The Feast of Christmas celebrates the event of Jesus’ birth. The Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, was born in Bethlehem, Judaea, and the first to visit Him were simple shepherds who found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in a manger. This single event has saved us. It has joined us in union with God. Through it, God has been revealed to us. It has set us free.
The angels gave the shepherds a sign. The shepherds responded to the sign and saw Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus in a manger: in other words, the Blessed Virgin is part of all that Christmas means.
The first celebration of Christmas in the West
Through the Edict of Milan in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine put an end to persecution and gave Christians the freedom to celebrate their beliefs. The latter responded by erecting buildings for worship.
The liturgy was then developed. The first celebration of Christmas appeared in response to the Arian crisis, after the Council of Nicaea.
Christmas on December 25
Experts are divided on the reasons why December 25 is the date for celebrating Christmas.
It may be that the coming of Jesus, as the Sun of Righteousness, came to replace the Roman December festival, the merry Saturnalia.
Or it may be that Jesus was celebrated exactly 9 months after His conception on March 25, the day of the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel, therefore a perfect day then. The celebration of Christmas is linked to the Feast Day of March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation and Incarnation. This day was already known before the establishment of Christmas as a feast, but its Feast Day came later.
The Feast of Christmas marks the beginning of the liturgical cycle
A prime consequence of the celebration of the Feast of Christmas was the development of homilies around Mary and the reflection about her divine motherhood.
The establishment of Christmas in Rome also led to the greater observance of Advent, with its readings on the Annunciation and the Visitation, and the fixing of the Feast Day of January 1, eight days after Christmas, as the date for the celebration of the circumcision of Jesus and the divine motherhood of Mary.
The celebration of Christmas thus marks the beginning of the liturgical cycle, anticipated by Advent (with its hymns, readings and re-reading of the Old Testament) and continued through the octave of Christmas with the celebration of the Feast of the Mother of God.
The significance of this event is immense
The season of Advent is a liturgical season which, with its special meditative prayers, looks forward to the rich meaning of Christmas.
On the Feast of the Nativity, the whole Church continues to draw from the rich treasure of Christmas, the mystery of God come on earth as a man, through singing of hymns or short, traditional refrains and other short prayers said during Mass. Today's prayers for Christmastide are a still a direct heritage from those composed in the earliest days of the Church.
Furthermore, the significance of this event is pondered in homilies, especially those that have come down to us through the ages, where we discover that the birth of Jesus is linked to that of our own birth (the Homily of St Leo the Great) or that it is connected with God’s union with humanity (Homily of St Augustine). [...]
Excerpt from Ignazio CALABUIG, Il culto di Maria in occidente,
In Ponteficio Istituto Liturgico sant’Anselmo, Scientia Liturgica,
sotto la direzione di A.J. CHUPUNGCO,
vol. V Piemme 1998 p. 277-279