Putting Christ and the Mass back into Christmas


By Paul Stenhouse

Fr Paul Stenhouse MSC PhD (Middle Eastern studies) is editor of Annals Australasia and an acknowledged expert on the (modern and ancient) Middle East. He is a regular contributor to the media discussion on events in the Middle East. Below is his editorial for the Annals’ Christmas edition which will be of interest to the conservative for its historical details – apart from anything else.

THE STREETS of Sydney have been bedecked since mid-November with pennants hanging from light poles featuring multi-coloured stars – which I take to represent the star of Bethlehem – and the words Happy Christmas.

Despite the high-powered commercial marketing of the Christmas ‘holiday’, and the ongoing anti-Christianising of our world, most people still know that Christmas is a Christian religious celebration. It is also a much beloved Catholic Feast, and has been since it was first celebrated in Rome.

We know that St. Irenaeus of Lyons [A.D. 130-202] who was a disciple of St Polycarp [69-155] who was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, held that the Feast of the Annunciation was March 25, and that Jesus was born nine months later on December 25.[1]

Bishop John of Nicaea[2] tells us that the Roman Church started celebrating Christmas on December 25 in the time of Pope Julius I [337-352] and we know that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome in 354 in the time of Pope Liberius [353-366].[3]

The oldest Christmas sermon that has come down to us is by Bishop Zeno of Verona [c.300-371].[4] It is likely – granted the influence of St Irenaeus of Lyons – that the Feast of Christ’s birthday on December 25 was celebrated in the early third century. The written records we possess are only what survived the myriad sackings and burnings of Rome. They represent but a fraction of the documents that would have existed in the preceding centuries.

Writing in 386, St John Chrysostom, who ten years later was to become Patriarch of Constantinople, stated that the celebration of December 25 as our Lord’s birthday was ‘known from the beginning’ to the Church of Rome. He refers those curious about the date to the Archives of that Church which he says contained unimpeachable evidence, and added, ‘It was from those who have an accurate knowledge of these things and who dwell in Rome that we [he was at that time Patriarch of Antioch] received this Feast.’ He called Christmas Day ‘The Chief of all Feasts’.

Christmas, as the name makes clear, means ‘Christ’s Mass’. It comes from the Old English name our Catholic ancestors gave to the Mass offered on December 25 to celebrate the birthday of Jesus: Christesmasse. Not surprisingly, the Mass for the birthday of the mother of Jesus on September 8, was Marymasse; and the commemoration of the slaying of the Holy Innocents on December 28 was Childermasse.

These feasts were all Hali or Holy Days. The Old English Hali survives today in Catholic words like All Hallows i.e. All Saints. Christmas was still called a Halyday in the time of Henry VIII. The spelling Holiday seems to occur first around 1526.

For most Australians ‘holidays are no longer thought of as ‘Holy days’. Around Sydney we can find a giant and beautifully decorated and lighted Christmas tree four storeys high that greets thousands of shoppers or gawkers who pass through the Queen Victoria Building – one of Sydney’s oldest and most elegant shopping complexes. As Christmas trees are associated with gifts they fit comfortably and unthreateningly for non-Catholic and unbelieving shoppers in modern gift stores and malls.

Variations on the Christmas tree motif abound, but one looks in vain for any sign of Jesus, Mary or Joseph, to say nothing of the shepherds, the manger, the cattle and sheep, and the three wise men. The very name Jesus seems to be anathema to politicians, left-wing pundits, entertainers, advertisers and media moguls alike.

There was no room for Mary, Joseph and the child in the Inn in the time of emperor Tiberius. It seems that malls, shopping centres, hotels, town halls and railway stations, even schools and public areas still have no room for them in 2013.

There is one small yet beautiful exception[5] to this banning of the child Jesus from his rightful place at the hearths and in the hearts of Sydneysiders – a traditional crib, with Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the three Magi in one of David Jones’s windows in Elizabeth Street. There will of course be a crib in the square in front of Sydney’s beautiful neo-Gothic Catholic Cathedral dedicated to St Mary, and in myriad Catholic churches and chapels around Australia.

Australia, the world’s largest island, was named Australia del Espiritu Santo, ‘The South Land of the Holy Spirit’, by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernades de Queiros who searched for it and maybe found it in 1606 before the Dutch, English and French arrived. Luis Vaez de Torres, his second in command, certainly sailed through the strait between Australia and New Guinea that bears his name. Captain Cook’s name Botany Bay seems a less than inspired alternative to Australia of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit must surely be saddened – and St Paul warns us against ‘saddening’ the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4,30 – by the modern day secular exclusion of Christian and especially Catholic faith symbols, from public view in a country that was to be name after Him.

It is allegedly ‘divisive’ to mention Christmas in our majority Christian country, but not divisive to mention Ramadan. The Bible is ridiculed, but the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] forever refers to ‘The Holy Koran’. Muhammad is always called ‘the prophet Muhammad’ by many media. When did you last hear Jesus even mentioned, let alone referred to as ‘the Son of God’? What Christians believe is usually prefaced by a wink-wink nod-nod caveat: ‘it is claimed that…’

The country may be majority Christian but the left-wing ‘intellectuals’, the media and the lawgivers do not hide their animosity towards Christianity and especially Catholicism.

