History, Holidays & Observances on December 24: Christmas Eve

Today: Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass of Pope Benedict XVI, The 12 Days of Christmas, Santa Claus, Christmas Music

And More . . .

Holidays and Observances on December 24, Christmas Eve

Midnight Mass – NBC Broadcast: The last Christmas Eve Mass of Pope Benedict XVI

Why celebrate Christmas Eve and 12th Night?  The most important occasions in the life of Jesus and the Saints are designated by the Church as “Solemnities.”   Historically, the observance of a Solemnity begins with the vigil on the evening before the actual date of the feast.  Thus, we mark Christmas Eve before the nativity on Christmas Day and 12th Night as the eve before the Epiphany.

12 Days of Christmas:

1st Day of Christmas: Tomorrow celebrates the nativity of Jesus Christ, but throughout much of Christian history, this day was the beginning, not the end, of the celebration. In 567, the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas through 12th Night, ending the next day on the Epiphany, as a sacred and festive season.

Note here that the events listed below are all classified as Feasts, but that is a dual use term in the Church.  All celebrations are Feasts, but the term Feast may also refer to the official level of importance of the celebration.  Those levels are: Solemnities – a commemoration of the most important events in the life of Jesus and the saints; Feasts – as an official designation, are second in importance to Solemnities and, lastly Memorials, for lesser known Saints.

2nd Day of Christmas: December 26 marks the Feast of St. Stephen the first man martyred for his faith. Saul – later, Paul the Apostle – was part of the crowd that stoned Stephen to death, a story retold in the Acts of the Apostles. The Feast of St. Stephen is mentioned in the Christmas Carol, “Good King Wenceslas,”

3rd Day of Christmas: December 27 is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. He is the only one of the original twelve apostles who was not martyred, but rather died naturally in old age. According to one story, John was almost martyred, however, when someone tried to poison his wine, but he was saved because it was his habit to bless his wine before he drank it. John’s blessing didn’t just passively purify the wine–according to the story, the poison rose up magically from the chalice and formed into the shape of a serpent that then slithered off. Thus, St. John often appears in medieval iconography as a man holding a chalice with what looks like steam coming out of it. It is traditional to celebrate St. John’s Feast Day with mulled wine.

4th Day of Christmas: December 28 is The Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating those children massacred by Herod in his failed attempt to kill off Christ as told in the Gospel of Matthew 2:16-18. According to the Church, the children murdered in Jesus’s stead are the first Christian martyrs. The Holy Innocents are mentioned in the Coventry Carol, a 15th century song written as a mother’s lullaby to her doomed children.

5th Day of Christmas: December 29 is a Memorial, the Feast of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who, in 1172, was murdered by underlings of King Henry II after they heard the King say, in a fit of anger, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

In 2019, Sunday Dec. 29 is also the Feast of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The purpose of the feast is to present the three as a model for Christian families.  This feast day moves annually, falling on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas (or, if there is no such Sunday, 30 December)

7th Day of Christmas: Dec. 31 is a Memorial, the Feast of Pope St. Sylvester who held the papacy from 314 A.D. to 335 A.D., the period beginning just after Constantine the Great made Christianity lawful in the Roman Empire by the Edict of Milan. Sylvester is most famous, unfortunately, for an 8th century forgery, the Donation of Constantine, wherein Constantine supposedly granted Pope Sylvester spiritual and temporal authority over Rome and the Western lands of the Roman Empire. The forgery was eventually exposed by Fr. Lorenzo Valla in the 15th century.

8th Day of Christmas – Jan. 1: The Feast of the Circumcision / of Fools / the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. At various times in history, different feasts were celebrated on the 8th day of Christmas (and the New Year was never considered to be January 1 until the 18th century).

The 1st of the Feasts historically held on this day was the Feast of the Circumcision, honoring the day when the parents of Jesus, as observant Jews, brought Jesus to a mohel to be circumcised in accordance with Jewish law, thus fulfilling God’s pact with Abraham. The circumcision of Jesus has traditionally been seen as the first time the blood of Christ was shed, and thus the beginning of the process of the redemption of man, and a demonstration that Christ was fully human, and of his obedience to Biblical law. This feast originally displaced the Solemnity of Mary in the 14th century.

The Second Vatican Counsel reinstated this day as the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, and also the commemoration of the conferral of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, as had been celebrated in the Church from the earliest times until the 14th century.

A third Feast held on this day, quite unofficially for the better part of a millennium, was the Feast of Fools. It was largely celebrated within the walls of the religious orders, and it was a day when the lowliest of the members were given rule for a day.

9th Day of Christmas: Jan. 2 is a Memorial, the Feasts of the Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. Both lived in 4th century Asia Minor and both are “Doctors of the Church,” people who made seminal philosophical and academic contributions to the Church.

10th Day of Christmas: Jan. 3 is a Memorial, the Feast of the Holy Name, a celebration founded on Luke 2:21. “ . . . his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

11th Day of Christmas: January 4 is given over to Feast Days for Saints of local importance. In the U.S., this is the Feast Day of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born Saint.

12th Day of Christmas: Jan. 5 is the 12th Night celebration.  It is a night for wassailing.

