Why does Christmas fall on the 25th of December?

The Italian term “Natale” – “Christmas” – derives from the latin dies natalis, day of birth. Both the Greeks and the Romans celebrated the people’s day of birth with parties and gifts.

The Roman festival of Natalis Solis Invictis, the winter solstice, was set in the Julian calendar (45 BC) on 25th December, but the solemn feast was established in the late age (Emperor Aurelian 274).

In many pagan cultures the solstice - the longest night of the year - is loaded with spiritual and esoteric meaning, waiting for the light to regain the upper hand over darkness, and for nature to slowly reawaken.

The Gospel does not mention the date of birth of Jesus, but probably the Christians appropriated this date to exalt Christ as the true sun of the world. Pope Benedict wrote that they celebrated Christmas on the 25th long before Aurelian (based on chronicles of the third century).

Recent studies confirm this date for the Nativity based on calculations made from the biblical text.

St. John Paul II was the first Pope to celebrate Christmas in St. Peter's Square, exhibiting in 1982 a tree and a nativity scene in the centre of the Baroque colonnade.

The tree

Ten years ago the municipality of Rotzo, on the Asiago Plateau (Vicenza), asked the Vatican if it could donate a fir tree for Christmas 2018 (on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, which raged in the area). The waiting lists for this prestigious gift are long, and in the meantime other countries sent their fir trees. But Rotzo, between 26th and 30th October 2018, found itself, together with other mountainous areas of north-eastern Italy, in a tragic storm that destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of forest (as seen in the documentary "La notte di Vaia"). The mountaineer Reinhold Messner compared these gusts of winds to the winds recorded on Mount Everest.

The Veneto region, industrious and generous, showed its resilience by donating a fir tree to the Pope, also covering transport costs. And the 26-meter-high spruce in St. Peter's Square comes from Rotzo.

The tree is about 70 years old and comes from the now "convalescent" area. It was ripe for uprooting and was transported first by helicopter, then by truck.

The Governorate oversaw the decoration of the tree - with golden spheres - and the lighting is offered by Osram.

Along with the main tree, twenty smaller trees also arrived for the decoration of the Vatican Museums, the apartment of Pope Francis and the residence of Benedict XVI.

The Nativity Scene

The Nativity scene is a Catholic tradition established by St. Francis of Assisi in Greccio on December 25th 1223: after seeing the Holy Land he had the idea of making the theme of Christmas visible with a dramatization of the Nativity.

Italy has a century-old tradition of Nativity scenecmakers and 2019 presents one of these excellences at the Vatican.

The municipality of Scurelle (Trento) has donated a nativity scene with an architectural characteristic of the area: roofs covered with rough wooden boards and wood chips, recalling the ancient stables of the Pre-alpine regions.

The structures are inhabited by 26 life-size wooden statues performing mountain crafts such as cooking polenta, making butter, bringing wood on the sled, and are dressed in clothes from the early 1900s.

A touch of class is given with a capital (arch) that pays homage to the Venetian painter Cima da Conegliano (XV century), whose Madonnas with Child are cloaked in an aura of peace and emotion.

A background of broken tree trunks recalls the storm that ravaged the Trentino region.

The tree and nativity scene will remain on display until 12 January 2020.