Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s incarnation. The wonderful mystery of God’s dwelling among us in the fullness of humanity, as Emmanuel, foretold by the prophets, and born of Mary, provides the material of the feast:-
Hark, hark, the wise eternal word,
like a weak infant cries!
In form of servant is the Lord,
and God in cradle lies.
However, Christmas is much more than the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The task of the Christmas liturgy is to recall us, amid all the joyful customs, and celebrations of Christmas, to this central truth of the Word made flesh for our salvation.
It is, of course, Christ’s nativity that has provided the occasion for this festival of the incarnation, since the end of the 3rd century. The Christmas crib and the nativity play can both be said to descend from the tableau of Christ’s birth that Francis of Assisi arranged when he celebrated Christmas at Greccio in 1223. Christmas carols are a medieval tradition, which has been notably developed from the end of the 19th century. The Lessons and Carols festival is from the late 19th century, and it was made popular by the choir of King’s College in Cambridge during the first half of the 20th century.
The Christmas season is often celebrated for twelve days, ending with the Epiphany. Contemporary use has sought to express an alternative tradition, in which Christmas lasts for a full forty days, ending with the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) on the 3rd February. The days around the 25th December are a principal holiday in the secular calendar of Britain, and commercial pressures have led to much of Christmas celebration being displaced into Advent. It has become an even greater challenge to celebrate the saints of the Christmas season: Stephen, who first paid with his life for following the incarnate Lord; John, who was believed to have lived to a great old age in profound meditation on the Word made flesh; and the Holy Innocents, who draw our attention to the plight of children in a World where the implications of the birth of the Christ-child are not yet manifest.