On the other hand: should we be so surprised? The feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple on February 2 – forty days after his brith – was and is still called Candelmasse – Candlemass – because of the candles that are blessed at that Mass to signify that Jesus is the ‘Light’ of our world as the holy man Simeon said[6] when he took the baby Jesus in his arms. But we too easily forget what Simeon added. He said to Mary, ‘This child is destined to be a sign which men reject; and you too will be pierced to the heart. Many in Israel will stand or fall because of him, and thus the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.’[7]

Catholics believe that Jesus is the Prince of Peace[8] foretold by the prophet Isaiah; and the Light of the world foretold by Simeon. And all our natural longing to be accepted by our secular and unbelieving friends shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the Prince of Darkness is still hard at work making our world more hostile to Jesus and his Church.

As I write there is an ongoing media war being waged against the Assad regime in Syria and the Shi’a in Iran. There is also a media war being waged against Catholic belief. There is a veil either of silence or overt ridicule thrown by the media over the spiritual significance of Christmas, the fact that it commemorates the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and the fact that Jesus is held to be the Son of God by more than a billion and a quarter Catholics and many hundreds of millions of Christians belonging to other Churches.

This annual Christmas battering of Catholicism is the by-product of a mentality that gets prime time airing on ABC TV [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] and that takes pride in disbelieving in God, and refusing to acknowledge that our world is the work of God or that man is more than his DNA.

Father, later Cardinal, Jean Danielou, writing about atheism more than fifty years ago, sums up, I suggest, this silence and ridicule which is a feature of our modern Christmas, as

a revolt against dependence. It is not injustice that is being said ‘no’ to, but the sovereignty of God. Revolt is refusal to obey. And here is the meaning of the word which is without doubt deepest – and murkiest. . . here revolt is the cause of evil. Evil and injustice appear here under the flag of revolt. The … master revolt was the revolt of the angels, the poison root from which all evil stems and which produces perpetually the mystery of evil that hems us in – and from which Christ alone can deliver us.[9]

Adoration of the Christ child calls for a nobility of spirit and heart which can recognize and acknowledge a mystery of greatness incomparably superior to anything to which we can lay claim. This openness and nobility of spirit, Danielou points out, gave their incomparable qualities of mind and heart to Dante, Shakespeare, Paul Claudel, Georges Bernanos, John of the Cross and Pierre de Berulle and to the myriad other open-minded Catholics and other Christians down the centuries who adored the Christ child and laid the very foundations of the civilisation and culture that the usual suspects here in Australia and elsewhere seem literally hell-bent on marginalizing and ultimately destroying.

Christmas with its emphasis on the Christ child, on birth, joy and salvation mortally offends our burgeoning modern culture of death – typified by popular support for abortion, contraception, euthanasia and attacks on the family – that Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all warned against so often in their homilies and Apostolic Exhortations.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the darling of the revolutionaries of the 1960s, gave a voice to those narcissists who refuse to acknowledge anyone greater than themselves. Danielou suggests that Nietzsche was jealous of Christ,[10] and refused, or found it impossible to acknowledge, in another, a greatness that was beyond his. He died a sad and tragic death of brain cancer in 1900. Claims that he died in a lunatic asylum appear to be false.

This Christmas let us pray for Friedrich Nietzsche and for all who follow him and who, in the words of Francis Thompson, flee from the Christ child ‘…down the nights and down the days …down the arches of the years . . down the labyrinthine ways of [their] own mind, and in the midst of tears hide from him.’ May they stop this headlong hurling of themselves into the abyss of non-belief, and allow God to make them happy.

Reprinted with kind permission of Fr Paul Stenhouse, Editor of Annals Australasia, PO Box 13, Kensington, NSW 2033, Australia.


On Christmas day Elsevier Online reported a bomb blast in a Christian area of Baghdad, killing 35 and wounding 53. The blast occurred as Iraqi Christians were leaving their church after Christmas Mass. An internet search revealed similar world reports about the incident and the targeting of Christians by Muslim fundamentalists, most focusing (as did the Elsevier report) on the persecution of Iraqi Christians in an apparent attempt by Muslim extremists to rid Iraq of its ancient Christian population. The search turned up only one report in the Australian media and that came from the ABC’s online Australia Network News. This ABC report was at pains to convey the message that the terrorist bombing was not targeting Christians in a Christian area of Baghdad. The anti-Christian mentality of Australia’s government broadcaster will have them saying anything, no matter how stupid or bigoted, rather than something that shows Christians or Christian belief in a good or sympathetic light. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is in the vanguard of a burgeoning anti-Christian (particularly anti-Catholic) sectarianism in Australia.

Gerard Wilson


[1] Adversus Haereses, Lib.i, cap.viii 1-2. Quoted Michael Alan Anderson, Symbols of Saints (ProQuest 2008 ISBN 978-0-54956551-2), pp. 42-46

[2] K.A. Heinrich Kellner, Heortology, London, Kegan Paul etc, 1908, p. 135

[3] See the Calendar of Furius Philocalus a.k.a the Chronographer of 354. See also Kellner, op.cit. passim.

[4] Opera, Zenonis Veron. Ed. Migne PL xi, lib.2, tract 7-9

[5] If readers know of any other cribs in public spaces, please notify us and Annals will acknowledge them in our first issue for January 2014

[6] St Luke, 2,32

[7] Ibid vv. 34-35

[8] Isaiah, 9.6

[9] The Scandal of Truth, London. The Catholic Book Club 1962, ‘The Myth of Unhappiness,’ p. 43

[10] Ibid. p. 44