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The Big Question

Why is Christmas on Dec. 25?

By Sandra Beardsall

Four forbidding figures loomed on my front step, shrouded in white sheets. One of them rapped on the door with a heavy stick. What to do? Why, open the door of course, and invite them in. The 12 days of Christmas had begun in Red Bay, N.L., and the mummers were out.

English settlers brought mummering to Newfoundland and Labrador in the early 1800s. Adults wear oversized clothing stuffed with pillows. They cover their heads with sheets and disguise their voices as they troop from house to house, banging on doors and asking, “Any mummers allowed in?” The inhabitants must try to guess the identities of their peculiar guests, then offer food and drink while the mummers sing, dance or simply visit. But they only make their appearance during the 12 days of Christmas.

The idea that Christmas has 12 days is as alien to many Canadians as the mummering tradition. These 12 days form part of a larger puzzle that scholars are still trying to work out: how the ancient churches decided the date of Christmas.

The story is a convoluted one. Although two of the four Gospels include narratives of Jesus’ birth, there is no indication that early Christians kept his nativity as a “feast day.” In the early third century, a few theologians tried to figure out Jesus’ birthday but suggested dates in April and May, not December.

By the early 300s, Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire were celebrating a combined nativity-epiphany on Jan. 6. The earliest record for Dec. 25 as Jesus’ birthdate appears in the mid-300s, in a Christian Roman almanac. By the late 300s, all but the grouchiest Christians had agreed to combine these dates into an embrace of nativity and epiphany from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6: a total of 12 days, counting from Christmas Day to the eve of Epiphany.

But why those dates? The most common theory states that Christians usurped pagan feast days and reclaimed them for Jesus. People were already celebrating a number of mid-winter or solstice festivals across Europe when the Roman emperor in AD 274 named Dec. 25 for Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun” god. Meanwhile, people in the eastern Mediterranean regions connected Jan. 6 with the virgin birth of the god Dionysus. Scholars have argued that Christians used these dates as tools for evangelism: come feast with our God!

More recently, historians have pointed to ancient writers who believed that Jesus’ human life required divine symmetry: surely he was conceived on the same calendar day that he died. The date of Jesus’ death is based on the date of the Jewish Passover, calculated in slightly different ways in west and east — either March 25 or April 6. Put the conception on those same dates, count nine months ahead, and you have Dec. 25 and Jan. 6.

And why “Christ’s mass” at all? The celebration of Christmas emerged in churches just as theologians were arguing bitterly about the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. When the dust settled, the church’s formal doctrine declared that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Celebrating his birth reminded Christians of Jesus’ humanity in an era when taking on “flesh” was a strange thing for a god to do.

No matter how we read the history, giving a date to Jesus’ birth was more about faith than calendars. The early Christian compromise granted this marvellous birth 12 days’ recognition.  

It’s not easy to maintain the “12 days” traditions, my friends in eastern Canada tell me, but they try. Red Bay United in Labrador still ends Christmas with a supper on Jan. 6.

Perhaps that is the greatest gift we can receive from the contorted story of setting a date for Christmas: 12 days to continue to celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ birth, in opposition to a secular culture that has exhausted itself by Dec. 25. Christians, having waited thoughtfully through Advent, have 12 days to rejoice in this wondrous nativity. By all means, let the mummers in!

Rev. Sandra Beardsall is a professor of church history and ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon.

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