The Christmas Season

By Edgardo C. de Vera

December 25 is perhaps the most anticipated red letter date in our calendar. It brings a refreshing pause in everyone’s occupation not only on Christmas Day but on days that precede and follow. A congenial mood prevails and people tend to be friendlier, more generous, loving, tolerant and forgiving. The season it brings is marked by joyful family reunions, rekindling of old friendships and forging new ones. In a nutshell everyone just seems happy.

The Christmas season seems to cast a joyous spell on all people. This festive gaiety is conveyed by a poster that says it all: Jesus is the Reason for the Season and the reason for that light-hearted feeling that makes Christians a culturally happy lot. We commemorate the birth of our Lord and Redeemer, the Immanuel, the God with us become man to save humanity from the wages of sin and death. As a verse from a popular Christmas carol goes: "Long lay the world, in sin and error pining; till He appeared and the soul felt its worth." So we say, “Merry Christmas.”

The greeting recalls our Savior’s birth, life, death and resurrection. It is evolved from “the Mass of Christ” or “Christ’s Mass” of archaic English Crist Maesse; from Latin missum meaning mission. In Spain the Iberians say Feliz Navidad, Italians Buon Natale, the French Joyeux Noel, and Portugese, Felix Natale – all meaning “A Joyous Birth”. The Filipino version of the Christmas greeting - "Maligayang Pasko", from another Spanish salutation Feliz Pascua and Felices Pascuas - is unique since it literally means “Happy Pasch” or “Happy Passover” because Christmas points to our Passover, which is Easter, and inseparable from it. The joy of salvation is conveyed in any form of vernacular felicitation.

Many have the mistaken notion that Christmas is the most important feast of the Church. But despite four weeks of an anticipation-filled Advent, nine-day devotional Nova Masses that fill up churches (a uniquely Philippine tradition), the highlight and romance of midnight Misa de Gallo, plus para-liturgical preparations, solemnities and other liturgical feasts within its season (not to mention attendant trappings of carols, Noche Buena, twinkling lights, décor and so on), Christmas is only second in importance to Easter. In the Infant Church, our Christian forbears had only one great feast: Easter Sunday, celebrated with much joy and renewed weekly each Sunday.

The Nativity was the third liturgical feast instituted by the Church after Easter, then Pentecost. Sometime between the second and third centuries some Christian communities felt the need to observe the Redeemer’s birth in liturgy. A slow development flourished in Greece, Alexandria in Egypt, Jerusalem, parts of Turkey, and Italy. Dates varied since no one knew the exact day Jesus was born; the devotional liturgy gradually became annual with its observance usually falling between the months of September and March. For instance, Christians in Alexandria observed Christmas on March 25, the first day in their calendar.

Although Church Fathers could not agree on a single fixed date, the months of December and January became ascendant circa third century; still some adhered to a springtime birth. As the argument goes, Palestine winter from mid-October to January is rainy therefore presence of shepherds and sheep in the field at that time would have been improbable. Others contended that the verdant growth on rainy months were best for pasturing sheep, and people close to the land could predict when rain was imminent (cf. Luke 12:54); moreover shepherds who, like any agrarian worker would have been able to forecast weather fairly accurately. A Filipino Scripture scholar who stayed in Jerusalem for four years and observed the land and its people supports the hypothesis of a winter birth.

Around the late third century the observance of Christ’s birthday was narrowed between December 20 and January 20. The earliest evidence of observing Christmas on December 25 was recorded in 330, in Rome; all Latin Rite Churches held this date for the Nativity. Meanwhile the Eastern tradition celebrated Christmas together with the Epiphany, Baptism of our Lord, and Miracle at Cana on January 6 – all on one date. In time December 25 was accepted by Eastern Rite Churches, and January 6, incorporated into the Church calendar for the Epiphany.

