CHRISTMAS The Feast of the Nativity of Christ was called in OE Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ; the first appearance of this term in extant writing dates to the 11th cent., and parallels Dutch Kerst-misse. (The Latin term Dies natalis lies behind Ital. Il natale and possibly Fr. Noel, though Ger. Weihnachtsfest is named for the preceding “eve,” or “vigil.” Yule may derive simply from OE geola, a feast—though this is by no means certain.)
However surprising to modern perspectives, Christmas was not celebrated in the early Church. Probably in reaction to the discreditable “birthday” feasts (natalitia) of Roman emperors, Origen asserts that in the Bible only the unregenerate celebrate such festivals (Hom. on Leviticus, 8). St. Irenaeus and Tertullian do not show a Feast of the Nativity on their lists of Christian celebrations. Interest in assigning a date for the birth of Jesus grew slowly after the 3rd cent., though it was still being opposed by St. Jerome after 410 (Comm. in Ezechielem [PL 25.18]). By 386 St. John Chrysostom had urged the church in Antioch to agree upon Dec. 25 as a day for celebrating the Nativity, and in Rome the Philocalian calendar (A.D. 354) includes under Dec. 25, opposite the pagan Natalis invicti, or “birth of the unconquered (sun),” the phrase “VIII kaali ian natus Christus in Bethleem Iudea.” Thus, without any warrant in the Gospels for it, by the time of St. Augustine the date of the Feast of the Nativity had been established, over the opposition of those like Jerome who denigrated the celebration on principle. Augustine himself omits it from his list of important Christian observances (PL 33.200). The role of the competing solar cult, with its feast of Natalis invicti, had presumably a foundational relationship to the date; Chrysostom, acknowledging the coincidence, writes: “But our Lord, too, is born in the month of December … the eighth before the Kalends of January [i.e., Dec. 25]. … But they [the Romans] call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as our Lord? … Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, [we may say] He is the Sun of Justice” (Of Solstices and the Equinox, 2.118). Though later Sol iustitia would become a synonym for Christ. Tertullian (Apologia, 16), Origen (Contra Celsum, 8.67), and St. Augustine (In Joan. Ev. 34) all denounced identification of Christ with the pagan Sol as heretical, and Pope Leo I reproved customs which he understood to be syncretistic, such as turning toward the rising sun before entering church (Sermo in Natalis Domini, 27.7.4; cf. 22.2.6).
Christmas, as it has come to be known in the English-speaking world, owes much of its biblical tradition at least to St. Francis and the influence of Franciscan spirituality on later medieval popular literature, notably the lyric (including the medieval carol) and drama. Francis in 1223 obtained permission for the first crèche and nativity pageant in church. Before this time only liturgical tropes (e.g., the Quem Quaeritis) and two or three early hymns on the Incarnation by Prudentius (4th cent.) and Sedulius (5th cent.) could be called “Christmas literature.” The earliest noels are 11th cent., and the earliest Weihnachtslieder, 11th- and 12th-cent. Franciscan friar Jacoponi’s influential “Stabat Mater Speciosa,” recounting the joy of Mary at the birth of Jesus, is late 13th cent., with its ME imitations a century later.
These developments were not without their own additional syncretism: boar’s head carols, yule songs, the ME “Holly and Ivy” song, the legend of Joseph of Arimathea’s rod flowering at Glastonbury, mistletoe, the putting out of a sheaf of grain on Christmas eve to be imbued with fertility from the dew of Holy Night—all these customs are evident carryovers from druidical lore and legend. The 15th and 16th cents., as the annals of the English carol illustrate, are the high-water mark of such blendings of observance, and the boisterousness of the resulting popular celebrations as much as the influence of Calvin’s sympathy for Jerome led the English Puritans to forbid celebration of Christmas by an Act of Parliament in 1647. The day was to be a fast, not a feast; shops and businesses were required to be open; and the selling of traditional plum puddings and mince pies was condemned as a heathen and even blasphemous indulgence.
The Christmas tree, associated with Luther and in general use in Strassburg by the 17th cent., was not introduced into England until the 1840s, via the Prince Consort. It is in this period especially that romanticization and secularizing of Christmas—perhaps best exemplified in works such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and later Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”—produced both in England and America a profuse and sentimental literature of Christmas. Little of this literature is connected in more than superficial fashion with the Feast of the Nativity. Nevertheless, continuing celebration of Christmas on Dec. 25 has ensured the popularity of a much larger body of poetry, drama, fiction, and hymnody to which the events surrounding Christ’s birth are central.
—David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).