Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Orthodox Celebration of Christmas


By Professor Ioannes Fountoules

Preamble: In a few days we will celebrate the great Feast of the Christian world, the Feast of Christmas. The Church will bring once again before the eyes of our soul the event of the birth of the Lord and will summon us to venerate together with the shepherds and the magi the newly-born King and to praise together with the armies of the heavenly angels the humanization of the God of peace and love. The “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men” (Luke 2:14), the angelic hymn of the birth, will be echoed again in our church temples. In the newly-born infant of Bethlehem we will see our born Savior, the God who became humanized. In this infant we will see the “redemption” which “the Lord sent to his people” (Ps. 110:9), because within his infantile body it is not only God that is hidden, but the fullness of our salvation, the renewal and deification of our corruptible nature, the new creation; the man who becomes God, this mystery of the salvation and redemption of us all. Precisely because of its theological significance, the Feast of Christmas together with the Feast of Pascha constitute the two great poles around which the entire liturgical year turns. Pascha is the peak of the movable Feasts, and Christmas, of the immovable Feasts. Christmas, in particular, is the “Metropolis” of the Feasts, according to Saint John Chrysostom (To Philogonios 3), because the event which we celebrate in this Feast is the presupposition of all the other sign-posts of our salvation. If Christ had not been born, he would not be baptized, nor would he teach, nor would he do miracles, nor would he suffer, nor would he have arisen from the dead. Already at the birth of Christ, the salvation of our nature has been potentially accomplished. The divine nature and the human nature have been united in Christ. Jesus Christ, the God-man, constitutes the living icon and the guarantee of the future recapitulation of all things in Christ.

The history of the celebration of Christmas

1) Christmas and Epiphany: After all this, one would have expected the Feast of Christmas to be chronologically the first Feast of the Christian Calendar. Nevertheless, the Feast of Pascha, and its weekly repetition every Sunday, is much older than the Feast of Christmas. The celebration of the Feast of Christmas emerged for the first time together with the Feast of the Baptism of Christ among Gnostic heretical sects in the middle of the 2nd century and specifically on the 6th of January, which was the old date of the winter solstice. Up until the 4th century the East celebrated on this day these two Feasts using the name “Epiphany” or “Theophany.”

2) Establishing a date for the celebration of Christmas: The exact day of the birth of Christ is not known to us from the Gospels. We only have indications in the Gospel of Luke (census, journey of a pregnant mother, lodging in a stable of animals, shepherds keeping night-watch over their flock), that this birth took place during the winter months. The followers of the Gnostic Vasileides specified this date as the 20th of May, or the 19th or the 20th of April.

The Feast of Christmas was introduced for the first time in Rome separately from the Feast of the Epiphany which was always celebrated on the 6th of January. The 25th of December was specified as the date of the celebration of Christmas, not because it was calculated that Christ must have been born on this date, but for the same reason on account of which the 6th of January had been specified in the East as the date of the Epiphany. The 25th of December was then, according to the new calendar, the date of the winter solstice. This was the day when the pagans celebrated the birthday of the unconquerable sun, because this day marked the increase of the duration of the day, which signaled the victory of the light over darkness. To this pagan Feast the Christian Church very wisely juxtaposed the birth of the true light, of the intelligent sun of righteousness, of Christ, who dawned from the Virgin and enlightened the human race which lied in darkness and in the shadow of death. This combination was so effectual that within a few years the Feast of Christmas spread almost throughout the entire Christian world. From Rome it was disseminated in the West. Around 376 we find it in the Churches of Antioch and Caesarea in Cappadocia; and around 431 we find it in Jerusalem and gradually in all the Churches of the East, apart from the Armenian.

