In the early centuries, Christians did not celebrate a separate feast of the Nativity of Christ. Instead, on January 6 the faithful celebrated the feast of the Theophany, which included the Nativity of the Lord and the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.
The feast of the Nativity was first separated from the Theophany in the Roman church. Traditionally, Pope Julius I (337-352) assigned the true date of the Nativity as December 25. In the Eastern Church, St. Basil the Great became the first to celebrate the Nativity on this date between the years 371 and 374. St. Gregory the Theologian, in Constantinople in 379 or 380, began his December 25 sermon with the words “Christ is born, glorify him!” Later, newly ordained priest and future Bishop of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom announced to his faithful on December 20, 386, that the feast of the Nativity would henceforth be celebrated on December 25.
Although the date of December 25 was chosen as the celebration day of the feast of the Nativity, it was only later that this day came to be also regarded as the historical day of the Lord’s birth. The Gospels make no mention of the specific date, and many opinions and theories have arisen concerning the actual date.
The icon of the Nativity of Christ tells the story of Christmas. In the center, Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The manger is in a dark cave, representing the world dark with sin now illuminated by the Light of the Incarnation. The manger represents a crib, the Church, and a tomb, all in one. Next to Jesus is Mary, The Theotokos, resting on a red blanket that symbolizes the color of life. An ox and donkey are shown near the child, providing warmth from their breath.
The women are midwives, indicating that Jesus was born in the normal way. Shown also is the Jesse tree, from which shoots a sprout from the stump of Jesse (father of King David).
Joseph is seen at the bottom, not involved in the birth but the protector of Jesus and Mary. He is in doubt of what is happening, and next to him is the Devil, tempting him. Mary is seen looking down at St. Joseph, praying that his struggles of disbelief and temptation will pass.
Approaching are the three wise men, guided by the star above Jesus, and bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The star represents the heavens and the rays of light the Trinity. Witnessing the event are angels and shepherds. A young shepherd sits, wearing a wreath and playing his flute, a symbol of the joy of good news.