December 25, 2016
I thought Christmas was a one day celebration. Why do you keep referring to the season of Christmas?
Growing up in the world and time of the 1960's (my best remembered Christmases were spent in that decade), I recall very consciously celebrating Christmas Day (December 25, or the Feast of the Nativity) in one day. As soon as the Advent wreath disappeared, Christmas was over at McKendree United Methodist Church. Our Advent hymns were Christmas Carols, our Advent lessons and sermons were all about Christmas, and on Christmas Eve we sang the carols until we were exhausted.
However, at St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church, my father's church, December 24 at midnight was when Christmas got going. It was not until that moment that the carols were sung, and those carols were sung long after our tree came down no later than January 1. In fact, they were sung until January 6, way after the holiday football bowl games were finished.
It was in my training for priesthood that I came to understand the history around this tradition and embraced it so fully as to try to prevent signs of Christmas in my own home until it was liturgically proper. We have had more than one Christmas Eve outing to procure a Christmas tree. I am all better now but still long for that more expressive idea of the season, wherein we celebrate for twelve days the wonders of the workings of God in history through the coming of the Christ.
It was in the later part of the fourth century that the celebration anniversary of the Incarnation became fixed. It is around 336 BCE that we first have the first documented mention of December 25 as the date, a date derived from either the Roman Church's countering the City of Rome's celebration of "the birth of the Sun of Righteousness" or from the placement of the "Annunciation" as occurring a little over nine months earlier. This means that non-Christian religious worship under Constantine did not disappear immediately. In the east (i.e. Constantinople) the tradition was formed around the visit of the Magi held to be January 6. This total of twelve days close to the winter solstice form the core of the second seasonal cycle of the church, the earliest and most important being the Feast of the Resurrection, the great fifty days, terminated by Pentecost and preceded by Lent.
The twelve days contain the following feast days, December 26-St. Stephan (think Good King Wenceslas), December 27-St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, December 28-Holy Innocents, January 1-Feast of the Holy Name, and January 6-Feast of the Epiphany (the day the Kings show up—remember our Twelfth night party this year on January 5). More about Partridges and golden rings in the next edition.
The Rev. David Lucey