The Origins of Christmas and Epiphany Worship

The proclamation of Christ’s resurrection is the central focus of the Christian message. Yet for many churches, and not a few Christians, the annual festival of the birth of Christ has come to take a place of equal or greater significance. We might fill the church for an Easter morning service of resurrection, but we often multiply the services and special events at Christmas. The musicians may have their skills in refined condition at Easter, but often more time, rehearsal, and money is spent for the Christmas cantata and pageant. Writing of the special Christmas service, H. Boone Porter has noted:

No doubt many people will be moved by it, even if the music is ill-chosen or the sermon poorly prepared or the decorations in poor taste. Those who are responsible for leading worship should not be seduced by such tolerance. Great feasts should be the occasion for raising the standard of quality, not lowering it. People may say (and will say) that they want the service just like last year and the year before that and the year before that. Yet people are not likely to return year after year if no new insight, no new vision, no new sense of spiritual reality is communicated to them. The larger crowd on Christmas Eve presents a challenging opportunity to communicate the Good News of the Incarnation as effectively as possible. (Keeping the Christian Year [New York: Seabury, 1977], 15)

The faith of the early church was grounded in the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ. So central was it to the church’s life that Paul was able to write, “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can come of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:12–14, 20, RSV).

The fervor of the early Christians for the proclamation of the Resurrection meant that it would be the fourth century before the church would celebrate the birth of Jesus in a regularized fashion. With the Nativity festival originating as late as it does, one would hope that it would be easy to piece together an accurate picture of its genesis and subsequent development. Unfortunately, such is not the case.

The scholarly opinion concerning the origin of the date of Christmas falls basically into two camps. The first and most widely held viewpoint understands the celebration of Christ’s nativity on December 25 to be an intentional Christianization of an earlier pagan fest. In 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian established the date as a commemoration of Emesa, the Syrian god of the sun. A temple to Sol Invictus was constructed in Rome on the Campus Martius, and a conclave of priests was established to administer its affairs and officiate at its rites. By establishing the annual festival of Christ’s nativity to coincide with the pagan festival of the sun, the church could draw upon the ripe sun imagery already present in the prophetic announcements of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament’s evangelical tradition. As Adolf Adam has noted, “Christians could now make the triumphant claim to their pagan fellow citizens that they, the Christians, were celebrating the feast of the true Sun which alone can give light and salvation to the world” (The Liturgical Year [New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1992], 123).

A second hypothesis was originally proposed by Louis Duchesne in his comprehensive work entitled Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution. Duchesne held that the date of December 25 for the annual Nativity celebration was determined by a series of computations. Important witnesses in the early church, notably Tertullian and Hippolytus, recognized that March 25 was the date of Christ’s death. A symbolic number system, allowing for no imperfections (fractions) would take March 25 also as the date of Jesus’ conception. A perfect nine months later would result in the birth of Jesus on December 25. Such a symbolic number system seems strange to our twentieth century point of view, but it was not at all peculiar to the thought modes of the late third century.

As noted earlier, the most popular and widely held viewpoint concerning the date of Christmas is that the early Christians intentionally Christianized the pagan sun festival. However, it is impossible to completely discard the computation hypothesis. It is difficult to believe that the church would intentionally set themselves openly against the pagan feast of the emperor until after the legalization of Christianity under Constantine in 313. Augustine’s Sermon 202 suggests that the Donatists were celebrating the Nativity on December 25, which would imply that the festival was known to Rome prior to the Donatist schism of 312. If Augustine’s witness is accepted, then a nativity feast on December 25 was established in North Africa sometime before 312 and arising out of some other locus than the transformation of an established pagan feast.

In any event, the feast was firmly established by 336 and documented in the calendar of the Greek artist and calligrapher Philocalus, and usually referred to as the Chronograph of 354. In a portion of the work dating from 336, a list of martyrs, is found the words, “on the eighth of the kalends of January, Christ, born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

Quite apart of the thematic differences between Christmas and Epiphany, the search for the origin of January 6 as the date of the latter takes us through a similar series of possibilities as we noticed with Christmas. Scholars have appealed again to the possibility that Epiphany was the intentional Christianization of a pagan festival. In Alexandria on the night of January 5–6, the pagans would celebrate the birth of the god, Aion, and in the course of the festivities water would be drawn from the Nile, water that on the night of January 6 would turn into wine. The baptism of Jesus and the miracle of the wedding feast at Cana were early associated with this feast. Again, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the church responded to this thematically coincidental paganism by urging the substitution of their own tradition; but the story may not be that simple. Even the suggestion that January 6 was arrived at by a series of computations, based on April 6 as the death-date of Christ, has not been without its proponents.

