, breaks the growing power of darkness, and begins anew his heroic career. It was at the same time, moreover, the prevailing opinion of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries, that Christ was actually born on the twenty-fifth of December; and Chrysostom appeals, in behalf of this view, to the date of the registration under Quirinius (Cyrenius), preserved in the Roman archives. But no certainly respecting the birthday of Christ can be reached from existing data.724724   In the early church, the 6th of January, the day of the Epiphany festival, was regarded by some as the birth-day of Christ. Among Biblical chronologists, Jerome, Baronius, Lamy, Usher, Petavius, Bengel, and Seyffarth, decide for the 25th of December, while Scaliger, Hug Wieseler, and Ellicott (Hist. Lectures on the Life of our Lord Jesus Christ, p. 70, note 3, Am. ed.), place the birth of Christ in the month of February. The passage in Luke, ii. 8, is frequently cited against the common view, because, according to the Talmudic writers, the flocks in Palestine were brought in at the beginning of November, and not driven to pasture again till toward March. Yet this rule, certainly, admitted many exceptions, according to the locality and the season. Comp. the extended discussion in Wieseler: Chronologische Synopse, p. 132 ff., and Seyffarth, Chronologia Sacra.

Around the feast of Christmas other festivals gradually gathered, which compose, with it, the Christmas Cycle. The celebration of the twenty-fifth of December was preceded by the Christmas Vigils, or Christmas Night, which was spent with the greater solemnity, because Christ was certainly born in the night.725725   Luke ii. 8.

After Gregory the Great the four Sundays before Christmas began to be devoted to the preparation for the coming of our Lord in the flesh and for his second coming to the final judgment. Hence they were called Advent Sundays. With the beginning of Advent the church year in the West began. The Greek church reckons six Advent Sundays, and begins them with the fourteenth of November. This Advent season was designed to represent and reproduce in the consciousness of the church at once the darkness and the yearning and hope of the long ages before Christ. Subsequently all noisy amusements and also weddings were forbidden during this season. The pericopes are selected with reference to the awakening of repentance and of desire after the Redeemer.

From the fourth century Christmas was followed by the memorial days of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Dec. 26), of the apostle and evangelist John (Dec. 27), and of the Innocents of Bethlehem (Dec. 28), in immediate succession; representing a threefold martyrdom: martyrdom in will and in fact (Stephen), in will without the fact (John), and in fact without the will, an unconscious martyrdom of infanthe innocence. But Christian martyrdom in general was regarded by the early church as a heavenly birth and a fruit of the earthly birth of Christ. Hence the ancient festival hymn for the day of St. Stephen, the leader of the noble army of martyrs: “Yesterday was Christ born upon earth, that to-day Stephen might be born in heaven.”726726   “Heri natus est Christus in terris, ut hodie Stephanus nasceretur in coelis.” The connection is, however, a purely ideal one; for at first the death-day of Stephen was in August; afterward, on account of the discovery of his relics, it was transferred to January. The close connection of the feast of John the, Evangelist with that of the birth of Christ arises from the confidential relation of the beloved disciple to the Lord, and from the fundamental thought of his Gospel: “The Word was made flesh.” The innocent infant-martyrs of Bethlehem, “the blossoms of martyrdom, the rosebuds torn off by the hurricane of persecution, the offering of first-fruits to Christ, the tender flock of sacrificial lambs,” are at the same time the representatives of the innumerable host of children in heaven.727727   Comp. the beautiful hymn of the Spanish poet Prudentius, of the fifth century: “Salvete flores martyrum.” German versions by Nickel, Königsfeld, Bässler, Hagenbach, &c. A good English version in “The Words of the Hymnal Noted, ” Lond, p. 45:
   “All hail! ye Infant-Martyr flowers,

   Cut off in life’s first dawning hours:

   As rosebuds, snapt in tempest strife,

   When Herod sought your Saviour’s life,” &c.
More than half of the human race are said to die in infancy, and yet to children the word emphatically applies: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The mystery of infant martyrdom is constantly repeated. How many children are apparently only born to suffer, and to die; but in truth the pains of their earthly birth are soon absorbed by the joys of their heavenly birth, and their temporary cross is rewarded by an eternal crown.

Eight days after Christmas the church celebrated, though not till after the sixth or seventh century, the Circumcision and the Naming of Jesus. Of still later origin is the Christian New Year’s festival, which falls on the same day as the Circumcision. The pagan Romans solemnized the turn of the year, like the Saturnalia, with revels. The church teachers, in reaction, made the New Year a day of penance and prayer. Thus Augustine, in a sermon: “Separate yourselves from the heathen, and at the change of the year do the opposite of what they do. They give each other gifts; give ye alms instead. They sing worldly songs; read ye the word of God. They throng the theatre come ye to the church. They drink themselves drunken; do ye fast.”

The feast of Epiphany728728    τὰ ἐπιφάνεια, or ἐπιφανία, Χριστ φανία, also θεοφανία. Comp. vol i. § 99. on the contrary, on the sixth of January, is older, as we have already observed, than Christmas itself, and is mentioned by Clement of Alexandria. It refers in general to the manifestation of Christ in the world, and originally bore the twofold character of a celebration of the birth and the baptism of Jesus. After the introduction of Christmas, it lost its reference to the birth. The Eastern church commemorated on this day especially the baptism of Christ, or the manifestation of His Messiahship, and together with this the first manifestation of His miraculous power at the marriage at Cana. The Westem church, more Gentile-Christian in its origin, gave this festival, after the fourth century, a special reference to the adoration of the infant Jesus by the wise men from the east,729729   Matt. ii. 1-11. under the name of the feast of the Three Kings, and transformed it into a festival of Gentile missions; considering the wise men as the representatives of the nobler heathen world.730730   Augustine, Sermo 203: “Hodierno die manifestatus redemptor omnium gentium,” &c. The transformation of the Persian magi or priest-philosophers into three kings (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) by the mediaeval legend was a hasty inference from the triplicity of the gifts and from Ps. lxxii. 10, 11. The legend brings us at last to the cathedral at Cologne, where the bodies of the three saint-kings are to this day exhibited and worshipped. Thus at the same time the original connection of the feast with the birth of Christ was preserved. Epiphany forms the close of the Christmas Cycle. It was an early custom to announce the term of the Easter observance on the day of Epiphany by the so-called Epistolae paschales, or gravmmata pascavlia. This was done especially by the bishop of Alexandria, where astronomy most flourished, and the occasion was improved for edifying instructions and for the discussion of important religious questions of the day.



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