3) The Feast of Christmas and other related Feasts: At the same time with its dissemination, a new attempt for justifying it historically made its appearance. The Forerunner was apprehended 6 months before the Annunciation of the Theotokos (Luke 1:26). On the basis of the 25th of December, the Annunciation must have taken place 9 months before, in other words, on the 25th of March, and the arrest of the Forerunner on the 23rd of September. The Father of the Forerunner was the priest Zachariah, who entered the sanctuary in order to offer incense and saw an angel who predicted the arrest of the Baptist (Luke 1:9-11). Here things get compressed in order to supply an answer to what is sought. Zachariah becomes high-priest and does not enter into the sanctuary, but into the holies of holies of the Jewish temple. It was in these holies of holies that the High-priest entered once a year, on the Feast of Expiation. This Feast is placed a little before the 23rd of September. So, we arrive at the same dates from another direction: The 23rd of September is the conception of the Forerunner; the 25th of March is the Annunciation of the Theotokos, “on the sixth month;” on the 24th of June is the birth of the Forerunner and, 6 months later, on the 25th of December, the birth of Christ.

4) The development of the celebration of the Feast of Christmas: The preexisting Feast of Pascha, as we noted before, exerted an influence on the formation of the Feast of Christmas. In Jerusalem, during the 4th century, as the pilgrim Aetheria (Egeria) tells us in her Peregrinatio (Description of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land) bears witness, a nocturnal Liturgy was celebrated in imitation of that of Pascha by the Bishop of Jerusalem at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. After this, the entire congregation with the clergy and the Bishop at the head walked to Jerusalem signing a litany, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Shortly after their arrival at the Church of the Resurrection, a second Liturgy was celebrated. With the passage of time the influence of Pascha became all the greater. In today’s form of the services we can easily discern the degree and the elements of these influences, especially in the period of the Fore-feast, which lies before us.

5) The Sunday before Christmas: A preparatory week was first added to the Feast of Christmas. It was named “Sunday of the Holy Fathers.” By Fathers are not meant here the Fathers of the Church, but the human ancestors of Christ according to the flesh, especially Abraham, the leader of the Hebrew race. Later on the theme of this Sunday was expanded and comprised all the pre-Christian righteous people of the Old Testament (Heb. 11:9-10, 32-40), whether ancestors of Christ or not. The Gospel reading, read on that occasion, as is still done today, was the genealogy of Christ, which is contained in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew; and the Apostle was the pericope from the Epistle to the Hebrews which refers to the sufferings of those men of the Old Testament “who became martyrs for the faith.”

6) The Sunday of the Fore-Fathers: This expansion of the festal content of the “Sunday before Christmas” and the trend of developing the preparatory period resulted later in the splitting, so to speak, of this Sunday and transferring part of its theme to the Sunday preceding it. So, two Sundays of the holy Fathers were specified and, in order to distinguish them, the older one was called “Sunday Before the Birth of Christ,” and the other retained the old name, “Sunday of the Holy Fathers” with the only difference that “Holy Fathers” became “Forefathers” in order to avoid confusion with the Feasts of the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Synods. The Gospel reading assigned to this Sunday speaks of the great Banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven, to which many from the East and the West will come to sit with Abraham, whereas the sons of the nuptial chamber, the Israelites, will remain outside (Luke 13:10-17). The theme of this Sunday was further enriched by transferring to it the commemoration of the prophet Daniel and the three youths from the 17th of December.

7) The Fore-festal period of Christmas: In addition, the Sunday before that of the Forefathers, i.e. the 3rd Sunday before Christmas, was assigned a related fore-festal Gospel reading, by transferring to it the Gospel reading of the 10th Sunday of Luke, which relates the healing of the crippled woman, who was “a daughter of Abraham.” So, the entire month of December acquired a fore-festal character. In effect, it is dedicated to the Old Testament, to the Prophets and Forefathers of Christ, i.e. to the period of the expectation of the Messiah. This is why we see that the Heortologion (=Festal Calendar) assigns the commemoration of the prophet Nahum to the 1st of December, of the prophet Habakkuk to the 2nd, of the prophet Zephaniah to the 6th, of the prophet Haggai to the 16th, and to the prophet Daniel and the three youths to the 17th. Pascha was preceded by a fast. Christmas was also assigned a fore-festal fasting period; at the beginning a fast of a few days, but since the 7th century a 40-day fast like that of the Great Lent, which begins on the 15th of November.