In the Pre-Vatican II liturgical calendar, December 25 ushered in a Christmas Season of twelve days ending January 6, the Epiphany (“Feast of the Three Kings” to many Filipinos). We are also familiar with the lively Christmas carol Twelve Days of Christmas and how it was supposedly used as a catechetical ditty of twelve Catholic tenets, back in 17th century England when Catholicism was banned and teaching the Faith was a crime.

Liturgical reforms of Vatican II extended the Christmas season from December 25 to the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord – the second Sunday after New Year’s Day. The Council allowed also for moving some feasts to the Sunday closest it, e.g., Epiphany, Ascension and a few others. The Philippine Church opted for the First Sunday after New Year for the Epiphany though most other local churches retained the sixth; Christmas Day however remained fixed in the universal calendar. Note however that when January 1 falls on a Sunday, the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord is celebrated on the Monday following Epiphany; Third Sunday is earmarked for the Solemnity of the Santo Niño, which is unique to the Philippines.

Worship of the sun-god was a cult widespread among diverse ancient pagans. Romans had many deities in their mythology, but Sol Invictus – Invincible Sun was one they assimilated from pagan peoples in the Empire. They set aside the twenty-fifth of December for his birthday while also designating Sunday, the first day of the week to his honor. Why so? And why did the Church choose December 25 for the Nativity?

During Winter Solstice which falls around December 25, daylight hours start to lengthen in duration up till summer; for the Romans that was good enough reason to mark it as the birth of Sol Invictus. Another date, March 25, the vernal equinox – when light and dark were of equal time duration – was sacred to many pagans who believed it to be the date of creation. Church Fathers speculated on these two dates and the sun symbolism of pagan cultures against some verses of Scripture, such as sun of righteousness (Mal 3:20) that was exegetically conjectured as allegorically pointing to Christ, the True Light who dispels the darkness, the Eternal Truth who brings justice and righteousness.

Eventually December 25 was “Christianized” to mark the birthday of Jesus Christ; March 25 for Feast of the Annunciation, a date nine months prior to the Nativity that likewise marks the Mystery of the Incarnation. Interestingly both red letter dates somehow dovetail nicely with biblical narrative.

During the Feast of Tabernacles, sometimes also called Feast of Booths, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer incense. Entry into this inner sanctum occurred only once a year in the month of Tishri (mid-late September 17-25). It was at this time when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to tell him his barren wife would bear a son (Lk 1:8-19). Next Gabriel then visits Mary to announce she would bear the son of the most high and informs her that cousin Elizabeth is six months with child (Lk 1:26-37). With Mary’s fiat (v 38) she conceives Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, and gives birth to Him nine months hence in Bethlehem.

Jews of Jesus’ time also had a December festivity: Hanukkah (Feast of Lights) around mid-December when the Temple in Jerusalem was brightly illumined by the addition of many lights. Often referred to as the Feast of Rededication, this memorial recalled the re-consecration of the Temple to God after the Jewish victory over the Greeks who had desecrated it. We Christians know Jesus to be the True Temple and True Light; what Jews practiced in liturgy foreshadowed the fulfillment in Christ.

A red letter date of relevant significance is June 24, which commemorates the birth of John the Baptist nine months following Tishri when Zechariah learned of his future son whom he was to name John. When John went about preaching repentance many people thought that he might be the promised Messiah. He knew that his mission as the precursor was to point to the Messiah, and in settling a dispute about himself, said, “He must increase but I must decrease (Lk 1:8-19) (Jn 3:30). His birthday falls on the summer solstice when daylight starts waning up to winter solstice, when thereinafter light hours increase in duration with the passage of each day.

Are all these red letter dates coincidences? Our beloved late John Paul the Great once said that in the designs of Divine Providence there are no coincidences. And so the Christmas enchantment that gladdens hearts year in, year out is simply a consequence of being Christian; that happy feeling is because Jesus Christ is our Lord, Priest-King, Savior, Redeemer, Brother and Friend. How much more special could we be?

With that, we join the glorious angelic choir to joyfully chorus from our hearts this season and throughout the year: Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.



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