A Righte Merrie Christmasse; The Story of Christ-Tide – John Ashton

THE day on which Jesus Christ died is plainly distinguishable, but the day of His birth is open to very much question, and, literally, is only conjectural; so that the 25th December must be taken purely as the day on which His birth is celebrated, and not as His absolute natal day. In this matter we can only follow the traditions of the Church, and tradition alone has little value. In the second and early third centuries of our æra, we only know that the festivals, other than Sundays and days set apart for the remembrance of particular martyrs, were the Passover, Pentecost, and the Epiphany, the baptism or manifestation of our Lord, when came “a voice from Heaven saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” This seems always to have been fixed for the 6th of January, and with it was incorporated the commemoration of His birth. Titus Flavius Clemens, generally known as Clemens of Alexandria, lived exactly at this time, and was a contemporary of Origen. He speaks plainly on the subject, and shows the uncertainty, even at that early epoch of Christianity, of fixing the date:[1] “There are those who, with an over-busy curiosity, attempt to fix not only the year, but the date of our Saviour’s birth, who, they say, was born in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, on the 25th of the month Pachon,” i.e. the 20th of May. And in another place he says: “Some say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of the month Pharmuthi,” which would be the 19th or 20th of April. But, perhaps, the best source of information is from the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire ecclésiastique des six premiers Siècles, by Louis Sebastian le Nain de Tillemont, written at the very commencement of the eighteenth century,[2] and I have no hesitation in appending a portion of his fourth note, which treats “Upon the day and year of the birth of Jesus Christ.” “It is thought that Jesus Christ was born in the night, because it was night when the angel declared His birth to the shepherds: in which S. Augustin says that He literally fulfilled David’s words, Ante luciferum genuite. “The tradition of the Church, says this father, is that it was upon the 25th of December. Casaubon acknowledges that we should not immediately reject it upon the pretence that it is too cold a season for cattle to be at pasture, there being a great deal of difference between these countries and Judæa; and he assures us that, even in England, they leave the cows in the field all the year round. “S.

Chrysostom alleges several reasons to prove that Jesus Christ was really born upon the 25th of December; but they are weak enough, except that which he assures of, that it has always been the belief of the Western Churches. S. Epiphanius, who will have the day to have been the 6th of January, places it but at twelve days’ distance. S. Clement of Alexandria says that, in his time, some fixed the birth of Jesus Christ upon the 19th or 20th April; others, on the 20th of May. He speaks of it as not seeing anything certain in it. “It is cited from one John of Nice, that it was only under Pope Julius that the Festival of the Nativity was fixed at Rome upon the 25th of December. Father Combesisius, who has published the epistle of this author, confesses that he is very modern: to which we may add that he is full of idle stories, and entirely ignorant of the history and discipline of antiquity. So that it is better to rest upon the testimony of S. Chrysostom, who asserts that, for a long time before, and by very ancient tradition, it was celebrated upon the 25th of December in the West, that is, in all the countries which reach from Thrace to Cadiz, and to the farthest parts of Spain.

He names Rome particularly; and thinks that it might be found there that this was the true day of our Saviour’s birth, by consulting the registers of the description of Judæa made at that time, supposing them still to be preserved there. We find this festival placed upon the 25th of December in the ancient Roman Calendar, which was probably made in the year 354…. “We find by S. Basil’s homily upon the birth of our Lord that a festival in commemoration of it was observed in Cappadocia, provided that this homily is all his; but I am not of opinion that it appears from thence either that this was done in January rather than December or any other month in the year, or that this festival was joined with that of the Baptism. On the contrary, the Churches of Cappadocia seem to have distinguished the Feast of the Nativity from that of the Epiphany, for S. Gregory Nazianzen says, that after he had been ordained priest, in the year 361, upon the festival of one mystery, he retired immediately after into Pontus, on that of another mystery, and returned from Pontus upon that of a third. Now we find that he returned at Easter, so that there is all imaginable reason to believe that he was ordained at Christmas, and retired upon the Epiphany. S. Basil died, in all probability, upon the 1st of January in the year 379, and S. Gregory Nyssen says that his festival followed close upon those of Christmas, S.

