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January 1 is celebrated the world over as the secular New Year. With festivity and frivolity we toast in the New Year. But for many Christians, January 1 is more than the secular New Year. For Roman Catholics, January 1 is a Holy Day of Obligation on which one is to attend Mass and abstain from work.
Today it is called the Feast of the Motherhood of Mary, a celebration dedicated to the mother of Jesus. But Mary was not always the focus of the day. Many of the liturgical readings on this day focus on the theme of circumcision. These readings reflect a more ancient tradition which identified January 1 as the Feast of Circumcision. Whose circumcision? Jesus' circumcision!
Yes, Jesus, like all Jewish males of the first century, was circumcised on the eighth day of his life (Luke 2:21) in fulfillment of the biblical precept given to Abraham: "And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days" (Genesis 17:12).
Throughout Jewish history, circumcision has been an essential sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people and one of the most widely practiced Jewish rituals.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Jesus, born into a Jewish family in first century Palestine, was circumcised. What might be a surprise, however, is the fact that the Church retained a feast commemorating Jesus' circumcision even though it had abandoned that requirement in an effort to attract gentiles, who around the time of Jesus viewed the body as perfect and any alterations as unacceptable.
Only one of the four gospel writers mentions this important event in Jesus' life. And the Feast of Circumcision was a relatively late addition to the liturgical calendar of the Church. It first developed in France in the 7th century and only became a part of the Roman liturgy in the 9th century. The Church's reluctance to observe this feast was due not only to its attitude toward circumcision, but more importantly to the secular New Year celebration in the Roman Empire.
St. Augustine, for example, reports that Christians in his day fasted and prayed for the pagans who celebrated the New Year with great revelry. Eventually, however, the Church adapted to the festive mood and established January 1 as an official liturgical feast. It not only celebrated Jesus' circumcision, but also the "Octave [Eighth] Day" of Christmas and the Feast of Mary. In the Middle Ages, special prayers honoring the name Jesus became part of the observance, reflecting the fact that Jesus would have received his name at his circumcision.
Of course, the correlation of Jesus' circumcision with January 1 depends upon Christmas, the day of his birth, being identified with December 25. This date, however, was not officially confirmed by the Church until the fourth century. While Church Fathers claimed that the date was indeed Jesus' birth date based on Roman census records, no such evidence exists. In fact, the celebration of his birth was originally held in many places on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, and on other dates as well. It should be noted that celebrating the birth dates of leaders was not a Jewish practice, but a custom in the Roman Empire. Since the actual birth date was often unknown, a suitable date was often chosen.
Scholarly consensus is that Church leaders chose December 25 to celebrate Jesus' birth because it was a Roman feast, the birthday of the sun. They hoped to turn a pagan observance into a religious festival celebrating the birth of their Lord and Savior. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Light plays a central role in both Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations, reflecting the adaptations of pagan rituals of light held at the Winter Solstice.
Once December 25 was established as Jesus's birth date, his circumcision became identified with January 1. Although the theme of the day in Catholic churches focuses on Mary, the liturgical readings for the day remind worshippers of an important event in the life of Jesus: his ritual circumcision, which marked his entry into the covenant between God and the Jewish people.