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we believe, is the earliest notice of it as a distinct festival, certainly the earliest which is clear and undisputed. It was soon after introduced into the East, where, according to the testimony of Chrysostom who was priest of Antioch, and afterwards bishop of Constantinople, it was before unknown. "It is not yet ten years," says he, in his Homily on the Nativity,* about the year 386, "since this day was first made known to us. It had been before observed," he adds, " in the West, whence the knowledge of it was derived." It is clear from this testimony that the present time of celebrating the birth of the Saviour was a novelty in the East very late in the fourth century, and from the manner in which Chrysostom expresses himself, the conclusion seems irresistible, that before that time there was no festival of the kind observed in the Syrian Church. He does not allude to any; he does not say that the question was about the day merely, as he naturally would have said, if it had been so. "Some affirmed," he says, "and others denied, that the festival was an old one, known from Thrace to Spain." "There was much disputing," he adds, "on the subject, and much opposition was encountered in the introduction of the festival." This, it must be recollected, was in one of the chief cities of the East, near the end of the fourth century. The Christians of Egypt at a much later period are found celebrating the Nativity on the old sixth of January.†
Various reasons have been assigned for the selection of the twenty-fifth of December by the Romans. It was clearly an innovation. The day had never been observed as a festival of the nativity by Christians of the East, where Christ had his birth. It is certain, however, that some of the most memorable of the Heathen festivals were celebrated at Rome at this season of the year, and these the Christians were fond of attending, and could be the more readily withdrawn from them if they had similar feasts of
Opp. T. ii. pp. 417-432. ed. Par. 1838.
It is a circumstance worthy of note, that while the festival of the Baptism extended itself from East to West, that of Christmas travelled from West to East. We have not overlooked the testimony of Augustine, at the end of the fourth century, but he is too late a writer to be an authority for any early tradition, and though he mentions the festival of the Nativity, he does not ascribe to it the same importance as to the two older festivals of Easter and Whitsunday.
their own, occurring at the same season. It is certain, too, that many of the ceremonies and observances of the Pagan festivals were transferred to those of Christians.* Whether this and much else connected with the establishment of Christian festivals happened by design or accident, is a point we shall not stop formally to discuss. It has been argued that the winter solstice (the twenty-fifth of December in the Roman calendar) was chosen, from a beautiful analogy, the sun, which then begins to return to diffuse warmth and light over the material creation,† presenting a fit emblem of the rising of the Sun of righteousness to cheer and bless the world by his beams. The festival of the birth of the Sun, (natalis Solis invicti,) a figurative expression denoting his turning at the tropic, one of the most celebrated festivals among the Romans, observed at this period, had probably much more to do in determining the time of the Christian festival than the bare analogy alluded to, which, however, served well for rhetorical and poetic illustration. We find the Christian poet, Prudentius, soon after, making use of it for this purpose. The fixing of the birth of the Saviour at the winter solstice, when the days begin to increase, which would place that of John at the summer solstice, when they begin to decrease, also gratified the love of a mystical interpretation of the language of Scripture. It gave, as it was discovered, to the affirmation, "He must increase, but I must decrease," a deep-hidden meaning.I
The sum of the whole is, that, besides the weekly festival of Sunday, there are two annual festivals, those of the Resurrection of Christ and the Descent of the Spirit, or Easter and Whitsunday, or rather one festival of fifty days,
*Thus, during the Roman Saturnalia, or feast of Saturn, holden in memory of the golden age of equality and innocence under his reign, and kept in the time of the Cæsars from the 17th to the 23d of December, seven days, "all orders were devoted to mirth and feasting;" friends sent presents to each other; slaves enjoyed their liberty, and wore caps as badges of freedom;" wax tapers were lighted in the temples; and jests and freedom, and all sorts of jollity prevailed.
In the Northern hemisphere, where the date was adopted.
The confessedly late origin of Christmas has led to the conjecture that, like many other customs of the Church and definitions or statements of doctrine, it was introduced in opposition to certain heretics, who either denied the incarnation altogether, or held it in light esteem. Augusti, Denkwürdigkeiten, etc. Band i. p. 226.
including both, which date back to an indefinitely remote period of Christian antiquity; that the festival of the Baptism of Jesus came next, and last that of his Nativity; that this last was wholly unknown for some centuries after the Apostolic age; that it is not alluded to by any very ancient Christian writer, by Justin Martyr or Tertullian; that it was unknown to the learned Origen, near the middle of the third century; that Clement of Alexandria does not mention the festival, and speaks of the vain labor of some antiquaries who attempted to fix the date of the Saviour's birth, who agreed in nothing except in placing it in the spring months of April or May; that the festival was first celebrated in January, in connection with the festival of the Manifestation; that Chrysostom, who represents the opinions of the Oriental Church, was ignorant, if not of the festival itself, yet certainly of the present period of its celebration, near the end of the fourth century; and finally, that the festival came from the West, and not like all the more ancient festivals, from the East.
