The Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ has been celebrated with all solemnity and joy since the very earliest period of the Church.
Until the 4th century this Feast was kept on January 6, when the Church also remembered the Baptism of Our Lord in the River Jordan. It was called the Theophony and was dedicated especially to the manifestation of God in the flesh. ("Theophany" means the "showing forth of God.")
The early Church knew that there was a mystical relationship between the first and the Second Adam, between the one that brought death into the world and the One Who brought life and salvation. According to very ancient tradition, Christ, the "Second Adam," was born on the same day on which Adam, the first-created one, was born--that is, on the "Sixth Day," which corresponded to the sixth day of the first month (January 6th on the Julian Calendar).
In the fourth century many errors were being taught, especially by the followers of Arius. They denied that Jesus was of the same substance as God; they believed that He was only the highest of created beings (a false teaching that has again become fashionable in our own days). According to this error, Orthodox Christians could not celebrate the birth in flesh of God Himself (which is called the Doctrine of the Incarnation), but only the birth of a very special creature who was not in reality God,
In order to combat this heresy it was agreed that the commemoration of the Birth of the Son of God should be separated from the Feast of His Baptism: the Church intended by this to make even clearer the truth about the incarnation. Many different dates were suggested for the celebration of Christmas, but in order to remove a temptation from the Christians of that time it was decided to use December25. The Romans had a pagan festival on this day called dies natalis Solis invicti - ..-a celebration of the return of the sun to summer, as if renewing itself. The Romans used this day as an excuse for unbridled merry-making and immorality (much as it has again become in the 20th century). Since the Church had already decided to establish a separate Feast-day for the Nativity of Christ, December 25 was chosen in order to preserve the faithful from the temptation to participate in pagan revels. The Church Fathers also wanted to make use of the symbolism of the sun on that day, thinking to ennoble or elevate the pagan feast to a Christian understanding because Christ is often spoken of in the New Testament as the "Sun of Justice,” “The Light of the World,” etc. (The fact,that the early Church deliberately chose a pagan feast for the celebration of Christmas has been confused in the minds of many modern sectarians--viz., Jehovah's Witnesses--who do not understand the authority of the Church, and are themselves latter-day Arians.)
The True Meaning of Christmas
By establishing the Feast of the Lord's Birth on December 25, the Church did two things; first, she clearly rejected pagan ideas about life, death, birth, etc., and showed that Christ had come to replace those lifeless and gloomy teachings (see the article on Reincarnation elsewhere in this issue); secondly, the Church confessed her undying faith in a great dogma: that God had taken flesh from a woman and come to dwell among and save men.
In the center is the cave in which the Saviour was born; the two animals fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah (1 3): “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me”. Surrounding the cave, the whole of creation offers what it can in thanksgiving to the new-born Saviour: "Angels their song, the heavens a star, the Magi gifts, the shepherds wonder, the earth a cave, the wilderness a manger, and we the Virgin Mother" (from Christmas Vespers). At the bottom are two details handed down in iconographic tradition: two women wash the Child and St. Joseph is tempted to doubt the Virgin Birth by the Devil disguised as a shepherd.
At the same time, by means of special hymns and prayers on this day, Orthodoxy instructs the world in ways of holiness and morality, wishing to kindle in the hearts of' people a determination to be reborn from a life of sin to a life pleasing to God.
As one writer explains: "Not in glory and magnificence, but in poverty, wretchedness and humiliation does the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth appear in the world; not a luxurious palace, but a humble cave, receives the Kin g of those who reign and the Lord of those who rule. By this we are shown the greatness of humility, poverty, meekness and simplicity, and the ruinousness of pride, riches, vainglory and luxury .... By this it is suggested to us that the Lord receives all and everyone: He is pleased by unlettered simplicity, when it is united to faithful fulfillment of one's calling, to purity Of conscience and life; and He does not reject human wisdom, when it knows hew to submit itself to illumination from above and make use of its learning for the glory of God and the benefit of one's fellow men" (Orthodox Word, Vol. 3, //16-17, 1967).
The Spirit of Christmas
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in a manner directly opposed to the way in which it is kept by the world. While western countries are involved in weeks of partying and eating, from Thanksgiving on, Orthodox Christians are deep in a preparatory fast of 40 days. We do not participate in Christmas parties before the Feast itself because we are trying to understand what it must have been like for the righteous ones of the Old Testament , who waited so many generations for the coming of the Messiah. This fast period is of very early origin and was universally known at the time of the great Church Councils. We do not break this fast from meat and dairy products until after receiving Holy Communion on Christmas Day itself, although the Feast actually begins with Divine Services after the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve. Furthermore, since the Orthodox Church still observes the Julian Calendar which is 13 days behind the civil calendar, Christmas is celebrated on January 7 according to the latter; after the world has removed its tinsel, then Orthodox Christians are able to meet the Feast of the Nativity in peace and true spiritual joy much more akin to the first Christmas in Bethlehem.
The celebration of the Birth of Christ begins at nightfall on December 25 and continues for three days. With the exception of Pascha (Easter), it is the greatest of all Church Feasts; St. John Chrysostom calls it "the mother of all feasts."
On this day we also celebrate the memory of the Three Magi (who later received baptism from the Apostle Thomas) and the simple shepherds who were the first of the Chosen People to learn of the Birth of the long awaited Messiah.
The second day of Christmas is dedicated to the honor and memory of the one from whom our Redeemer took His flesh: the Most Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, whom Orthodox call by the dogmatic title Theotokos ("She who gave birth to God"), and for whom all true Christians have had reverence, love and feelings of closeness since the beginning of Her Son's ministry.