Christmas Baptisms

A Different Meaning of “Christmas Is for Children”

Christmas is for children, the popular saying goes. True enough. But we might ask, “Which children?” The obvious answer, the one popularized in our culture, is young children (chronologically speaking). Indeed, it is one of the delights of Christmas to see the unrestrained joy of children.

But what if there was another way to define “children” so that the spotlight was not on chronological age, but on spiritual condition—specifically, on those who had just been born anew in the waters of baptism? Could Christmas be for these spiritual “children” too?

This was the case in some ancient churches. Christmas was a time for baptisms, which might be surprising for those more familiar with baptisms scheduled in harmony with individual and family rhythms. But from about the third through the fifth centuries, many churches conducted baptisms according to the rhythms of the church year, with feasts like Easter, Pentecost, Epiphany, and Christmas as common dates.

There is a reasonableness to the practice. For example, if baptism is our being buried with Christ and raised to newness of life, then to have baptisms on the day the church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Easter) seems fitting. With that same liturgical logic, it seems harmonious to conduct baptisms on the day when the Spirit is poured out from heaven (Pentecost) or when Christ’s own baptism is remembered (Epiphany, in many ancient churches).

And so it was with Christmas in other ancient churches. If the Nativity of Christ had kicked open the door between heaven and earth—if the manger had brought about an appearance of heaven on earth—then it seemed appropriate to take advantage of this open door, step through it, and be baptized into the realm of Jesus Christ. As Christ has been born into our world on this day, some ancient Christians passed through the baptismal waters to be reborn into his. Perhaps the most famous instance of this was the Christmas Day baptism of Clovis, king of the Franks, around the year 500. (His conversion would do much to establish orthodox Christianity across what is now France.)

Baptizing on Christmas would probably have given a different shade of meaning to Advent in those churches, too. Instead of simply a general preparation to commemorate the birth of Jesus in the past or to prepare for his second coming in the future, Advent would have been an intensive period of preparing candidates for baptism. Indeed, the ascetic and formational practices of Lent, the other key time to prepare baptismal candidates, would have been pursued throughout Advent too. In fact, there is some historical evidence for an Advent reaching back for forty days into mid-November, making this baptismally connected Advent a parallel to Lent in both purpose and length. As a period of baptismal preparation, such an Advent would have been a rigorous re-orientation for the candidate to be able and ready to follow Christ in belief, belonging, and behavior when Jesus Christ came on Christmas in the waters of his birth and our baptism. Christmas is indeed for children. We just need to make sure our definition of “children” is wide enough.

Dr. Lester Ruth is the Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School. He is passionate about studying the history of worship to enrich the worship life of current congregations, regardless of style. He believes that careful reflection on the worship of other Christians—whether past or present, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox—can serve to enrich the church today.