Managing the multitude of lessons, theological themes, Christmas hymns and manger carols, decorations, vestments, and paraments, service times, and liturgical options for a festival as important to the Christian faith as the nativity of Jesus—in as little time as we have to devote to it—is no easy task. Even when we wisely and rightly extend and complete the proclamation of the coming of the Christ through the feast of Epiphany, we are still faced with the problem of what parts of the story to emphasize and what to leave out. At the very least, it demands that we read the story of our Lord’s coming among us, ask ourselves how this coming speaks to us and to the world, and plan our worship and liturgical life so that we address the needs of the people with no uncertainty.

The first major conflict that immediately presents itself is that between the story of our Lord’s birth, recorded in its familiar form in Luke 2, and the powerful proclamation in the first chapter of John’s gospel that boldly asserts the incarnation of the Savior. This is not an either/or proposition. For those churches that make use of a lectionary, this need not be a problem. Most revisions of the lectionary provide three sets of lessons for Christmas to be distributed through the services of Christmas Eve and Christmas day. In many churches the major service of lessons, carols, and candles will be based around the story of the Nativity recorded in Luke. The later service, at midnight or the next morning will focus on the incarnation of the Word of God. The message of Christmas is more than the historical birth of a baby; it is also the incarnation of the Savior. It is more than cattle and kings kneeling in a stable, it is the entire world on its knees before the Lord of life and death. It is more than angels singing glory, it is beholding the glory that is full of grace and truth for us. No one can argue about the fact that the story of our Lord’s birth is meaningful, even stimulating, but the gospel that the world needs to hear now is the vigorous, earthy, dynamic, demanding, if at times offensive gospel of the Word made flesh. Adrian Nocent has captured it so wonderfully.

Incarnation means not only that God is with us but also that we are redeemed and with God…. In the truly traditional thinking of the Church, there is nothing poetic about the incarnation. In fact, the emphasis is, if anything, on a rather brutal fact: The Word came to do God’s will, event to the point of dying on a Cross…. We are thus not passive bystanders of the incarnation. The incarnation radically transforms the history of the world and the personal history of each of us. (The Liturgical Year, vol. 1 [Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1977], 192).

The feast of the Epiphany, remembering the appearance or manifestation of God in Christ, is generally held to be the older of the feasts connected with the historical coming of Jesus. The traditional history of the feast day held that Epiphany was the birth festival of the Eastern church on January 6, roughly analogous to the Western church’s Christmas on December 25. As the tradition goes, in the middle of the fourth century, after the peace of the church, an interchange of the two festivals took place with the church, East and West, celebrating both. While this explanation is conveniently satisfying, it is a gross oversimplification of the details. But the real difficulty in unraveling the feast of the Epiphany has to do with the multiplicity of themes that have from very early been associated with it. From Clement of Alexandria in the early third century, we find out that the baptism of Jesus played a significant role in the development of Epiphany. The wedding feast at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle, was early associated with Epiphany as well. Popular thought today associates Epiphany with the arrival of the magi to offer their gifts. Of this tradition, Adolf Adam wrote:

Epiphany is also known as the feast of the Three Holy Kings or as Three Kings’ Day. This emphasis obscures the fact that the feast is not a saint’s feast, but a feast of the Lord. Moreover, as everyone knows, the gospel account says nothing about kings or about Magi being three in number. Origen is the first to speak of three Magi; he probably gets the number from the three gifts. The designation “kings” first occurs in Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century. The names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar have been used since the ninth century. (The Liturgical Year [New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1992], 146)

It is interesting to note that these three miraculous events—the visit of the magi, the baptism, and the miracle at Cana’s wedding feast—are preserved for us still in the lectionary for the day of Epiphany and the first two Sundays following. This convergence of stories probably results from the fact that these three stories, these three miraculous events, stand near the beginning of three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and John, respectively. These Gospels, being the favorite texts of important early Christian communities, may well have given local shape to the liturgical year, and the combination of these local customs has given us our present tripartite emphasis for Epiphany. The one whose light we have followed, of whom it was said, “thou art my beloved Son,” and whose glory was manifested in the water made wine, is the one who was flesh among us for our salvation. The entire complex of biblical and theological material—from incarnation, to manifestation, to transfiguration, all seen in the light of redemption, provides the church with an unlimited gospel tradition from which may flow our prayer and proclamation of worship and life.

J. Neil Alexander is the Chancellor of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Adapted from The Services of the Christian Year. Nashville, TN: Star Song Publishing Group. Used by permission.