The true explanation of the origin of both the more ancient festivals, Easter and Whitsunday, is, that they were Jewish feasts, continued among the Jewish Christians, and afterwards, it is impossible to say when, adopted by the Gentile believers, Christ having consecrated them anew, the one by his death and resurrection, and the other by the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Apostles. Neither of them was instituted by Christians; neither of them originated in purely Christian ideas, as is shown by the testimony of Origen, already referred to, and in confirmation of which we might adduce a multitude of passages from the early Christian writers to the same point.* The Jews had no
* We choose to give the following from the Manichean Faustus, partly as well illustrating the Christian idea of worship at the time the Manicheans were separated from the Church, in the third century, and partly because we wish to say a word or two of the Manicheans in connection with the festival of Christmas. The passage is preserved by Augustine, in his reply to Faustus the Manichean. "The Pagans," says Faustus, "think to worship the Divinity by altars, temples, images, victims, and incense. I differ much from them in this, who regard myself, if I am worthy, as the reasonable temple of God, the living image of his living Majesty; I accept Jesus Christ as his image; the mind imbued with good knowledge and disciplined in virtue I regard as the true altar; and the honor to be rendered to the Divinity and the sacrifices to be offered, I place in prayers alone, and those pure and simple."— Contra Faust. L. xx. c. 3.
We do not remember to have seen it noticed as an argument of the
festival on which Christmas could be engrafted, and this, and the circumstance that it was not customary in the early ages to celebrate the birthdays, but only the deaths of distinguished individuals, accounts for its late origin. The "Natalia" of the martyrs were kept on the anniversary of their death, their birth into an immortal existence.
We have no complaint to make of the selection of the twenty-fifth of December as the day for commemorating the birth of the Saviour. It is as good as any other day, it being understood, as we suppose it is, by every one even moderately acquainted with the writings of Christian antiquity, that the true date of the nativity is irrecoverably lost. For ourselves, we like this festival of Christmas, and would let it stand where it is and where it has stood ever since the days of Chrysostom, at least, a period of fourteen centuries and a half. It matters not in the least that we are ignorant of the real date of the Saviour's birth. We can be just as grateful for his appearance in the world as we could be, did we know the precise day or moment of his entrance into it. Of what consequence is it for us to know the particular day, or the year even, when this light
late origin of the festival of the Nativity, that the Manicheans, who were separated from the Church, as we have said, in the third century, did not observe it, though they observed both the old feasts of Easter and Pentecost. Yet the argument has some weight, if any subsidiary evidence were needed in a matter so plain. In their forms, as well as their general idea of worship, the Manicheans retained much of the old simplicity, and from the time of their being excluded from the Church they became an independent witness of its more ancient customs. They allowed of no "sensible aids" to worship, which among them consisted, like the old Christian worship, in prayers and singing, to which were added reading from their sacred books and an address or exhortation, and they preserved the old congregational discipline. They had, as we have just seen, neither temples, nor altars, nor statues; they baptized both adults and infants; they did not offer prayers to the dead, and rendered to the martyrs only those honors which were commonly rendered them at the end of the second century; they celebrated the eucharist, though substituting water for wine, the use of which was forbidden by their ascetic principles the festivals they celebrated with the simplicity of olden time. With the exception of the wine at the eucharist, the omission of which is readily explained, we have here as faithful a picture of Christian worship, and the ideas connected with it, in the early part of the third century, as could well be drawn. The entire absence of every trace of the festival of the Nativity only renders it the more exact.
* "I do not believe," says Beausobre, (T. ii. p. 692,)" that the Evangelists themselves knew it. It is evident that St. Luke, who tells us that he began to be about thirty years of age, when he was baptized, did not know his precise age.'
first shone upon the earth, since we know that it has arisen and we enjoy its lustre and warmth? Of just as little consequence, for all practical purposes, as for the voyager on one of our majestic rivers to be informed of the exact spot in the remote wilds on which the stream takes its rise, since his little bark is borne gaily on by its friendly waters; or for any of us, if our affairs have been long prosperous, to be able to tell how or when, to the fraction of a minute, our prosperity commenced. If we have been in adversity, and light has broken in upon our gloom, and continues to shine upon us, it imports little whether or not we can fix on the exact point of time at which the clouds began to break and scatter. Just so with this Star of Bethlehem, which "shines o'er sin and sorrow's night; the exact moment at which its beams began to be visible over the hills and valleys of Judea is not a subject about which we need perplex ourselves. No royal historiographer was present to chronicle the Saviour's birth, yet if his spirit be in our hearts, we can, if we approve the observance, commemorate his advent with all the kindlings of devout affection and gratitude, at our homes, or in our houses of worship, where we have so often met to seek comfort and strength from his words, on any day which the piety of past ages has set apart for so holy a purpose.
There is no need of jealousy between the lovers of the old New England Thanksgiving and the lovers of Christmas. We are not aware of a disposition on the part of any to substitute the former for the latter. There is no opposition between them, nor does the early history of the New England Thanksgiving show that there was ever intended to be any, or that there was any reference to Christmas in its appointment. The two festivals are totally distinct in their nature, and their objects different. The one is the festival of the ingathering of the harvest, and the other elevates the mind to the spiritual blessings flowing from him whose coming it celebrates the blessings of peace and love. There is no opposition, no rivalship of any kind between them. It is true we honor the New England Thanksgiving not the less because we view it as a relic of Pilgrim piety; we honor it the more. But we do not put the observance of it on this ground, but on the ground of its intrinsic fitness and propriety, its religious and social