The Feast of the Nativity combines both the incarnation and re-creation of Christ in the world. Christians eagerly await the arrival of this great feast in commemoration of the birth of the ‘Sun of Righteousness’- Jesus, in December. There are many customs and traditions attached to this festival. Popular sentiments suggest that it has shadowed Epiphany – the greater feast of Resurrection.
The date of birth of Christ was the object of speculation from the early 3rd century, various churchmen suggesting different dates. However, until the 4th century, the celebration of the centenary of Christ’s birth was not so widespread. It was the Romans who spread the celebration of the feast of Nativity associated with the birth of Christ spread throughout the world.
The Church of Jerusalem celebrates Nativity on 6th January and in the Armenian Church January 6 is still observed as Christmas Day.
The Origin of This Holyday
You would imagine how does Feast of Nativity actually fit into the life of the Orthodox Christian Church? The Church of Rome is often credited for the origins of the feast of the birth of Christ. You must be thinking what was the basis of this feast and why was particularly December 25th chosen as the day for its celebration?
The genesis of the Feast of the Nativity in winter is ambiguous from historical facts available regarding the birth of Christ, but can be explained from curious astronomical phenomenon.
You know that late in December we reach the shortest day of the year. This point onwards the hours of daylight gradually increase. This evident phenomenon had great religious implication in the pagan Roman world. It became the feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable Sun). Rome started celebrating this holyday during the last two weeks of December as Saturnalia.
There could be no better time for Christians to celebrate the coming of the true unconquered “Sun”. Thus, the feast of Christmas was born as the f�te for dawning of the Sun of Righteousness on the world.
You would find the earliest mention of observing the Nativity of Christ on December 25 is in a calendar tabulating the practice in Rome in the year 336. Some scholars consider this date perhaps to counteract the pagan feast of the nativity of the invincible Sun. Christ has been represented as the ‘Sun of Righteousness’.
Celebrations on the Feast
The Orthodox Christians begin the Feast of the Nativity with a grand episode of preparations. It is then preceded by a fast, corresponding to Lent and lasts for forty days, beginning on 15th November.
It is a great event, which creates a lot of anticipation. Many rituals and practices are attached to this festival. The season begins with decoration of individual homes and whole cities are beautified for Christmas
Special commemorations are held on the Sundays just before December 25 to emphasize the link between the New and the Old Covenant. The fore feast of the Nativity is celebrated on 20th December. The daily liturgical texts are aimed at the feast itself. On Christmas Eve, services comprise the Great Vespers, the Great or Royal Hours, and the Liturgy of Saint Basil.
The service on Christmas Day venerates the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The days after Christmas are associated with the Theotokos and Joseph. On December 26 the Synaxis of the Mother of God, and on the first Sunday after the Feast of Navity people commemorate “Joseph the Betrothed�. This celebration of Nativity season concludes on December 31, but the spirit of the celebration continues.
Feast of the Nativity encloses both virtues of the Roman festival of the Sun and other pagan feasts. Thus, Feast of the Nativity is popularly observed with joy and merry especially by orthodox christens throughout the world.