From the Midnight Mass, the colours in the church change to white, often enhanced with gold, to mark the great Feast of the Nativity, the Christ-Mass. These are the colours of joy, purity and innocence, as well as riches and treasure.
It is not usual to “decorate” our churches as we might decorate our homes; but certainly in some churches a Christmas Tree is deemed acceptable. Many churches will feature a crib, a model of the traditional nativity scene, which is thought to have originated with St Francis of Assisi in the mid-12th century.
Christmas falls on 25th December. We mark the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. The ancient custom of the Church then adds a twelve-day follow-up season up to Epiphany, traditionally 6th January but which in 2018 is celebrated on Sunday 7th January. However, liturgically speaking, the season of Christmastide lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (in 2018, 8th January) and "Ordinary Time" does not commence until after this day. In some traditions, Christmas further continues until the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple (Candlemas) on 2nd February .
The twelve days after Christmas have their own homely feasts and celebrations. On Boxing Day we usually remember St. Stephen, the first martyr, and patron of altar servers. The first Sunday after Christmas Day (31st Dec. 2017) is the Feast of the Holy Family. The feast of the Holy Innocents on 28th December reminds us of the dignity of the weakest, and challenges the modern ease of abortion. Next day we honour St. Thomas of Canterbury, secondary patron of the diocese of Northampton, and patron of pastoral clergy. We end the twelve days with the feast of the Epiphany, one of the great moments in which Jesus is revealed as the Lord who was promised. (In some places, the figures of the Magi are moved to approach the Crib gradually between Christmas and Epiphany.)
Jesus probably wasn’t born in December. The date is unknown to us; but if the shepherds were in the fields overnight with their sheep (Luke 2. 8) it was likely to be the springtime lambing season. In the year 336 the Church fixed the date at 25th December in order to flex its muscles. Legalised by the Emperor Constantine just twenty years earlier, it used this date as a way of reducing the excesses of the old Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, which ran from 17-24th December, and of the celebration of the birth of Mithras, God of light, on 25th December. Now they celebrated the birth of the True Light. It wasn’t a snap decision. More than a century earlier a Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, had identified 25th December as Christ’s birthday. It was a common belief that earth was created at the spring equinox. Four days later, on 25th March, light was created. The birth of Jesus marks a new era in world history, reflected Sextus, so he must have been conceived on 25th March and born nine months later. The logic was reinforced with astronomy. At the winter solstice, on 21st December, the position of the sun at sunrise does not change for a couple of days. But on 25th December it moves north and the days start to get longer. A new world is born.
And, for a while at least, Christmas does herald a new world; a most endearing place. We try to make it a season of good will. We catch up with neglected family and friends. We lower our defensive barriers a bit. We try to warm to those from whom we are distant. We celebrate all that binds us within a family. In imitation of the God who gave his son, and of the son who gave himself, we too give gifts, showing our appreciation of those who share our lives, and willingly putting ourselves into debt to honour them. Prompted by the thought that Jesus was given to all men and women and that the news of his birth was entrusted first to the most disdained (Luke 2. 8-18), we look out for the lonely and the marginalised. We feel that we must do something for them. God took flesh as a helpless baby and died with beauty and dignity destroyed. God-made-flesh gives to all flesh a dignity that must never be taken from it.
All this activity is accompanied with the best of food and drink. This background of over-indulgence troubles those brought up in the Puritan tradition of Christian faith. Yet is the feasting not a great hymn of praise? In mid-winter, a traditional time of scarcity, we use food and drink to mark the generosity and variety of God’s giving. A gentle over-indulgence marks our certainty that God will continue to provide.
We celebrate the birth of Christ in so many different ways, with head and heart and hands. This must be right, and holy, for He came to show us how to be human, and to give us the fullness of life.
Fr Paul Hardy