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Christmas is a holiday for everyone and a holiday of everyone, and this is its precious uniqueness for all times

Dr. Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.” This short hymn of the Nativity of Christ is found at the very beginning of the Gospel of Luke (2:14) in the description of the angelic praise to God at the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, in the entire Bible there are no words that would be repeated by all people on earth from year to year, regardless of continents, countries, peoples, as these words sound in all world languages.

The remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ into the world annually attracts attention of a huge number of people. It absorbs many meanings, and, unlike other biblical memories that remain the property of the Church, it is rightfully considered a universal, ecumenical, global celebration.

At the same time, in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, Christmas is one of the twelve main holidays, traditionally called the Twelve Great Feasts. However, in terms of its significance, historical role and scale of celebration in the Church and secular community, Christmas is undoubtedly the greatest celebration among all.

The simultaneous ecclesiastical and secular nature of the Christmas celebration is reflected in its preparation. Thus, in the Western Christian tradition, Christmas is preceded by the period of Advent. Consisting of the four Sundays preceding the holiday and the weeks between them, Advent is a time of attentive anticipation of the main holiday, and, in this sense of preparation, already contains moments of the upcoming celebration.

 In Eastern Christianity, the way of waiting for Christmas was historically stricter and ascetic, and is currently preserved in the Church as the forty-day Nativity Fast. However, this fasting time itself contains a significant number of indulgences, and the liturgical service includes wonderful hymns and a considerable number of celebrations in honour of the Old Testament righteous and many great saints.

Thus, believers have the opportunity to draw inspiration from church services to look forward to the holiday, and people of good will, who are not ready to visibly identify themselves with the Church, approach the holiday in numerous phenomena of public life and culture that touch on the Christmas theme or are directly dedicated to the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

Along with the Roman Catholic Church, the churches and church communities of Protestantism, Orthodoxy represents one of the three main forms of the historical existence of Christianity on Earth. For the vast majority of Christians, the date of celebrating Christmas is common. The Christmas celebration begins on the night of December 24.

At the same time, among Orthodox people all over the world, the Russian, Serbian, Georgian, Jerusalem, Polish Orthodox Churches, as well as Mount Athos in Greece, follow the Julian calendar in their internal liturgical life. It “lags” behind the modern secular Gregorian calendar by 13 days, and therefore the Nativity of Christ in these churches and countries is celebrated on January 7.

Icon of the Nativity of Christ, from the Feasts tier of the iconostasis in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. 1410s

It is interesting that among Western Christians there is a belief that the Orthodox have Epiphany “instead” of Christmas. However, this is not the case and should be reminded of this. After all, once upon a time, more than one and a half millennia ago, Christmas and Epiphany really represented a single celebration, but starting from the 4th–5th centuries, they began to be celebrated separately.

The only exception here is the so-called Ancient Oriental Churches: Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, and others, who celebrate Christmas and Epiphany as a single celebration in honour of the appearance of God in the world. This joint celebration of Epiphany, as a single event, owes its origin to the ancient Eastern Christian tradition, in which the birthday of Jesus Christ was not initially celebrated separately. In turn, in the West of the Christian world, a tradition arose to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ at the same time.

It is important to note that the first three centuries of Christianity were time of persecution by pagan authorities. Palestine was part of the Roman Empire. Christianity was originally perceived by the Romans as part of the ancient Jewish religion and, because of this antiquity, was allowed. However, very soon a division arose between Jews and Christians. It was providential in nature, that is, it was part of the divine plan.

After all, if Christianity had remained part of the Jewish religion, then the gospel of faith in One God and Jesus Christ sent by Him would not have been able to overcome the boundaries of the national dimension, previously characteristic of the biblical tradition in Judaism, and would not have become a worldwide confession.

At the same time, the division between Judaism and Christianity caused the Roman pagan authorities to take a new look at Christianity. From now on it became a new religion and was no longer permitted. Until the very moment of the adoption of Christianity by Constantine the Great (274–337) as the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was brutally persecuted. Although not all Roman emperors formally initiated systematic persecution, Christians often became victims of the spontaneous wrath of pagan mobs.

