“Around the time of the millennium, a cultural and quasi-religious feasting season arose. It is easier to pinpoint the season’s dates and traditions than to identify its origin. Contemporary sources call it ‘the holidays’ or ‘holiday season,’ and it extended from Black Friday (the day after the Feast of Thanksgiving) to New Year’s Day (January 2). (Some observances began as early as the Monday before Thanksgiving and continued through the first week of January.) The period was characterized by widespread excess: material acquisition at nearly endless ‘sales,’ and an endless cycle of holiday parties at which it seemed to snow food and rain drink”—and may relate to widespread contemporary appearances of a portly, grandfather figure sporting red flannel and white fur.”
—Sacred Silliness: The “Holy” Mysteries of the Late Post-Post Period, Thomas Gradgrind, C.E. 2400
I can’t see the future, but it’s not hard to imagine a 25th-century historian like Gradgrind writing a similar entry to make some sense of the “holiday season.” A strange web of traditions has grown up around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, intermingling the sacred and secular.
- “When can I play Christmas music?”
- “Should we attend church on Christmas Day?”
- “When can I put up a tree?”
- “Do ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Xmas’ take the Christ out of Christmas?”
- “Do I stand in line on Black Friday or wait till Cyber Monday?”
Navigating these traditions and arguing about these questions has become a national pastime played out in the social media arenas.
The church calendar invites us to set some of these aside in favor of a different posture: a posture of joyful expectation and preparation. In a year that’s invited us to slow down a bit and stay nearer to home, we can trade some of the “hustle and bustle” of the holidays for the “watch and wait” of the Nativity Fast.
Christmas Fasting and Feasting in the Early Church
Many Christians in the West think of the church calendar—if they think of it at all—in terms of two events: Christmas or Nativity, and the Passion of Jesus, culminating in Easter or Pascha. It makes sense, as these days celebrate the cornerstones of the Christian faith—the coming of Jesus the Messiah in the flesh (the Incarnation) and his vindication as the Son of God victory over sin and death (the Resurrection). The gospel, particularly as preserved in the Nicene Creed, puts Christmas and Easter in central focus.
But once the church settled on specific dates for these two events, early Christians began to reorder their entire observation of time around them. The church began gathering on the first day of the week rather than the seventh, for example, in order to remember Jesus’ resurrection on the first day.1 Over time, a “Christian year” developed around the events of Jesus’ life and the legacy of his followers over the centuries. At the same time, new Christians began to see the feast days of Christmas and Easter as ideal times to mark their new birth with baptism. The church responded by setting aside times of preparation for those planning for baptism (called catechumens).
The Easter fast developed first, as a time of preparation called Lent. Mindful of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the church set aside a forty-day period from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday. During Lent, Christians practice a fast of variable strictness (not always involving abstinence from food in the Western church), and focus on repentance and forgiveness. (We’ll consider Lent in March.)
The Christmas or Nativity Fast developed more slowly. The date of the Nativity is mentioned as December 25 as early as the 2nd century, but many in the church celebrated January 6 as both Nativity and Epiphany into the 4th century. The celebration of the Nativity had grown steadily more important after the early councils, since it provided theologians of the 4th and 5th century with opportunities to engage the Arian and Monophysite heresies that plagued the early church.
The feast continued to grow in importance until St. Athanasius (d. 373) proposed giving the Nativity its own feast day. St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) considered the Feast of the Nativity a kind of headwaters for the rest of the church’s calendar flowed. He wrote in 386,
In this feast the Epiphany, holy Pascha, the Ascension and Pentecost have their beginning and their purpose. For if Christ hadn’t been born according to the flesh, he wouldn’t have been baptized, which is Epiphany. He wouldn’t have been crucified, which is Pascha. He wouldn’t have sent the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So from this event, as from some spring, different rivers flow—these feasts of ours are born. (On St. Philogonius, a.d. 386)
In practical terms, this means fasting ought to help prepare for the Church’s greatest feast. A fast mirroring the spring Lenten observance was desirable because it heightened the attention the Incarnation received, and over time the fast attached to the Feast of the Nativity. But the Nativity Fast developed more slowly, and more locally, than Lent did. By the middle ages, the churches observed one of two fasts around Christmastime. By the 6th century, fasting was often required from St. Martin’s Day (St. Martin of Tours, November 11) until Epiphany or Theophany (January 6). But some places focused on St. Philip’s Fast, begun the day after St. Philip’s feast day (November 14 on the Julian calendar). But in the 12th century, the church formalized the nature and forty-day length of the Nativity Fast. Even then, strict fasting outside of monasteries was rare.