8) Fore-festal hymnology of Christmas: The element, however, which gave, as usual, the particular, preparatory and fore-festal tone to the period before Christmas is the hymnology, which is interposed in the Services of Vespers, Matins, and Compline of these days. This interposing is done in a methodical and upwardly climactic way. The 21st of November marks the beginning of singing the katavasias for Christmas (“Christ is born, glorify…”); the 26th, the addition of the fore-festal kontakio “Today the Virgin comes to give birth to the pre-eternal Word…”; the 30th, the introduction of additional fore-festal troparia. From the 20th of December onwards the fore-festal element dominates all the Services as all the hymns (canons, stichera, kathismata, exaposteilaria, etc.) have a fore-festal character. The most noteworthy among the hymns of this fore-festal period are the series of Aposticha which have the alphabet as their acrostic, a work of Romanos Melodos. These hymns are distributed in sets as Stichera of the Ainoi (Praises). They are all in plagal 2nd tone and prosomoia (of the same tune) of the first troparion (hymn) of this series, which supplies the characteristic theme of all the others:

You Angelic powers, go forward;
You People of Bethlehem, prepare the cradle;
The Word is born; The Wisdom comes forth;
You people of the Church, receive the embrace;
You People of the world, let us say at the joy of the Theotokos:
Blessed be You, our God, who has come, Glory to You.


During this period at the Service of Compline the fore-festal triodia and the kanones are sung, both of which are the work of Symeon Metaphrastes. Both are based for their acrostic and content on the corresponding triodia of the Great Week. So the week before Christmas acquires the character of the Great Week before Pascha by imitating it. This imitation reaches its climax on the Eve of Christmas in the Services of the Great Hours and the Vespers, which have been formed according to the prototype of the Great Hours of Great Friday and of the Great Paschal Vespers.

9) Characteristic hymns of the Sunday of the Fore-Fathers: Here are three characteristic troparia from the Service of the Sunday Before the Birth of Christ, dedicated to the Fore-fathers, which bring out the joy and the hope for the imminent event of Christmas and wonderfully combine the commemoration of the Prophets with the Fathers who lived before the granting of the Law:

In truth raise your voice, O Zion, divine city of God,
and preach the divine memory of the Fathers,
honoring with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Him who is from everlasting.

For lo! With Judah and Levi we magnify Moses the Great and Aaron the Wonderful, and with David celebrate the memory of Joshua and Samuel.

Inviting all with divine songs and divine praise to the fore-feast of the Birth of Christ, we pray to receive His goodness; for He it is who grants to the world the Great Mercy.

Come, O Elijah, who did ascend of old the divine chariot,
and You, O Elisha of divine mind, rejoice with Ezekiel and Josiah.

Dance, O holy and divinely inspired cluster of the Twelve Prophets, at the Savior’s Birth, and all of You, O Righteous ones, sing with praises.

Pray for us, O blessed Youth, who put out the flame of the furnace by the dew of the Spirit and plead with Christ to grant to our souls the Great Mercy.

The collection of the teachings of the Law
shows the divine Birth of Christ in the flesh,
to those to whom the Grace was preached before the Law,
since they lived by faith above the Law;
Therefore, since they preached to the souls held captives in Hell
that this Birth would cause deliverance from corruption through the resurrection, we cry: O Lord, glory to You!


The celebration of Christmas

The magnificent celebration of the Feast of Christmas, the transcendent Mystery of the Birth of Christ, transports us to the holy cave of Bethlehem in Judea, where Christ is born from the Virgin. Where the shepherds venerate Him and the Magi offer their royal gifts to Him. Where the One who has no beginning acquired a beginning and the Word became incarnate. Where the Angelic doxologies were heard for the first time, and marked the dawn of a New Day, the Epiphany of the Sun of Righteousness. The faithful who conquer their sluggishness and go early to the church services will never forget the awe-inspiring atmosphere of the magnificent Christmas Service of Matins. The echo of the joyous hymns and the sweet-smell of incense inside the imposing temples of Orthodoxy uplift the human spirit beyond space and time. Then, the synaxarion of the Day is announced in Doric and Staccato style, including the iambic verses which were composed by Christophoros Mytilenaios:

On the 25th of this month, we observe the Birth in the flesh
of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
God is the newly-born, and virgin is the Mother!
What other greater New-thing has creation ever seen?

On the same Day, we observe the veneration of the Magi.
By venerating You, O Word of God, the order of the Gentiles
Have signified the future reverence ascribed to You by all the Nations!

On the same Day, we commemorate the Shepherds who saw the Lord.
The Shepherds left their own flock
And rush to see Christ the Good Shepherd.

To Him be the Glory unto the ages of the ages!


Participating in this celebration one does not know whether he lives in this age or in Byzantine times, or even at that holy Night when these events took place. This is exactly the stupendous mystery of Orthodox worship. It breaks up the boundaries of ages and of the flowing time-conventions of this world. The present, the past and the future are flattened. “Today”, at the Christmas celebration, Christ is born again, as He was born last year and on the same Day during the past ages; and he will continue to be born until the completion of the ages, exactly as He was born on that divine Night of Christmas of the first year of the Christian calendar. In such a context, one realizes that Christ “is the same yesterday and today and unto the ages” (Hebr. 13:8), and that the Church is His body, eternal and ageless like Him; Also, that each one of us is not alone, but a member of that sacred communion of those human beings who have been reborn in Christ, and that this communion is not subject to corruption and time, to yesterday and today and tomorrow, but exists in an eternal and incorruptible “Today”, which is enjoyed by the generations of the believers who were baptized into Christ and put on Christ. This generation of believers reigns with Christ and will continue to do so together with those who came to Christ in the past or those who will come into Him in the future. They will never pass away, because the kingdom of Christ is “a kingdom of all the ages and His reign in every generation and generation” (Psalm 114: 13).

The After-Feast or the Twelve Days of Christmas

1) From Christmas to its Apodosis (Return): As in the case of Pascha there is a fore-festal and a post-festal period, so in the case of Christmas we observe the same arrangement. The great Feast of Christmas is observed for 7 days. On the 26th of December we celebrate the Synaxis of the Theotokos, the Mother of Christ, and we commemorate the flight to Egypt of the holy family. On the 29th we commemorate the infants of Bethlehem, who were slaughtered by Herod. The Sunday that falls within this 7-day period is called the “Sunday After the Birth of Christ” and is dedicated to Joseph who was betrothed to the Virgin, to James the Brother of the Lord (Son of Joseph from another woman before his betrothal to the Theotokos), and to the common forefather, David the King. Throughout this 7-day period, the Christmas hymns are combined with those of the saints and the entire hymnology is repeated on the 31st of December, which marks the Apodosis (the completion) of the Feast of Christmas. The Exaposteilaria of the Matins Service are characteristic:

With James the noble brother of the Lord,
Let us extol David the Fore-father.
Together with Joseph who betrothed the Theotokos
For they served the Divine Birth in Bethlehem in a God-befitting way,
Singing to Him as our God and Master together with the Angels, the Magi and the Shephers.

Our Savior has visited us from on High, as the Dawn of Dawns,
And those who dwelt in darkness and shadow have found the truth
Because the Lord was born from the Virgin.


