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Musical Musings: Christmas


Part I: Origin of the Word

Transcribed by Susanti A. Suastika

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.


The word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038, and Cristes-messe, in 1131. In Dutch it is Kerst-misse, in Latin Dies Natalis, whence comes the French Noël, and Italian Il natale; in German Weihnachtsfest, from the preceeding sacred vigil. The term Yule is of disputed origin. It is unconnected with any word meaning "wheel". The name in Anglo-Saxon was geol, feast: geola, the name of a month (cf. Icelandic iol a feast in December).


Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, PG. XII 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius(VII, 32 in PL. V 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.


The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Strom. I xxi in PG. VIII 888) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron. II 397 n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.] Others reached the date of 24 or 25 Pharmuthi (19 or 20 April). With Clement's evidence may be mentioned the De paschæ computus, written in 243 and falsely ascribed to Cyprian (PL. IV 963 sqq.), which places Christ's birth on 28 March, because on that day the material sun was created. But Lupi has shown (Zaccaria, Dissertazioni ecc. del p. AM. Lupi Faenza 1785 p.219) that there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ's birth. Clement, however, also tells us that the Basilidians celebrated the Epiphany, and with it, probably, the Nativity, on 15 or 11 Tybi (10 or 6 January). At any rate this double commemoration became popular, partly because the apparition to the shepherds was considered as one manifestation of Christ's glory, and was added to the greater manifestations celebrated on 6 January; partly because at the baptism-manifestation many codices (eg. Codex Bezæ) wrongly give the Divine words as sou ei ho houios mou ho agapetos, ego semeron gegenneka se (Thou art my beloved Son, this day have I begotten thee) in lieu of en soi eudokesa (in thee I am well pleased), read in Luke 3:22. Abraham Ecchelensis (Labbe II 402) quotes the Constitutions of the Alexandrian Church for a dies Nativitatis et Epiphaniæ in Nicæan times; Epiphanius (Hær. li ed. Dindorf 1860 II 483) quotes an extraordinary semi-Gnostic ceremony at Alexandria in which, on the night of 5-6 January, a cross-stamped Korê was carried in procession round a crypt, to the chant, "Today at this hour Korê gave birth to the Eternal"; John Cassian records in his Collations (X 2 in PL. XLIX 820), written 418-427, that the Egyptian monasteries still observe the "ancient custom"; but on 29 Choiak (25 December) and 1 January, 433, Paul of Emesa preached before Cyril of Alexandria, and his sermons (see Mansi IV 293; appendix to Act. Conc. Eph.) show that the December celebration was then firmly established there, and calendars prove its permanence. The December feast therefore reached Egypt between 427 and 433.

Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Asia Minor

In Cyprus, at the end of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserts against the Alogi (Hær. li 16 24 in PG. XLI 919 931) that Christ was born on 6 January and baptized on 8 November. Ephraem Syrus (whose hymns belong to Epiphany, not to Christmas) proves that Mesopotamia still put the birth feast thirteen days after the winter solstice; i.e. 6 January; Armenia likewise ignored, and still ignores, the December festival. (Cf. Euthymius, Pan. Dogm., 23 in PG. CXXX 1175; Niceph. Hist. Eccl, XVIII 53 in PG. CXLVII 440; Isaac, Catholicos of Armenia in eleventh or twelfth century, Adv. Armenos, I, xii, 5 in PG. CXXII 1193; Neale, Holy Eastern Church, Introd. p.796). In Cappadocia, Gregory of Nyssa's sermons on St. Basil (who died before 1 January, 379) and the two following, preached on St. Stephen's feast (PG. XLVI 788; cf 701 721), prove that in 380 the 25th December was already celebrated there, unless, following Usener's too ingenious arguments (Religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, Bonn, 1889, 247-250), one were to place those sermons in 383. Also, Asterius of Amaseia (fifth century) and Amphilochius of Iconium (contemporary of Basil and Gregory) show that in their dioceses both the feasts of Epiphany and Nativity were separate (PG. XL 337 XXXIX 36).

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Part II: More Early Celebrations 

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