The Meaning of Christmas

“Next to the yearly celebration of the paschal mystery, the Church holds most sacred the memorial of Christ’s birth and early manifestations. This is the purpose of the Christmas season”. (General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar 32)
Since early times, Christians have celebrated Christmas from December 25 through to the Epiphany – as a season, not just a day. The church calendar today extends this celebration until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
From the beginning, the readings and prayers for the season have expressed the Church’s understanding that Christmas is more than a commemoration of Jesus’ birthday. It is rather the celebration of the beginnings of the mystery of salvation – of Christ’s birth, revelation to the Jewish shepherds and the Gentile magi, baptism by John in the Jordan and first miracle – the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.
Christmas has its own octave during which the feasts of St Stephen, St John and the Holy Innocents are celebrated. These saints are seen as having a particular relation to the Christmas mystery and are traditionally honoured as “companions of Christ”. The Sunday within the Christmas octave is celebrated as the feast of the Holy Family. This year it falls on 28th December and so displaces the feast of the Holy Innocents.
The last day of the Christmas octave, 1st January, is observed as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Like the fourth Sunday of Advent it highlights the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the incarnation and manifestation of the Saviour.
In the Eastern Churches Epiphany was the original feast of Christ’s birth. When adopted in the West it became a celebration of the revelation of God’s eternal plan of salvation in Christ. This was represented traditionally in the story of the magi. In Australia the Epiphany is celebrated on the Sunday falling between January 2nd and 8th (January 4th in 2009).
The custom of keeping Christmas decorations up until Epiphany helps to show that these two feasts are very closely linked. It would be even more appropriate to keep them in place until after the Baptism of the Lord (January 11th in 2009). When Jesus’ divinity is proclaimed from the heavens at his baptism, his public ministry begins and the Christmas season is brought to an end.
Unfortunately this rich diversity of solemnities and feasts is often “written off” by the holiday mentality. Using special Christmas vestments, candles, flowers, banners, music, etc for the whole season will help maintain the spirit of Christmas joy. And we should keep singing Christmas carols, especially those carols and those verses that move us beyond the baby in the manger, such as the original refrain of What Child is This:
“Nails, spear shall pierce him through, The cross be borne for me, for you, Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The babe, the Son of Mary.”
People need to hear the real message of Christmas – that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God-with-us”, here and now in the trials and tribulations of our lives. Christmas celebrates not only the light of the star over Bethlehem, but Christ as the light of the world.



Elizabeth Harrington