2006-01-01 Christmas lasts twelve days, to the Epiphany

January 1, 2006

Christmas lasts twelve days, to the Epiphany, and includes the feast of the Mother of God, through whom our Lord came into his own creation. It is curious that some extreme Evangelical groups, neglectful of the Lady whom our Lord bequeathed to us from the Cross as our own mother, do not celebrate Christmas on the grounds that it is based on a pagan Roman holiday, but do observe the civil New Year's Day. There are large so-called "mega churches" or "mall churches" run like corporations, which find it cost-productive to close on Christmas.

January 1 is an arbitrary date for the beginning of the new year. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar moved the new year festival from spring to January to synchronize better with the solar cycle. In Catholicism, Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, nine months before the Christmas celebration of Christ's birth, started the new civil calendar, while Advent began the liturgical year. In some places, this still affects the legal courts and tax calendars. In the United States, the presidential inaugu­ration used to take place in March. January 1 became the civil new year in English-speaking countries only in 1752, when England finally accepted the improved calendar which Pope Gregory XIII had imposed in 1582.

The Church would transform the best of pagan customs rather than destroy them. She was free to appropriate an old Roman winter festival for the Christmas celebration. But it is more likely the anti-Christian emperor Aurelian, who was assassinated in 275, promoted a festival "Natalis Solis Invicti" — the Birth of the Unconquered Sun — to brighten the darkest days of the year at a time of political collapse and decay, and collaterally to distract Christians from worshiping Christ, much as influences in Western civilization today try to dream up alternative "holidays" to the true Christmas. Easter and Pentecost were the Church's principal feasts, and Christmas became a major celebration only in about 336. But the Church had long tried to establish a specific date for our Lord's birth, using complicated calculations from the date of the Passion, based on an old custom which ascribed the conception of great figures to the same day of the year on which they died. When the Greek calendar superseded the Roman calendar around 300, the dates differed in the Byzantine and Latin uses.

While December 25 was not the historic date of our Lord's birth, its selection seems to have had nothing to do with the pagan celebration of the "Birth of the Uncon­quered Sun," but Christians were able to make a pun of it, in celebrating the birth of the "Sun of Justice and Righteousness."

Cardinal Newman said that to know history is to cease being Protestant. It is also true that to honor the "Mother of God" is to praise without the stain of heresy her Son who is the Light of the World.

Fr. George W. Rutler

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