2) The Feast of the Circumcision on the 8th Day after Christmas: The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, according to the Law of Moses, which is parallel to the Sunday of Thomas, is celebrated on the 1st of January, the 8th day from Christmas. As the appearance of the Lord to Thomas contributes to the verification of the supernatural event of the Resurrection from the dead by the most doubting and restrained disciple, so the circumcision on the eighth day and the assignment of the name to the newly born constitute both the seal and the confirmation of the perfect Incarnation of Christ; of the assumption of the human form without change; of the reality of the supernatural incarnation of the Word of God; His entry among the people through the circumcision and of his submission to the Law. That 8th day of the appearance and presence of the Risen One in the midst of His disciples is the type of the 8th (ogdoad) of the future age and of the uninterrupted presence and enjoyment of Christ which is associated with it. And this 8th day from the day of His birth “is an icon”, according to the sacred hymnographers, “of the endless life of the future”, or “carries the type of the future,” exactly on account of the official presence of Christ in the flesh in the midst of His people and of the human race as a whole.

3) Theophany and Hypapante and the 40 Days after Christmas: The festal period continues; the Feast of the Theophany (Epiphany) with its fore-feasts and after-feasts which are extended until the 14th of January is inserted next. And on the following day, the 15th, a new fore-festal period begins, which introduces the Feast of the 40th day from the day of Christ’s birth, the Feast of Hypapante (the Meeting) which is celebrated on the 2nd of February. This Feast marks the conclusion of the Christmas celebrations; their Apodosis (Return), so to speak, the parallel Feast of the Feast of the Ascension, which marks the 40th day from the day of Pascha. Christ, as the 40-day old infant, enters into His temple, the earthly heaven. There He will be welcomed and be recognized by the Prophesy of the Old Testament, which will ask for its expiration and its discharge through the mouth of the righteous Symeon and Anna the Prophetess. And this will be so, because He who was declared by the prophets and was expected to appear, the “light of the revelation of the nations, and “the glory of His people,” the old and the new Israel, did come.

General conclusion of the Christmas-cycle of Feasts

This is in general outline the after-Christmas cycle of feasts. Together with the fore-festal Christmas-cycle which we described above, it covers almost 1/5th of the ecclesiastical year. If we bear in mind that the Feast of Christmas is the basis for a series of immovable Feasts, as we already mentioned, i.e. those of the Annunciation of the Theotokos and of the Conception and Birth of John the Forerunner and Baptist, we can see how accurate is the characterization of this Feast as the pole of the immovable Feasts of the entire ecclesiastical year. The Feast of the Birth of the Lord did find within the liturgical act of the Church its just and fitting place. It became the second Pascha, the first Feast after the queen of Feasts, which gradually became like the first one, without, however, achieving full assimilation with it.

The Feast of Christmas is par excellence the Feast of the Prophesy of the Old Testament. It constitutes the borderline between the two Testaments. The Old Testament foretells and prepares the coming of Christ and ends with His birth. The New Testament begins with the day of the Incarnation. It is the “Day of the Lord, the great and magnificent one,” which is fore-announced by the prophet Joel (3:4). God gave to earth and heaven His promised supernatural omens: “the blood, the fire and the vapor of smoke” (Joel 3:3). These omens were seen and acknowledged by the prophets of the Old Testament with David at their fore-front, and also by the holy men of the New Testament, with the two members of the holy family Joseph and James at their fore-front. All of them come forward to celebrate with the people of God the fulfillment of prophesies, the great Mystery of the Divine Incarnation; the revelation of Joel’s prophetic omen: the blood referring to the Incarnation of the Divine Word, the fire to the Godhead, and the vapor of smoke to the Holy Spirit. This is what the poet-theologian Anatolios declares in the Doxastikon of the Praises of the Sunday after Christmas:

Blood, fire and vapor of smoke are the omens of the earth which Joel foresaw – Blood for the Incarnation, Fire for the Godhead, and Vapor of smoke for the Holy Spirit, Who came to the Virgin and filled the world with fragrance. Great is the Mystery of Your becoming Man, O Lord, Glory to You!

Source: Translated and annotated by Protopresbyter George Dion. Dragas, PhD, DD, DTheol.

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