Jan. 6 – The Epiphany is a celebration of when the Magi arrived at Christ’s side and he was revealed to them as Lord and Savior.

And for good humor, here is Irish comedian Frank Kelly’s version of the 12 days of Christmas . . .

Major Events on December 24

1773 – Santa Claus Comes to America:

The first mention of Santa Claus in the newspapers of the American colonies came in 1773, in Rivington’s Gazette published in New York City. But Santa Claus had a much older pedigree than that.

The tradition of gift giving at Christmas probably was a holdover from Saturnalia, the major Roman festival at the mid-winter which was melded into the first Christmas celebrations by the process of syncretism. (See entry for Dec. 17). But that tradition took on a very Christian flavor after the Church beatified Nicholaus, the 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra who became legend for his charity and gift giving. Thereafter, St. Nicholaus, whose feast day was in December, became the Christian model for giving of gifts around Christmastime.

The next act of syncretism came as the Germanic people were converted to Christianity over a millennium ago. Their pagan god Odin, was a god of war and a gift giver to children. During the pagan midwinter celebration of Yule, Odin would ride his flying horse onto the roof of each house. Children would place carrots and straws in their shoes and set them near the chimney. Odin’s horse would consume the goodies while Odin rewarded the children with gifts. So thorough was the conversion of the Germanic peoples that even the name of their ancient celebration, Yule, was re-defined to refer to Christmas. Odin was usually shown in green robes, representing “the Celto-Germanic idea of evergreens surviving through the winter and representing the renewal of life.” And as the Norse converted, they melded St. Nicholas with Odin, creating a figure clad in green robes known as Sinter Claes who made his home in the frozen northern lands.

The British picked up on this, creating in the 16th century a Protestant alternative to the Catholic St. Nicholaus,, Father Christmas, a large man who dressed in fur lined robes of green. Father Christmas – who would later feature prominently in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol as the Ghost of Christmas Present – “typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry.” And “as England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 25th of December to coincide with Christmas Day.”

All of these traditions came together when the Dutch immigrants came to the New World. In the colonies, Sinter Claes was anglicized into Santa Claus and melded with Father Christmas. It was in the United States that Santa was given reindeer instead of a horse, and it wasn’t until 1823, when Clement Moore published his poem, T’was the Night Before Christmas, that our modern Santa Claus was given description, though it remained for Thomas Nast, in 1863, to put that image in sketch.

The last great change to the Santa Claus traditions came with his dress – it became red instead of green. There are two theories of how that came about. One is that the red is the color of the vestments worn by the historical St. Nichalous. A second, more cynical theory is that Coca Cola corporation pushed red – the same red as the color of their cans – in their early marketing campaigns centered around Santa Claus.

Notable Events on December 24

1814 – The last war between Britain and the United States, War of 1812, ends with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. A month later, the combatants in the field, unaware of the treaty, would fight the Battle of New Orleans, catapulting Andrew Jackson to national prominence.

1826 – Several West Point cadets smuggled a barrel of whiskey into the school to make eggnog for the holidays. The drunken brawl that ensued involved over a third of the cadets and went down in history as the Eggnog Riot.

1865 – Jonathan Shank and Barry Ownby form The Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War. This first version of the Klan was effectively suppressed by law enforcement and died out by 1871.

1906 – Marconi may have invented radio, but Reginald Fessenden perfected it. On this day, he transmitted the first radio broadcast across the Atlantic consisting of a poetry reading, a violin solo, and a speech.

2008 – Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group led by cult-leader Joseph Kony, begins a series of attacks on Democratic Republic of the Congo, massacring more than 400.

1913 – The right to freedom of speech has limits, one of the most well known being that “you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater.” That is based on Italian Hall disaster in Calumet, Michigan this day that resulted in the deaths of 73 Christmas party participants (including 59 children) when someone falsely yells “fire”.

Born on December 24

1166 – John, King of England, a horrid King whose disaster of a reign is redeemed by the fact that he signed the Magna Carta, the seminal written Constitution in Anglo legal history.

1927 – Mary Higgins Clark, one of America’s most successful authors of suspense novels. Of the fifty-one novels she has penned to date, every one of them has been a best seller.

Died on December 24

1873 – Johns Hopkins, a grocer, investor, and abolitionist in 19th century Baltimore, Maryland.  His bequests founded numerous institutions bearing his name, most notably the highly respected Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University.

Christmas Music

Silent Night was first sung on this night in 1818 in the church of St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf, Austria. A priest, Fr. Joseph Mohr, had written the lyrics to the song two years earlier. He took the song to a schoolmaster, Franz Xaver Gruber (a possible relation to  Hans Gruber?), and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the Christmas Eve mass, after river flooding had damaged the church organ. It soon become hugely popular, but the authorship of Mohr and Gruber went unknown until an original manuscript was found in 1995.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing is a Christmas carol written in 1739. The lyrics were written by the two towering figures of the First Great Awakening, Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, and the music was taken from the works of Mendelssohn.

O Holy Night was composed in 1847, putting to song the French poem “Minuit, chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians). The lyrics text reflect on the birth of Jesus as humanity’s redemption.

London Symphony