Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Noel, Noel....on the origins of Christmas

Noel, Noel....on the origins of Christmas

By Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock

[Originally published by Capital Newspapers, Holiday Worship Guide - Sunday, December 17, 2006 Madison, Wisconsin]


The first Noel, the angel did say,

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;

In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,

On a cold winter's night that was so deep.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,

Born is the King of Israel.


Okay, that was the first. Fast forward to December 2006, approximately 2006 years forward, and there is no doubt a lot has happened since that first Noel.


The word Noel, or Nowell, comes from the French word Noël meaning "Christmas", which may also be from the Gaulish words "noio" or "neu" meaning "new" and "helle" meaning "light." (definition source:


First, the birth of Jesus Christ was hardly celebrated at all in the first decades and centuries afterwards. There were several prohibiting factors.

Celebration of the birth of someone who was killed was considered disrespectful to the dead and was rarely acknowledged. It was more typical to honor the date of death to honor heroes and saints. So, the first Christians celebrated the death (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ at (or near) the Jewish Passover. This is still called the "Feast of feasts" to this day. It is still the pinnacle of the religious and spiritual faith and hope that Christians throughout history and throughout the world celebrate.

The beginning of Jesus Christ ministry by being baptized by John in the Jordan River was seen as the most important beginning, establishing the divine purpose of Jesus and the sacred mission of His followers. So, this was celebrated as a feast for early Christians. The earliest records indicate two festivals of Christians everywhere the Resurrection (Pascha Easter) and Epiphany (the Baptism of Jesus). Of course, Sundays were a weekly festival and remembrance of the Resurrection. These festivals were around nine months apart from Easter to Epiphany.

Since it was common belief that holy men had the same birth-date and death-date were the same, it would be redundant to celebrate the birth of a holy man if you are honoring the day of his death. This was a confirming attribute to one's holiness. Holiness could be distinguished if the date of death was the same as the date of conception, if known. This was not always known.

The celebration of someone's birth was atypical, but in this case it was part of the story of salvation for everyone. In addition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew the date of conception given the unusual manner; it is likely any woman would remember that date.

This began a debate among the early Christians, if Jesus was human not just divine then he was born. If he was born, it would have happened in real time and at a real place.

The stories of where He was born were already being told. There were some that also sought to put a timeline on the stories, but, with the general attitude about holy men being born and dying the same date, there wasn't much interest in confirming a date for decades, even centuries. In addition, Christianity grew up under a cloud of oppression and martyrdom, especially before the 4th Century.

It became acceptable practice to combine the nativity stories of Jesus with the festival time of Epiphany. Then the approximate nine months from the crucifixion until Epiphany came to be understood as relating to the nine months from conception to birth. This fit the belief that holy men die on either the day they were born or the day that they were conceived.

Epiphany has long been established as January 6. But by the Third Century, the date of the Nativity of Jesus Christ would be separated and December 25th people world-wide would come to know as Christmas.

The accepted change to the 25th of December coincided with an acceptance of the Annunciation the conception by the Holy Spirit of Mary as March 25th. But as this happened in the time of foot and horseback messages, Christians varied in their practice for centuries. Gift giving, especially to children, was a common practice of early Christians. This was distinguished from general charity and individual giving that was ongoing throughout the year.

One misconception is that Christmas was derived from Saturnalia. It is true that some of the customs and stories of Christmas in the west seem quite similar. Perhaps, the special gift giving at this time was adopted by early Christians. It is clear that the Nativity was celebrated with Epiphany (January 6) among the Christians of the Roman Empire and was not associated with Saturnalia until the Emperor Constantine (whose mother was Christian) decreed the Empire would recognize the Birth of Jesus on December 25 during the established twelve days of Saturnalia. The celebration of Saturnalia was initially a week long festival that ended a few days after the winter solstice. That festival grew longer until it passed through New Year's. The 25th marked a special day for different cults, including the birth of Mithras later Sol Invictus, which coincidentally was an earlier decree of Emperor Constantine.

It wasn't until the 6th Century (circa 560 AD) that nearly every Christian in the known world adopted the new date separated from Epiphany. Church patriarchs and bishops decided, perhaps as a compromise, that the 12 days from December 25 to Epiphany would be a sacred and festive season.

Orthodox Christians throughout the world still hold Epiphany with its Great Blessing of Water as a higher festival than that of the Nativity. The Armenian Orthodox Church of the first country to become Christian in 301 AD has never conceded the separation of Epiphany and Nativity and still celebrates the combine festival on January 6. Catholics and Protestants have elevated the Nativity so much that Epiphany is almost a forgotten festival. In some cases, the Nativity festival is continued until a newer celebration on January 6, which is very popular in Hispanic churches, known as El Dia de Tres Reyes the Day of the Three Kings.

So much of what is popular and common among modern Americans is of more recent origin. Santa Claus' North Pole, elfin workers, Rudolf, and other stories are marketing campaigns that have stuck. Certainly, some of these derived from mythologies and legends that predate Christianity (although Santa Claus is certainly the modern version of Saint Nicholas, a Christian Bishop who lived during the fourth century in what is now Turkey, and spent his life giving gifts to the needy).

What the world has come to despise or embrace as Christmas, American Christmas, almost never was. Settlers and colonists held various customs and attitudes about the celebration of Christmas, mostly negative and anti-Catholic. Puritans and pilgrims were much fonder of their November gift giving traditions in celebration of Thanksgiving. New England Puritans denounced mid-winter festivities and passed an anti-Christmas law in 1659, only to repeal it in 1681.

Historically, Christian churches resisted Christmas as a secular celebration and Christmas remained relatively unimportant in the United States until 1885, when federal employees were given December 25 off. Christmas Day became a legal holiday in the United States when officially declared in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. Four years after the first US Christmas card publisher went bankrupt. Christmas cards are now more than two billion pieces of mail every December in the US alone.

Christmas, American Christmas, has only grown in holiday lights and silver tinsel. Santa and his elves grace every shopping mall and December sales make or break businesses.

Nevertheless, in the stillness of a certain December night, the stars seem brighter and the faith richer for Christians throughout the world. The reason for the season remains in its origins about a humble birth that changed the world that first Noel.

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