History of Advent: Why We Celebrate Christmas on December 25
Here begins our series of articles on the History of Christmas. The traditional season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, begins today. It is celebrated in the church calendar as one of the most festive seasons of the year.
Meaning of Advent
“Advent,” from the Latin adventus, means the “coming” or “arrival” of the Christ Child and is marked by the four Sundays preceding Christmas, commemorated in churches and homes by lighting four Advent candles. This year it starts on Sunday, November 27, and ends on Sunday, Christmas Eve, December 24. The Greek word in the New Testament for Jesus’ arrival is parousia, (παρουσία) a word commonly used during that ancient time in anticipation of the arrival of a king, emperor, or official.
As we shall see, many of the traditions, customs, and stories of the Advent Season have Christian roots, while others have non-Christian sources. Some are legendary, and others are firmly rooted in history.
Date of Christmas
Ironically, the date for the Nativity — upon which our Western dating system is based, B.C. and A.D. — is not known with certainty. In ancient times, it was quite unusual to mark as a remembrance the date of a person’s birth, except among Roman nobility. Instead, if anything, the date of a person’s death was noted. Even among the feast days of saints, they are usually celebrated in remembrance of their death.
The Feast of Christmas was not the earliest festival for the church, like Resurrection Sunday (Easter) was. The progression of its adoption and widespread practice is:
- 202–211 AD: Between these dates, Hippolytus of Rome, the 3rd-century theologian, referred to the birth of Jesus occurring on December 25, in 3 or 4 BC.
- 221 AD: Sextus Julius Africanus, the Christian historian, mentioned December 25 as the birth of Jesus.
- Chronography of 354 is the first to mention Christmas as an annual feast or holiday. It was a compilation of chronological and calendrical texts produced for Valentinus, a wealthy Roman Christian, and created by the illustrator Furius Dionysis Filocalus. It reads in part: