It was around 200 A.D., according to St. Clement of Alexandria, that theologians in Egypt settled on May 20 as the birthday of Jesus, while others argued for dates in April and March.
This wasn’t a major issue, since early Christians emphasized the Epiphany on Jan. 6, marking Christ’s baptism. Then sometime before 354, Rome began celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25. Eastern churches kept using different dates, but the Roman custom became the norm by the end of the 4th century.
“It was all quite confusing,” explained classics scholar Joe Walsh of Loyola College in Baltimore, who explores this maze during his “History of Christmas” class. “Early Christians didn’t really lock in on this kind of thing, since they believed their world was going to end soon anyway.”
It took time for the nativity feast to become the 12-day Christmas season. Today, Christmas has become something else altogether.
Easter traditions developed first, with Holy Week events on specific days of the week and a firm link to the Jewish Passover. A nativity date was harder to pin down and, over time, conflicting traditions created tensions. The Second Council of Tours clarified matters in 567, establishing Dec. 25 as the nativity date and Jan. 6 as Epiphany.
The council took another diplomatic step and proclaimed the 12 days between the feasts the holy season of Christmas — the biggest party in Christendom.
This act linked believers in East and West and offered a symbolic alternative to competing pagan festivals in the marketplace. Drawing a parallel with Easter, it also made sense for a reflective season of prayer and fasting to precede Christmas. This became Advent in the West and Nativity Lent in the East.
That was then. This is now.
Walsh said his students assume that Christmas equals “The Holidays,” the marketing season between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25, which is followed by a festival of returned gifts and football games. Most do not know that there is more to the 12 days of Christmas than a song about a partridge, a pear tree and other bizarre gifts.
Times change. A few generations ago, department stores stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve, a tradition seen in many old Christmas movies.“Why did they do that? Because people were out doing the shopping that we start doing in October,” said Walsh. “The days before could get pretty intense, but that’s the way things were. Christmas was still Christmas. That really didn’t change until Christmas got sucked into the whole industrialized-commercialized complex that is modern life.”
This happened for many reasons. The Puritan revolution in England played a major role, with its rejection of anything Catholic. Many liturgical and cultural traditions were weakened and never fully recovered, even if they were later celebrated by writers such as Charles Dickens. This had a major impact in the American colonies, where Christmas celebrations were frowned upon or in some cases banned.
At the same time, explosive growth of English cities during the industrial revolution uprooted millions of ordinary people, breaking centuries of ties binding families to churches, land, farms, shops and kin, said Walsh. Quaint traditions that united villages were hard to move to slums in London, Birmingham and Manchester. And what about New York City and the American frontier?
Modern suburbs do not have a church in a public square at the center of town. Most don’t have a public square at all and the true community center is the shopping mall. While many people complain that lawyers and activists have “taken Christ out of Christmas,” the truth is more complex than that. The reality is that almost everyone is skipping the 12-day Christmas season, including church people.
There is no time. There is no place. There is no season.
That could change, said Walsh.
“Whatever resistance there is going to be to what is happening to Christmas will be totally centered on people in churches, churches on both the left and the right,” he said. “People in the middle are going to just go with the cultural flow. But out on the wings — where people are really worried about the economics of all of this or the loss of all the beautiful worship traditions — that’s where Christmas might survive.”