Christmas, the day (December 25th) which is celebrated throughout nearly the whole of Christendom as the birthday of our Savior. "It is occupied, therefore, with the event — the incarnation — which forms the center and turning- point of the history of the world. It is, of all the festivals, the one most thoroughly interwoven with the popular and family life, and stands at the head of the great feasts in the Western Church year. It continues to be, in the entire Catholic world, and in the greater part of Protestant Christendom, the grand jubilee of children, on which innumerable gifts celebrate the infinite love of God in the gift of his only-begotten Son. It kindles in midwinter a holy fire of love and gratitude, and preaches in the longest night the rising of the Sun of Life and the glory of the Lord. It denotes the advent of the true Golden Age, of the freedom and equality of all the redeemed before God and in God. No one can measure the joy and blessing which from year to year flow forth upon all ages of life from the contemplation of the holy child Jesus in his heavenly innocence and divine humility" (Schaff, Church History, 3, § 77).
The observance of Christmas is not of divine appointment, nor is it of N.T. origin. The day of Christ's birth cannot be ascertained from the N.T., or, indeed, from any other source. The fathers of the first three centuries do not speak of any special observance of the nativity. The baptism of Jesus was celebrated in the Eastern Church by A.D. 220, but not in the Western until the fourth century; and the Eastern Church finally adopted the Christmas festival from the Western (about A.D. 380). Some writers (e.g. Cave, Primitive Christianity, pt. 1, ch. 7, p. 194) trace the observance to the 2d century, about the time of the emperor Commodus. Cave cites, to prove that it was observed before the time of Constantine, the following sad story from Baronius (An. 301, p. 41): "While the persecution raged under Diocletian, who then kept his court at Nicomedia, the tyrant, finding multitudes of Christians, young and old, met together to celebrate Christ's nativity, commanded the church door to be shut, and fire put to it, which reduced them and the church to ashes." But it is historically certain that the Christmas festival proper "is of comparatively late institution. This may doubtless be accounted for in the following manner. In the first place, no corresponding festival was presented by the Old Testament, as in the case of Easter and Pentecost. In the second place, the day and month of the birth of Christ are nowhere stated in the Gospel history, and cannot be certainly determined. Again, the Church lingered at first about the death and resurrection of Christ, the completed fact of redemption, and made this the center of the weekly worship and the Church year. Finally, the earlier feast of Epiphany afforded a substitute. The artistic religious impulses, however, which produced the whole Church year, must sooner or later have called into existence a festival which forms the groundwork of all other annualfestivals in honor of Christ" (Schaff, l. c.). To account for the origin of Christmas, therefore, it is not necessary to trace it, as some writers do, to the feast of dedication celebrated by the Jews; or, as others do, to the heathen Saturnalia. Jablonski endeavors to show that it originated with the Basilidians in Egypt (Opuscula, 2:372). "The institution may be sufficiently explained by the circumstance that it was the taste of the age to multiply festivals, and that the analogy of other events in our Savior's history, which had already been marked by a distinct celebration; may naturally have pointed out the propriety of marking his nativity with the same honorable distinction. It was celebrated with all the marks of respect usually bestowed on high festivals, and distinguished also by the custom, derived probably from heathen antiquity, of interchanging presents and making entertainments." At the same time, the heathen winter holidays (Saturnalia, Juvenalia, Brumalia) were undoubtedly transformed, and, so to speak, sanctified by the establishment of the Christmas cycle of holidays; and the heathen customs, so far as they were harmless (e.g. the giving of presents, lighting tapers, etc.), were brought over into Christian use.
The Christmas Cycle of festivals gradually grew up around the observance of the day of nativity. It embraced Christmas eve, or Vigils, which were celebrated with especial solemnity, because, though the precise day of Christ's birth could not be ascertained, it is certain that he was born in the night (Lu 2:8). The four Sundays before Christmas were made preparation days for the festival, and called Advent-Sundays. SEE ADVENT. Memorial days, etc., for the Martyr Stephen (Dec. 26), St. John (Dec. 27), Massacre of the Innocents (Dec. 28), were established in the fourth century. The festival of Circumcision and New Year (Jan. 1) is of later origin, while Epiphany (Jan. 8) is earlier than Christmas.
In later ages many observances, some pleasant, others absurd, grew up around the Christmas festival. Accounts of old English Christmas usages may be found in Chambers, Book of Days (Edinb. 1864, 2 vols. 88vo), and in Brand, Popular Antiquities (Lond. 1841, 3 vols. 12mo). Among them are the following. It was customary to light candles of large size, and to lay upon the fire a huge log, called a Yule clog or Christmas block, a custom not yet extinct in some parts of England. Yule (from huel, a wheel) was a sunfeast, commemorative of the turn of the sun and the lengthening of the day, and seems to have been a period of pagan festival in Europe from ancient times. At court, among many public bodies, and in distinguished families, an officer, under various titles, was appointed to preside over the revels. Leland, speaking of the court of Henry VII, A.D. 1489, mentions an Abbot of Misrule, who was created for this purpose, who made much sport, and did right well his office (Collect. in, App. 256). In Scotland he was termed the Abbot of Unreason; but the office was suppressed by act of Parliament, A.D. 1555. Stow (Survey of London, p. 79) describes the same officer as Lord of Misrule. The Puritans regarded these diversions, which appear to have offended more against good taste than against morality, with a holy horror. Prynne says, in his strong way (in Histrio-Mastix), "Our Christmas lords of misrule, together with dancing, masks, mummeries, stage-players, and such other Christmas disorders, now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalia and Bacchanalian festivals, which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them." The dishes most in vogue were formerly, for breakfast and supper on Christmas eve, a boar's head stuck with rosemary, with an apple or an orange in the mouth, plum porridge, and minced pies. Eating the latter was a test of orthodoxy, as the Puritans conceived it to be an abomination; they were originally made long, in imitation of the manger in which our Lord was laid (Selden's Table-Talk). The houses and churches were dressed with evergreens, and the former especially with mistletoe — a custom probably as old as the Druidical worship. Whether this festival was always celebrated on December 25th is a subject of dispute. It was not till the sixth century that the whole Christian world concurred in celebrating the nativity on the same day. As to the question of the date of Christ's birth, SEE NATIVITY.
Christmas day is observed by nearly all churches in the world except the Dissenters of the British Islands, and the American churches that have sprung from them. In the Roman Church three masses are performed: one' at midnight, one at daybreak, and one in the morning. Sometimes, however, the three masses are said directly one after the other. Both in the Greek and Roman churches, the manger, the holy family, etc., are sometimes represented at large. In the Church of England, and in the Protestant Episcopal Church, divine service is held always on Christmas day. In the former, the Athanasian Creed is required to be said or sung. If Christmas fall on a Friday, it is not to be a fast. In the Wesleyan Methodist Church in England the day is always observed, and generally in the Methodist Episcopal Church in the large cities. — Bingham, Ori. Ecclesiastes bk. 20, ch. 4; Coleman, Chrstian Antiquities, ch. 21, § 4; Dorner, Person of Christ, 1:178; Neander, Life of Chrysostom (Lond. 1845, 8vo), p. 340 (gives Chrysostom's Christmas Homily); Thompson, Christmas and the Saturnalia (Bibliotheca Sacra, 12:144); North British Review, 8:202 (Christmas Literature); Siegel, Christlich-kirchliche Alterthümer, 2:189; Cassel, Weihnachten-Ursprünge, Bräuche, und Aberglauben (Berl. 1861); Marbach, Die heilige Weihnachtszeit (Frankfort, 1865).