The first Christians do not celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ as do Christians today. Theologically, the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, some as Origen (mid-third century) refuse to celebrate the birth as it was and did at the time for a temporal sovereign (king, emperor, pharaoh, queen) .
It took more than three centuries and a half that Christmas became an official religious holiday and another two centuries for this festival is widespread.
Beginning of the Christian era
For nearly three centuries, Christians seem to have not celebrated annual festival other than Easter. Gradually will appear the desire to historicize the birth of Jesus Christ. It is from the fourth century, that a feast of the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, translated by the Epiphany, and Christmas, will take place alongside the most ancient festivals of Easter and Pentecost in the liturgical Christian calendar.
Attested in Rome under the pontificate of the bishop Liberius, a celebration of the incarnation of Saviour takes place on December 25 on the occasion of which the bishop gathers Christians in newly built in Vatican Basilica, completed in 354, in a more general framework that appears like the formation of a liturgical calendar designed to compete in Rome the pagan revelry. The Fathers of the Church does not oppose this syncretism about the Nativity, considering that this calendar choice could lead to theological heresies and that it confirmed the coming of the Messiah as the “rising star” and as the “Sun of Justice” by the prophet Malachi. Christmas has thus substituted for the celebrations of the pagan festival all the more easily that the biblical references helping, developed metaphorically to describe the newborn Christ symbolism of a “true sun”, the “new sun” shining on the world.
December 25 becomes the commemorative date of the birth of Jesus Christ and then the celebration of the time of Nativity will gradually extend, like the paschal cycle, with a preparation period of two to four weeks – the Advent – and a period that continues until the conclusion of the cycle with the celebration of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple that takes place on February 2 at Candlemas.
Having no correspondence with the Hebrew calendar, unlike the other two parties and which follow the lunar calendar, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ follow the solar calendar, which will not be without problems in the determination of the liturgical year.
This commemoration is gradually spreading in Gaul and the East.
- In 425, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II officially codifies the ceremonies of the Christmas party.
- Clovis was baptized on Christmas Eve in a year between 496 and 499.
- In 506, the Council of Agde made Christmas a day of obligation.
- In 529, Emperor Justinian made it a public holiday.
- In 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day.
- In 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.
In the fifth century under Pope Gregory the Great, Midnight Mass is celebrated already. In the seventh century, Rome was starting to use to celebrate three Masses: Vigil on the evening of December 24th, the Mass of the morning and the Mass of the day on December 25. 40 days before Christmas became the “forty days of St. Martin” in honor of St. Martin of Tours.
Christmas party gradually continues to spread in Europe: late fifth century Ireland, in the seventh century in England, in the eighth century in Germany, in the ninth century in the Scandinavian countries, the ninth and tenth centuries in Slavic countries.
Around the year one thousand, the Church is based on the importance of Christmas time for warlike lords to impose a period of enforced peace, the Truce of God.
From the twelfth century, the religious celebration is accompanied by liturgical dramas, the “mysteries” that depict the adoration of the shepherds or the procession of the Magi. These liturgical dramas originally played in churches and earn the courts.
From the Renaissance
In the fifteenth century the cribs appear in churches, first in Italy and then spread into homes in the seventeenth century. In the reformed countries, Christmas celebrations, party considered too pagan or too Catholic, are limited. Banned in England from 1647, they are reinstated in 1660 but remain unpopular in most of the English clergy. In North America in Boston, early settlers forbid Christmas celebrations. The ban will be lifted in 1681.
In 1893, the Catholic Church enriches the Christmas season by introducing the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday immediately following Christmas.