FOR some 300 years after the nativity of Jesus there was speculation as to when he was born; because there was no precise date upon which to hold any sort of festivity, the birth wasn’t celebrated.
There was an oral tradition, of course; stories about the birth were told within the circles of early Christian families. These were passed on from one generation to the next, and it was these stories that Matthew and Luke wove into their gospels when they wrote them some 60-odd years after the Crucifixion. So at the beginning of their writings we have the traditional accounts of the Nativity - what are called ‘the birth narratives’.
The Roman emperor, Constantine, helped the observance of Christmas as a festival on its way. In 312 he embraced the Christian religion. This was advantageous to the followers of Christ: such imperial favour considerably diminished the persecutions to which they were subjected, which meant that Christianity entered an era of reasonably easy accord.
December 25 as Christmas Day is first mentioned in a Latin calendar dated 336. That date was, in fact, a mid-winter pagan festival in the northern hemisphere. So in a shrewd move the Early Church adopted it - Christianised it, as it were - and gave it a new meaning and emphasis; which was very acceptable in the relatively peaceful period in which Christians could practice their developing religion.
Along with this, and contributing to the growing importance of celebrating the holy birth, were the controversies concerning the Incarnation (God in Christ) and the Person of Jesus (God being also Man). It was all very complicated (it still is, for that matter). Anyway, these theological debates, among other aspects of the Faith, occupied the minds of the Early Church theologians for some 200 years. No one can say that the Church of Christ got off to a quick and easy start!
Over the centuries, as Christianity spread throughout the world, the importance of Christ’s birth was devoutly observed and commemorated and celebratory festivities became increasingly popular, particularly so in the Middle Ages. And it seems that nowhere was the festival more robustly enjoyed than in England. By Shakespeare’s time the merrymaking went on for 12 days; work ceased and everybody gave themselves over to feasting and fun.
In varying degrees, this aspect of Christmas continued through the following decades; and as you would expect, the Puritans disapproved. Indeed, much later, in the mid-17th Century when England was in the grip of civil war, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas festivities (such as they were in that bleak period of our history which he had helped bring about) and ordered that December 25 be observed as a religious fast. Not a popular chap, Cromwell.
Christmas as we observe it today had its beginnings in the mid-Victorian era, in which Charles Dickens played a prominent part. He promoted - indeed, invented - the ‘family’ Christmas through his novel A Christmas Carol with its idea of family members gathering together to celebrate the festive season. More to the point, though, the sentimentality of the story drew sympathetic attention to the needs of the disadvantaged.
The novel’s protagonist - the grasping, covetous Ebenezer Scrooge (was there ever a better name for a mean-minded miser) and the change in character he undergoes in the course of the narrative - points us to some of the basic ethics of Christianity: the necessity of change within the human condition, and the importance of generosity, love, peace and goodwill.
Cardinal virtues - not just for Christmas but for all time.