Christmas, Nativity: An ancient birth became a global celebration

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25: Ring the bells and rejoice in the Nativity—it’s Christmas! For 2 billion Christians worldwide, the birthday of Jesus is celebrated with special services, feasting and the gathering of family and friends. (For Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, Christmas will occur in 13 days, on the Gregorian Jan. 7. Read an article about the season in Moscow.)

Gather beneath the mistletoe and holly, sing some carols and be glad! For Christians, in the words of Pope Francis, in a recent interview: “It is the encounter with Jesus.”

Did you know? Christmas kicks off the first of 12 days of Christmastide, which lasts until the eve of Epiphany.

The precise birth year of Jesus is estimated between 7 and 2 BCE. The choice of December 25 as the date of Christmas also is debated: Historians point out that the date was chosen in the ancient world in the hope of eclipsing pagan solstice rituals; and, to this day, many customs we regard as Christmas traditions have their roots in pagan culture. Whatever the rationale, the date was set in the early centuries of Christian history. Some ancient Christian writers—including the 3rd-century historian Sextus Julius Africanus—argued that a December 25 date made sense as Jesus’ actual birthday. (As always, Wikipedia has many more details on Christmas history.)

Does it surprise you to read that Christmas has pagan roots? Most Americans already know that bit of history, in part because we continue to see contemporary culture shape our Christmas traditions. The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer reports on the ‘Rocket Fuel’ that media companies have found in playing 24/7 Christmas music on radio stations nationwide. Oppenheimer wrote in part:

According to, which tracks radio formats, 533 stations are currently playing only Christmas music—a list that includes a handful of HD stations, not available on all receivers. Paul Heine, a senior editor at Inside Radio, which runs the website, said that these stations could expect a lot of new listeners, although not all of them stick around in January. “During the holiday period, it’s like ratings rocket fuel for stations that do a good job with the format and that are known as the Christmas station in their marketplace,” Mr. Heine said. “So we’ve seen where a station can double or even triple its overall ratings. Admittedly, it’s a short-term boost, just for months of November and December, but it draws in a massive amount of new listeners.”

Talk about big money! The Times also reported recently that New York City residents typically paid between $150 to $200 for the live Christmas trees gracing their homes this week!

Are you shouting, “Bah, Humbug!” at this point in December? If so, then you’ll want to read author and columnist Cindy LaFerle’s antidote to Christmas stress: Dare to Downsize Christmas.


However the date was chosen, by the mid 4th century, the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on Dec. 25; this practice was later adopted in the East. Over the past two millennia, with some fits and starts in Christmas history, the holiday generally grew in popularity. By the High Middle Ages, kingdoms far and wide were holding parties from Christmas through Epiphany. (Get more history from Catholic Culture.)

Of course, there were Christian critics of the holiday! Puritans of colonial America complained that celebrations were “un-biblical.” In fact, the Boston Puritans even canceled Christmas for 22 years, and fined anyone who took part!

Did you know? Theophany (Epiphany) ranks higher in the Orthodox Christian Church than Nativity. Theophany commemorates the Baptism of Jesus, rather than Epiphany’s arrival of the Magi.  

The 19th century brought many of the customs associated with Christmas today, from descriptions in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to Clement C. Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas). Photos of the Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle were published in 1848, and such photos reached American newsstands by 1850.


The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, located above the rocky grotto where many believe Mary gave birth to Jesus, may not be picture-perfect this season: After decades of neglect, the basilica is being restored. A leaky roof threatened to damage mosaics and other priceless treasures, experts agreed, and several groups listed the site under categories like “endangered” and “urgent.” Apprehension surrounding the meticulous process of the preservation, paired with the delicate relations between the various religious groups that share ownership of the church, has contributed to delays in preservation. Funds have been provided by the Palestinian government, European countries and private donors.

The National Catholic Register’s story on the renovation reports: In August, officials of the Palestinian Authority and Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Apostolic Armenian Churches signed an agreement authorizing an Italian restoration company to fix the church, whose basilica was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian about 600 A.D. The original Church of the Nativity, built in 330 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine, was mostly destroyed 200 years later. The existing church was built on the same site.

Francis and the 790th Anniversary
of the Nativity Scene

For two millennia, Christmas has been a story of converging cultures. The pagan reverence for trees at Yule took a Christian twist in the 7th century, when St. Boniface declared the fir tree to be religiously appropriate because of it triangular shape: It represents the Trinity and points toward heaven, Boniface argued.

Tradition holds that St. Francis created the first “Nativity Scene” in 1223—so the world is only 10 years away from the 800th anniversary of this Christmas custom. Naturally, the pope who was named TIME magazine’s global figure of the year—and who took on Francis’s name as pontiff in March—is making news concerning the Vatican’s Nativity Scene. According to The Catholic News Agency: Traditionally located within a large chapel of the basilica, the nativity has been moved to the “Baptistery Chapel” near the front entrance, which is higher and less wide, allowing less room for the decorations that usually adorn the scene.  A source close to the Vatican’s nativity project revealed to CNA that this decision was made at the request of Pope Francis, who stated that he preferred something “very simple” and “down to the basics,” and which speaks of the poverty of Christ’s birth.

The image of St. Nicholas, in bishop robes, turned secular in the 19th century, though many countries still recall the bishop on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6). It is widely accepted that Christmas decorations be taken down on the eve of Epiphany, although in some countries, the date is extended to Candlemas.

In both Eastern and Western Churches, the eve of Christmas is a time for special services. Get an Eastern perspective from Orthodox Church in America.


(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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