In my internet research I come across some Catholic and Evangelical sites expressing anguish at claims that Christmas originated as a pagan feast. This always surprises me, as I learned in school that the early Christians established the feast on December 25th to counter a pagan celebration rife with wrongdoings. Adolf Adam, in his treatment of the history of the Christmas liturgy, identifies the pagan feast as a tribute to “the Unconquered Sun God.” Adam uses an interesting phrase; in order to “inoculate” Christians from the allurements of this post-winter solstice debauchery, the feast we know as Christmas was established in the fourth century in Rome, on December 25.
I suspect that what upsets some believers about this superimposing of feasts is (1) the easy assumption that elements of the pagan Sun God impacted Christian belief on the nature of Christ and his origins, and/or (2) the fact that the precise day of Jesus’ birth is lost to history. St. Luke is the only New Testament writer to attempt to nail down a time for the birth of Jesus, but in truth all he really does is give us an approximation of the dating of the tax census. Implied in all of this is that the Gospels are not fundamental factual history in every case; in truth the Church has provided to scholars the (hard) historical core that must be adhered to in undertaking scriptural study, and since the twentieth century has not included the Infancy narrative in that corpus—as hard factual history. Scholars have plumbed the Christmas narratives for profound insights into the nature of Jesus. It is just impossible to give a date of his birth.
The Romans were hearty partiers, it seems, because the first day of the New Year was also a time of “superstitious practices and gross orgies” under the banner of the two-faced god Janus (per Adam, 139). January 1 was also the day that Roman Consuls began their new terms of office. Here again, the Church stepped in to “inoculate” the faithful (I love that term) with a feast of its own invention. Curiously, the first New Years’ liturgical observances were penitential in nature, and we have no better source than St. Augustine himself, who preached, “Let them give new year’s gifts, you should give alms…let them rush to the theater: you should rush to church…let them get drunk: you should fast.” (139) This was indeed the custom of many parts of Western Europe as late as the seventh century.
But there is another interesting development to the New Year’s observance in the Christian calendar. It is well established that Christians in the East (the Greek world of the Eastern Roman Empire) were far ahead of the Roman West in their veneration of Mary, and possibly to keep pace, the Roman Church began to celebrate Mary as the Mother of God on January 1. Eastern Christendom had established feasts of the Annunciation and the Assumption of Mary far ahead of the West as well.
That said, local and regional developments regarding the New Year’s observance began to crop up in Spain and in Gaul (France) as early as the sixth century. In these regions January 1 was observed as the “Circumcision of the Lord and Octave Day of Christmas.” There was considerable logic in this development, as Luke 2:20 states in tonight’s/tomorrow’s Gospel that on the eighth day after his birth (one week) Jesus was circumcised—the supreme entry rite into the community of Abraham—and using the calendar of the times that would equate to January 1.
The Spanish/French observance of January 1 as the Circumcision did not take hold in Rome until the thirteenth or fourteenth century, where it would be called “The Circumcision of the Lord and Octave Day of Christmas,” a title which officially stood in place till the Vatican II reform of the missal in 1970. However, I cannot recall this feast ever referred to by its full title; it was always just “the Circumcision” and generations of young students like myself had the innocence (and later, the good sense) not to ask many questions to the good nuns who were very happy to move ahead to the January 6 feast of the Epiphany. My assumption as a minor was always the propriety of having a holy day on the first day of the new year.
Surprisingly, when the missal was reformed in the late 1960’s, there was no thought about the fact that the Octave of Christmas was also the first day of the new year. Officially the January 1 observance returned to the fourth century practice of dedicating the day to the Virgin Mary. The Circumcision title was dropped, and if you check the USCCB page for January 1, you will see the official rendering: The Octave Day of Christmas: Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
This was not the end of the matter, though. Liturgists—and the general Catholic public, for that matter—could not help but note that the official Mass text of January 1 has no mention of the beginning of the civil year. There was more confusion in the very text of the approved Missal. If you sneak a look at the big red prayer book on the altar, the sacramentary or Missal, you will find a large section of Mass formulas “For Various Needs and Occasions.” There are quite a few options—there is actually a Mass for Congress (reminiscent of King Henry II of France, who in 1593 reportedly said, “Paris is worth a Mass.”) If you look at Mass #24, you will find a formulary for “Beginning of the Civil Year.”
The opening prayer of this Mass is fitting: “Almighty God, with you there is no beginning and no end., for you are the goal of all creation. May this new year which we dedicate to you bring us abundant prosperity and growth in holy living….” So, can a parish, or diocese, or the universal Church, for that matter, use this Mass text for January 1? Well, no—because stated at the top of the Mass formulary is a stern warning: “This Mass may not be celebrated on January 1, the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God.” I won’t ask the obvious question…
So that settles that. But, “Not so fast, my friend,” as ESPN’s Lee Corso would say. I’m falling back on my memory, here, and I remember that in 1970 there was another option for January 1, instituted by Pope Paul VI himself, when he designated January 1 as the Day of World Peace, and I know we had an option to use the votive Mass for world peace, because I did that myself a number of times on January 1. I was able to find several of Pope Paul VI’s January 1 addresses on peace, as this one here. But I supposed that the practice had been discontinued until I found this post from today, from Pope Francis himself!
I guess, all things considered, it is a good idea to go to Mass on January 1—as history teaches, there is certainly no shortage of reasons.