Stephen, S. Peter, S. James, and S. John. We read in an oration ascribed to S. Amphilochius, that he died on the day of the Circumcision, between the Nativity of Jesus Christ and His Baptism. S. Gregory Nyssen says that the Feast of Lights, and of the Baptism of Jesus Christ, was celebrated some days after that of His Nativity. The other S. Gregory takes notice of several mysteries which were commemorated at Nazianzium with the Nativity, the Magi, etc.

, but he says nothing, in that place, of the Baptism. And yet, if the festival of Christmas was observed in Cappadocia upon the 25th of December, we must say that S. Chrysostom was ignorant of it, since he ascribes this practice only to Thrace and the more Western provinces…. “In the year 377, or soon after, some persons who came from Rome, introduced into Syria the practice of celebrating our Lord’s Nativity in the month of December, upon the same day as was done in the West; and this festival was so well received in that country that in less than ten years it was entirely established at Antioch, and was observed there by all the people with great solemnity, though some complained of it as an innovation. S. Chrysostom, who informs us of all this, speaks of it in such a manner as to make Father Thomassin say, not that the birth of Jesus Christ had till then been kept upon a wrong day, but that absolutely it had not been celebrated there at all. “S. Chrysostom seems to say, that this festival was received at the same time by the neighbouring provinces to Antioch; but this must not be extended as far as to Egypt, as we learn from a passage in Cassian. This author seems to speak only of the time when he was in Scetæ (about 399), but also of that when he wrote his tenth conference (about the year 420 or 425). But it appears that, in the year 432, Egypt had likewise embraced the practice of Rome: for Paul of Emesa, in the discourse which he made then at Alexandria upon the 29th of Coiac, which is the 25th of December, says it was the day on which Jesus Christ was born.

S. Isidore of Pelusium, in Egypt, mentions the Theophany and the Nativity of our Saviour, according to the flesh, as two different festivals. We were surprised to read in an oration of Basil of Seleucia, upon S. Stephen, that Juvenal of Jerusalem, who might be made bishop about the year 420, was the first who celebrated there our Saviour’s Nativity.” The Armenian Church still keeps up the eastern 6th of January as Christmas day—and, as the old style of the calendar is retained, it follows that they celebrate the Nativity twenty-four days after we do: and modern writers make the matter more mixed—for Wiesseler thinks that the date of the Nativity was 10th January, whilst Mr. Greswell says it occurred on the 9th April B.C. 4. It is not everybody that knows that our system of chronology is four years wrong—i.e.

that Jesus Christ must have been born four years before Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. It happened in this way. Dionysius Exiguus, in 533, first introduced the system of writing the words Anno Domini, to point out the number of years which had elapsed since the Incarnation of our Lord; in other words he introduced our present chronology. He said the year 1 was the same as the year A.U.C. (from the building of Rome) 754; and this statement he based on the fact that our Saviour was born in the twenty-eighth year of the reign of Augustus; and he reckoned fromA.U.C. 727, when the emperor first took the name of Augustus.

The early Christians, however, dated from the battle of Actium, which was A.U.C. 723, thus making the Nativity 750. Now we believe that that event took place during Herod’s reign, and we know that Herod died between the 13th March and 29th March, on which day Passover commenced, in A.U.C. 750, so that it stands to reason that our chronology is wrong. Some think that the date of 25th December, which certainly began in the Roman Church, was fixed upon to avoid the multiplication of festivals about the vernal equinox, and to appropriate to a Christian use the existing festival of the winter solstice—the returning sun being made symbolical of the visit of Christ to our earth; and to withdraw Christian converts from those pagan observances with which the closing year was crowded, whilst the licence of the Saturnalia was turned into the merriment of Christmas. This festival of the Saturnalia (of which the most complete account is given by Macrobius in his Conviviorum Saturnaliorum) dated from the remotest settlement of Latium, whose people reverenced Saturnus as the author of husbandry and the arts of life.

At this festival the utmost freedom of social intercourse was permitted to all classes; even slaves were allowed to come to the tables of their masters clothed in their apparel, and were waited on by those whom they were accustomed to serve. Feasting, gaming, and revelry were the occupations of all classes, without discrimination of age, or sex, or rank. Processions crowded the streets, boisterous with mirth: these illuminated the night with lighted tapers of wax, which were also used as gifts between friends in the humbler walks of life. The season was one for the exchange of gifts of friendship, and especially of gifts to children. It began on the 17th December, and extended virtually, to the commencement of the New Year. Prynne[3] speaks thus of Christmas: “If we compare our Bacchanalian Christmasses and New Year’s Tides with these Saturnalia and Feasts of Janus, we shall finde such near affinytie betweene them both in regard of time (they being both in the end of December and on the first of January), and in their manner of solemnizing (both of them being spent in revelling, epicurisme, wantonesse, idlenesse, dancing, drinking, stage playes, and such other Christmas disorders now in use with Christians), were derived from these Roman Saturnalia and Bacchanalian Festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.” The Anglo-Saxons and early English knew not the words either of Christmas or Christ-tide. To them it was the season of Yule. Bede ( de temporum ratione, c. 13), regards it as a term for the winter solstice.

“Menses Giuli a conversione solis in auctum dici, quia unus eorum præcedit, alius subsequitur, nomina acceperunt”: alluding to the Anglo-Saxon Calendar, which designated the months of December and January as æerre-geola and æftera-geola, the former and the latter Yule. Both Skeat and Wedgwood derive it from the old Norse jól, which means feasting and revelry. Mr. J.F. Hodgetts, in an article entitled “Paganism in Modern Christianity” (Antiquary, December 1882, p. 257), says:— “The ancient name (Yule) for Christmas is still used throughout all Scandinavia. The Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians wish each other a ‘glad Yule,’ as we say ‘A merry Christmas to you.’ This alone would serve to draw our attention to Scandinavia, even if no other reason existed for searching there for the origin of our great Christian Feast. The grand storehouses of Pagan lore, as far as the Northern nations of Teutonic race are concerned, are the two Eddas, and if we refer to the part, or chapter, of Snorri Sturlson’s Edda, known as Gylfa Ginning, we shall find the twelfth name of Odin, the Father of the Gods, or Allfather, given as Iàlg or Iàlkr (pronounced yolk or yulg).

The Christmas tree, introduced into Russia by the Scandinavians, is called ëlka (pronounced yolka), and in the times just preceding, and just after, the conquest of Britain by the English, this high feast of Odin was held in mid-winter, under the name of Iàlka tid, or Yule-tide. It was celebrated at this season, because the Vikings, being then unable to go to sea, could assemble in their great halls and temples and drink to the gods they served so well. Another reason was, that it fell towards the end of the twelve mystic months that made up the mythical, as well as the cosmical, cycle of the year, and was therefore appropriately designated by the last of the names by which Odin is called in the Edda.” There are different opinions as to the duration of Christ-tide. The Roman Church holds that Christmas properly begins at Lauds on Christmas Eve, when the Divine Office begins to be solemnised as a Double, and refers directly to the Nativity of our Lord. It terminates on the 13th of January, the Octave day of the Epiphany. The evergreens and decorations remain in churches and houses until the 2nd of February, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But I think that if we in England are bound by ecclesiastical law as to the keeping of Christ-tide, it should, at least, be an English use—such as was observed before the domination of Rome in England. And, previous to the Natale, or Festival of the Nativity, the early Church ordained a preparatory period of nine days, called a Novena. These take the commencement of Christ-tide back to the 16th December, on which day the Sarum use ordained the Anthem, which commences, “O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodidisti,” and at the present time this day is marked in the Calendar of the English Church Service Book as “O Sapientia.

” That this was commonly considered the commencement of Christ-tide is shown by the following anecdote of the learned Dr. Parr:—A lady asked him when Christmas commenced, so that she might know when to begin to eat mince pies. “Please to say Christmas pie, madam,” replied the Doctor. “Mince pie is Presbyterian.” “Well, Christmas pie— when may we begin to eat them?” “Look in your Prayer-book Calendar for December and there you will find ‘O Sapientia.’ Then Christmas pie—not before.” The Festival was considered of such high importance by the Anglo-Saxons that the ordinary Octave was not good enough; it must be kept up for twelve days. And Collier (Eccl. Hist., 1840, vol.

i. p. 285) says that a law passed in the days of King Alfred, “by virtue of which the twelve days after the Nativity of our Saviour are made festivals.” This brings us to the feast of the Epiphany, 6th January, or “Twelfth Day,” when Christmas ends—for the Epiphany has its own Octave to follow, and I think the general consensus of opinion is in favour of this ending.


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