Constant persecution by the authorities and the surrounding population in the first three centuries of the history of the Christian Church contributed to the formation among Christians of a special paradoxical, largely tragic worldview. An important component of this view of the world was the expectation of the imminent Second Coming of Christ. It was the belief that the Lord Jesus would soon return to complete history and transform the world. New Testament texts indicate that the expectation of the imminent, speedy return of the Lord was an important component of the worldview of the Holy Apostles themselves.

In this regard, it seems obvious that in its early stage of existence Christianity did not know many and varied liturgical feasts but celebrated exclusively the Resurrection of Christ. In parallel, in various Christian churches there were two ways of such celebration.

Thus, some churches celebrated Easter once a year on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. Other Churches, mainly in Asia Minor, in accordance with the biblical text, celebrated Easter on the 14th day of the first spring lunar month of Nisan, no matter what day of the week such a celebration fell on.

Both Christian branches celebrated Easter weekly, on the first day of the new week, which was, and continues to be, our Sunday. This constant celebration of Sunday was directly related to the expectation of the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. Christians were filled with the conviction that the Lord’s return was soon to take place, and therefore they should rush to meet him in the Eucharistic service.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this in his Epistle to the Corinthians, when he explained the meaning of Christ’s words about the establishment of the Eucharist: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). This regular weekly celebration of the Resurrection of Christ has been preserved in all Christian traditions. Over time, it lost its eschatological character of expectation of the Return of the Lord, and in church language it received the name Little Easter.

The cessation of persecution and the proclamation of Christianity as the official confession of the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great contributed to the fact that the expectation of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus in Christianity and among Christians began to gradually fade away. The consequence of this cessation of previous expectations was the birth of new memories and celebrations in Christian worship, one of which was Christmas.

Knowing this helps us correctly answer the question of which celebration, Christmas or Easter, is actually the most important in the daily life of Christians. After all, history, theology, and the rules of worship speak of the primacy of Easter, while the perception of things and spontaneous attitudes often indicate that Christmas is considered as the most important Christian holiday in the life of society. In fact, there is no contradiction, because Christmas is a transformed expectation of the Coming of the Lord, born from the Christians’ sense of the ongoing history of the world, while the celebration of Christ’s Easter became a wish for each other’s happiness and joy here and now.

Just as for quite a long time two practices of celebrating Easter coexisted in Christianity (one of which, on the 14th day of Nisan, was inspired by the Old Testament tradition of remembering the biblical exodus, and the other was based on the New Testament worldview of the Resurrection of Christ as a new unique event that changed the course of history), in defining the reasons for determining the date of celebration of the Nativity of Christ, two different explanations were formed.

The first of them, which in the language of the Church is called theological, says that the date of December 25 depends on the date of the Annunciation, which was historically celebrated on March 25. According to biblical belief of an era close in time to the earthly life of the Lord Jesus, the Messiah was supposed to die on the day of his conception. According to Scripture and the faith of the Church, the Lord Jesus “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” He was conceived by the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit in the event of the Annunciation.

It is obvious that the specific days of the earthly life of Jesus Christ are difficult to verify. Perhaps the only such date remains the day of the crucifixion, which probably fell on March 25. It is interesting, that it was astronomers, based on the rules for determining the celebration of the Jewish Passover, who made successful attempts to confirm this particular date. This is where the explanation of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ comes from, as nine months inherent in human nature, and counted from the day of the Annunciation. Some ancient traditions and interpreters also believed that the crucifixion of Christ historically took place on this day.

Another explanation of the date of celebrating the Nativity of Christ on December 25 is called historical. It comes from the fact, that it was on this day that the birth of a new sun was celebrated in Roman paganism. According to a number of researchers, the Roman Church, wanting to end the dominance of this pagan tradition, deliberately began to celebrate the event of Christmas on this very day. Thus, an ancient pagan practice, which previously might have seemed irresistible, was given a Christian character. Over time, due to the authority of Roman Christianity, this practice spread to the East, which previously knew only the celebration of the Epiphany.

Both points of view have their strengths and weaknesses. In a certain sense, they will complement each other, and, at the same time, point to the fundamental inexhaustibility of human perception of the single event of the Nativity of Christ.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.” Just as two rationales arose around the very date of this celebration, over the centuries the Nativity of Christ became both a secular and religious memory. Christmas is a holiday for everyone and a holiday of everyone, and this is its precious uniqueness for all times. Christmas is the day when the blessing of man and the joy of God unconditionally come together.

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