THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS: ADVENT
Here begins our series of articles on the History of Christmas. The traditional season of Advent leading up to Christmas begins today.
“Advent” from the Latin adventus means the “coming” or “arrival” of the Christ Child and is marked by the four Sundays preceding Christmas, this year starting Sunday, December 2 and ending December 24. It is celebrated in the church calendar as one of the most festive seasons of the year. The Greek word in the New Testament for Jesus’ arrival is parousia, a word commonly used during that time in anticipation of the arrival of a king, emperor, or official.
As we shall see, many of the traditions, customs, and stories of the Advent Season have Christian roots while others have non-Christian sources. Some are legendary, and others are firmly rooted in history.
Ironically, the date for the Nativity — upon which our Western dating system is based — is not known with certainty. The Feast of Christmas was not an early festival for the church, like Resurrection Sunday (Easter) was. Here is the progression of its adoption and widespread practice:
- Hippolytus of Rome between 202-211 AD referred to the birth of Jesus occurring on December 25, in 3 or 4 BC.
- Sextus Julius Africanus,the Christian historian, in 221 AD mentioned December 25 as the birth of Jesus.
- The Chronology of 354 is the first to mention Christmas as an annual feast or holiday. It reads in part:
natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae – Eighth day before the kalends of January [December 25] Birth of Christ in Bethlehem Judea.
- It was not until the early part of the 5th century that the western church agreed upon the current date of December 25 under Pope Leo I.
Some scholars, especially in the eastern church, suggested that the date of Christmas was derived as 9 months after the Annunciation (to Mary) which is celebrated on March 25. This would place the birth of Christ on December 25.
Many 18th century scholars, including Isaac Newton, argued that this date was picked to supplant the pagan holiday Saturnalia that was celebrated by the Romans and that many customs survive today: evergreen, holly, mistletoe, feasting, and gift exchanges.
More recent historians observe that we didn’t know about many of the customs of Saturnalia until Christian times, casting uncertainty on which customs were “pagan.” We’ll discuss Christmas customs during this series, especially as it relates to the celebration of Yule.
December 25, the ancient date for the Winter Solstice, was celebrated as the birthday of the “unconquerable sun” or natalis invicti solis when the sun’s transit was in the lowest point on the horizon with the shortest “day” of the year and then with longer days coming began its transit northward. Under the Christian calendar, the 25th was to become known as the birth of the unconquerable Son.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian