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The Solemnity of Christmas in the Catholic Church

Christ Is Born! Glorify Him!

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Nativity scene (2007) at the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

A Nativity scene for Christmas 2007 in front of the main altar at the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome, Italy.

(Photo © Scott P. Richert) The 2007 Christmas Tree in Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

The 2007 Christmas Tree in Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City.

(Photo © Scott P. Richert) Putting up the Christmas tree on Gaudete Sunday (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

Putting up the Christmas tree on Gaudete Sunday.

Scott P. Richert

The word Christmas derives from the combination of Christ and Mass; it is the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Second in the liturgical calendar only to Easter, Christmas is celebrated by many as if it were the most important of Christian feasts.

Quick Facts

History of Christmas

People are often surprised to find that Christmas was not celebrated by the earliest Christians. The custom was to celebrate a saint's birth into eternal life—in other words, his death. Thus Good Friday (Christ's death) and Easter Sunday (His Resurrection) took center stage.

To this day, the Church celebrates only three birthdays: Christmas; the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the Birth of John the Baptist. The common thread in the celebrations is that all three were born without sin: Christ, because He was the Son of God; Mary, because she was sanctified by God in the Immaculate Conception; and John the Baptist, because his leap in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth, at the Visitation is seen as a type of Baptism (and thus, even though John was conceived with Original Sin, he was cleansed of that sin before birth).

It took a while, though, for the Church to develop the feast of Christmas. While it may have been celebrated in Egypt as early as the third century, it did not spread throughout the Christian world until the middle of the fourth century. It was first celebrated along with Epiphany, on January 6; but slowly Christmas was separated out into its own feast, on December 25. Many of the early Church Fathers regarded this as the actual date of Christ's birth, though it does coincide with the Roman festival of Natalis Invicti (the winter solstice, which the Romans celebrated on December 25), and the Catholic Encyclopedia does not reject the possibility that the date was chosen as "a deliberate and legitimate 'baptism' of a pagan feast."

By the middle of the sixth century, Christians had begun to observe Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, with fasting; and the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day to Epiphany, had become established.

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