When was our Lord’s birthday celebrated for the first time? In ancient times, the Nativity was celebrated on the same day as the Epiphany, but soon these events’ celebrations became assigned to separate days of the liturgical year. Why did that happen?
Feast of the Epiphany
Epiphany, according to the testimony of Clement of Alexandria (Stromata. I, 21), began to be celebrated at the beginning of the III century, in response to a similar celebration by the Gnostics. By the end of the century the celebration had already spread throughout the Roman Empire. With the adoption of Christianity, many holidays became official, resulting, for example, in circus performances being banned on the Epiphany as early as in 400 (Cod. Theodos. ΙΙ, 8,20, 25). The widespread distribution of this celebration did not mean, however, the uniform nature of the celebrated event. The Syrian Apostolic Constitutions (V, 3), the ancient Coptic calendar and St Hippolytus of Rome (the Epiphany Address) speak of the Epiphany as the Baptism of the Lord. At the same time, St Augustine (Words 199-204), passing on the contemporary North African tradition, mentions only the adoration of the Magi.
From the testimony of Sylvia of Aquitaine and her pilgrimage, it becomes obvious that in the Holy Land Epiphany meant Nativity. Later this Palestinian tradition was adopted by almost the entire Christian East. The celebration of the Epiphany began with a very solemn procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It lasted for eight days and was accompanied by vigils and liturgies, which may have served as the basis for the emergence of the Christmas-tide period. For a whole week, Nativity services were held simultaneously in Bethlehem, where they were performed by the local clergy and monastics, and in the main temples of Jerusalem (Pilgrimage, 25, 26, 39).
Nativity in Rome
Over time, the realization came that the feast of the Epiphany was oversaturated with various Gospel stories, so the church decided to commemorate them on different dates. The first such decision was made by the Church of Rome under Pope Julius (337-352), setting the day of the Nativity holiday on December 25 and securing January 6 for Epiphany. The holy Hierarch Pope Liberius, tonsuring Marcellina (sister of St Ambrose of Milan), pointed out to her the importance of her tonsure coinciding with the day of the Nativity, on which, according to tradition, the Roman Church also remembered the events in Cana of Galilee and the feeding of the four thousand (St. Ambrose, On virginity. III. 1). This custom is quite remarkable because despite the fact that the Roman Church had already celebrated the Nativity separately, in the memory of Roman Christians, the service still retains some features of the Epiphany, since the transformation of water into wine in Cana and the miraculous nourishment were traditionally perceived as Epiphany miracles signifying the approaching of the Kingdom of God.
Nativity in the East
Most of the great feasts arose in the East and then spread to the West, but the Nativity of Christ, as a separate celebration from the Epiphany, was borrowed by Eastern Christians from the West, as evidenced by the Eastern Fathers. St Basil the Great was most likely the first to introduce the holiday of Nativity in the East, leaving behind his address “On the Holy Nativity”. St Gregory the Theologian, who was St Basil’s friend, implants the feast of Nativity in Constantinople. The first service that he celebrated in New Rome was precisely the Nativity (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Word 38).
In Antioch on the feast day of St Chrysogonus, the Martyr (December 20) in 386/8 St John Chrysostom announces to his congregation that on December 25 they would be having a festive Nativity service for the first time. Chrysostom tells his parishioners that this holiday has long been known in the West, that it had already been 10 years since the information about it penetrated into Antioch, and that he himself had long desired and prayed that this service would be celebrated in Antioch. Despite the opposition of some antiquity adherers, labelling this holiday as an innovation, Chrysostom insists on this custom being ancient in the Western Catholic Churches and, drawing on his analysis of the Scripture, claims that the Savior was indeed born in mid-December (on Nativity day).
Alexandria and Jerusalem patriarchates were the last Eastern churches to assimilate celebrating the Nativity separately from Theophany (in Jerusalem this was done only after the decree of Emperor Justinian I in the middle of the 6th century).
Later, particular legends appeared explaining the reasons for the introduction of the Nativity holiday in the East. According to one of these traditions, Cyril, the Bishop of Jerusalem (Juvenal, according to another version) wrote a letter to Pope Julius, in which he spoke about the inconvenience of simultaneously celebrating the Nativity and the Baptism of the Lord: “You cannot go to Bethlehem and Jordan at the same time.” The Pope responded by recommending the practice of his church – December 25th.
In this way, the gradual development of church holidays could not but separate two Gospel episodes as significant as Nativity and Epiphany. This happened much earlier in the West, where by the Epiphany they began to understand the adoration of the Magi (as a symbol of the worship of God by all mankind), celebrating Baptism on another day. Some Christians (the Armenian Church) still celebrate the Nativity and Baptism of Christ on the same day (January 6), not separating the confessional appearance of the Logos into the world from the beginning of His public ministry.