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The Church's Christmas, as the Middle Ages pass on, becomes increasingly “merry”—warm and homely, suited to the instincts of ordinary humanity, filled with a joy that is of this earth, and not only a mystical rapture at a transcendental Redemption. The Incarnate God becomes a real child to be fondled and rocked, a child who is the loveliest of infants, whose birthday is the supreme type of all human birthdays, and may be kept with feasting and dance and song. Such is the Christmas of popular tradition, the Nativity as it is reflected in the carols, the cradle-rocking, the mystery plays of the later Middle Ages. This 27Christmas, which still lingers, though maimed, in some Catholic regions, is strongly life-affirming; the value and delight of earthly, material things is keenly felt; sometimes, even, it passes into coarseness and riot. Yet a certain mysticism usually penetrates it, with hints that this dear life, this fair world, are not all, for the soul has immortal longings in her. Nearly always there is the spirit of reverence, of bowing down before the Infant God, a visitor from the supernatural world, though bone of man's bone, flesh of his flesh. Heaven and earth have met together; the rough stable is become the palace of the Great King.
This we might well call the “Catholic” Christmas, the Christmas of the age when the Church most nearly answered to the needs of the whole man, spiritual and sensuous. The Reformation in England and Germany did not totally destroy it; in England the carol-singers kept up for a while the old spirit; in Lutheran Germany a highly coloured and surprisingly sensuous celebration of the Nativity lingered on into the eighteenth century. In the countries that remained Roman Catholic much of the old Christmas continued, though the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, faced by the challenge of Protestantism, made for greater “respectability,” and often robbed the Catholic Christmas of its humour, its homeliness, its truly popular stamp, substituting pretentiousness for simplicity, sugary sentiment for naïve and genuine poetry.
Apart from the transformation of the Church's Christmas from something austere and metaphysical into something joyous and human, warm and kindly, we shall note in our Second Part the survival of much that is purely pagan, continuing alongside of the celebration of the Nativity, and often little touched by its influence. But first we must consider the side of the festival suggested by the English and French names: Christmas will stand for the liturgical rites commemorating the wonder of the Incarnation—God in man made manifest—Noël or “the Birthday,” for the ways in which men have striven to realize the human aspect of the great Coming.
from "Christmas Customs and Traditions" by Clement A Miles