After the Great Schism of the church, the Western church continued to celebrate Advent (from the Latin, adventus, “coming”), eventually shortening its observance to the four Sundays before Christmas. In the Victorian revival and expansion of Christmas traditions, Advent came to be celebrated in more Protestant churches. A further expansion of Advent’s observance in Protestant churches has occurred in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in keeping with a growing interest in both church history and liturgical practice. But the fasting tradition associated with the Nativity has largely disappeared from all but the Eastern churches, where it is sometimes called the Nativity Fast, Winter Pascha, or Small Lent.
The Meaning of a Nativity Fast
If fasting and repentance go hand in hand, Great Lent’s association with the Passion and Easter makes perfect sense. But what could a Christmas fast mean? After all, Christmas celebrates the coming of God into the world, light into darkness. How can we mourn?
For one thing, we fast because we welcome the Incarnation of the Word. While the Lenten fast points to Jesus’ trial and testing before beginning his ministry, the Nativity Fast recalls Moses fasting for forty days before he receives the 10 Commandments.
We also fast because the Nativity invites us to participate in, to experience, the “humiliation of the Word.” As Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman writes, “Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.” St. Paul’s extended meditation on the Incarnation says that Jesus “made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men”—an act of absolute humility (Philippians 2:6-8, NKJV). In fasting we taste a similar humility, as abstinence from food gives us a voluntary experience of weakness that modern people tend to avoid at all costs.
Paradoxically, though, our weakness becomes strength because our own humiliation in fasting confirms not only our utter dependence on God for sustenance, but also his absolute provision of himself. The church fathers and mothers would have agreed heartily with what Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines: “Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. … In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.” Like the crew of the Dawn Treader in C. S. Lewis’s classic tale, we discover that the water God provides makes us feel “almost too well and strong to stand it,” and enables us to look and see more light than we thought possible.2
Our fasting also reminds us of the strange Christian tension between death and life. The great paradox of the Christian life is that in dying to self, we may be born afresh to new and eternal life. Conversely, Christmas reminds us that our eternal life depends on the death of the Word of God made flesh in the manger’s tiny occupant. As St. John Chrysostom said, without the manger, there can be no cross. A powerful representation of this truth can be seen in Nativity and Adoration of Jesus, by the 16th century painter Jacopo Tintoretto. The Holy Family and the shepherds focus their gaze on the infant at the center, whose face is darkened the shadow cast by the stable’s crossbeams. We cannot miss that the cross casts a shadow over the manger.
The Nativity Fast finally invites us to expand our understanding of fasting. The church fathers and mothers considered fasting a discipline of repentance, yes, but they understood that word in a fuller sense than we sometimes do. They believed that fasting invited a true renewal of the mind, a tempering of the passions, so one may turn his mind more fully to God. In that sense, the Nativity Fast is an invitation to joyful expectation. We fast in joyful anticipation that God is changing us in Christ, enabling us to see more clearly and to live more fully within the boundaries of his present and available kingdom.
Suggestions for Practice
- What stories or traditions are unique to your family’s Christmas season? What do they reveal about how you “tell” time?
- Pray that God would reveal any impediment to our moving toward him—a fear, a sin, an attitude. Write one or more on a slip of paper, then clench it in your hand as tightly as you can while you read Psalm 23. Notice how your hand feels when you release it. Recall how holding the paper occupied your mind and heart while you read. Advent is about receiving Jesus Christ, and we need open hands and hearts to see him “born in us.”
- If Advent is new to you, consider focusing readings and prayer each week on one theme related to Jesus’ Nativity. (You can find a helpful starter guide at Keeping Advent.) An Advent wreath and candles can heighten your experience of joyful expectation as you light a new candle each week.