Christmas

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The Adoration of the Shepherds from a Crib made of painted board by Francesco Landonio, 1750, Italy

Christmas (which means "Feast day of Christ") is a Christian holiday that honors the birth of Jesus (whom Christians believe is the Son of God), and a cultural holiday for non-Christians.[1]

The day known as Christmas Day is celebrated on the 25th day of December. It is one of the most important days of the year for Christians, along with Easter when the death and resurrection of Jesus are celebrated. The season of preparing for Christmas is called Advent and begins on a Sunday about four weeks before Christmas. The Christmas Season (called Christmastide) ends on January 6 or the Twelfth Day of Christmas, in which Epiphany is remembered.

Christmas is celebrated all over the world, as a religious holiday or as a time of celebration by Christians and non-Christians alike. The traditions are different from country to country, but they nearly always include a feast, giving gifts or cards, and enjoying church or public festivities such as singing Christmas carols and songs. Santa Claus is a tradition in many countries of the world.

Christmastime, as it is often called, is in the winter of the Northern Hemisphere, at a time when there were already ancient festivals. Some of the traditions that are used for Christmas are older than Christmas, or come from other non-Christian traditions such as Yule. Modern traditions of Christmas often focus on the giving of gifts. The season for retail stores to sell gifts, food, greeting cards, Christmas trees, and decorations begins the day about a month before Christmas Day.

The history of Christmas[change | edit source]

Christmas in the Gospels[change | edit source]

A Bible Story picture showing the Wise Men visiting the baby Jesus. Pictures like this were made to teach children at Sunday School.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. The story of how this happened is told in part of the Bible known as the Gospels. There are four Gospels telling the life of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke tells the most about his birth, and the Gospel of Matthew tells another part of the story. The Gospel of John says that Jesus came from God to bring his "Word" or message to all people.

The Gospels say that many years before Jesus' birth, prophets had told a promise to the Jewish people that God would send them a Messiah, or holy teacher. Christians believe that the promised Messiah was Jesus. His mother was a young woman called Mary, who was engaged, but not yet married to a carpenter called Joseph. Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant and was upset. He was wondering what he should do, when an angel came from God to tell him that the baby was the Holy One. The angel said that he must name the baby. This was a sign that he would take care of it like his own child.

At this time, the Middle East was ruled by the Romans. An order came that all the people had to travel back to their home town, to put their names on the taxation lists. Joseph took his new wife to Bethlehem. There was nowhere for them to stay, except a stable where the animals slept. This is where the baby was born. Joseph called him Jesus, as the angel had said.

The baby Jesus had two lots of visitors. On the night he was born, angels told some shepherds in the fields that they would find a newborn king lying in an animals' feed bin (or manger). Jesus' other visitors were some wise men who saw a new star in the sky and followed it, until they found the house where the family was now living and gave the young child expensive gifts of gold, incense and a precious herb called myrrh. (The wise men are often traditionally called the Three Kings, because there were three very expensive presents but the Bible does not say how many wise men there were.)

All these parts of the Christmas story are remembered and celebrated in different ways at Christmas: in pictures, songs, plays, stories and in models that are called "cribs", "creches" or "presepe".

Date of celebration[change | edit source]

Most Christian countries of the world use a calendar called the Gregorian Calendar, but some churches use a calendar called the Julian Calendar. Most Christians, such as those of the Catholic and Protestant Churches, celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.

The Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian Calendar in some regions such as Russia. In such regions, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 in the Julian Calendar, but because of the difference between the calendars it is the 7th of January in the modern Gregorian Calendar.

Some Christians, like Jehovah's Witnesses, do not celebrate Christmas because there is no instruction from Jesus in the Bible which tells Christians to celebrate his birth. Mormons celebrate Christmas on December 25 but they believe that Christ's actual birth took place on April 6.

Some[source?] believe that Jesus was probably not born on December 25. Some historians[source?] believe this date was used by the Catholic Church to replace the pagan rites that took place at that time of the year.

Advent[change | edit source]

Lighting the Advent candles at a church in the US.

The Season of Advent, which begins on Sunday about four weeks before Christmas Day, is celebrated by the Catholic and Anglican Churches, as well as others. It is a time for people to prepare themselves for two different things: for the coming of the baby Jesus and Christmas, and for the second coming of Jesus, when he shall rule over all the Earth in peace. Not all Christian people remember Advent. Some people use it as a time of fasting, study, meditation and prayer. Special Advent Calendars are made for children, with pictures or treats for each day of Advent.

Generally, Advent is a time when many people are very busy in preparation for Christmas Day, cleaning and decorating, buying food and presents, writing cards and letters, and cooking the Christmas feast.

Celebrations[change | edit source]

Before the 4th century AD, Christians could only worship and celebrate in secret. The feast of Christmas probably began while Constantine was the Emperor of Rome, because it was he who made Christianity a legal religion and built some of Rome's oldest churches. Some old stone coffins or sarcophagi from this time are carved with pictures of Mary and baby Jesus and the Wise Men.

Through the Middle Ages Christmas was celebrated with feasting, singing and plays. The plays were held in churches, and also in castles and in market places, where a big hay wagon was sometimes used as a stage.

Because Advent was a time of prayer and preparation, most parties were held after Christmas, rather than before it. The main pre-Christmas celebration was the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. In some countries, particularly the Netherlands, the tradition grew for children to receive presents on this day, rather than Christmas Day. The name of Saint Nicholas is now remembered in many countries as Santa Claus.

The procession of St Lucy, Sweden

Another festivity that takes place is the Feast of Saint Lucy (St. Lucia Day) on December 13th which is particularly celebrated in Scandinavia, where girls take part in candlelit processions, and the daughters of the house must rise early to bring coffee or chocolate to the family.

For many centuries, the celebration of Christmas often began with a church service or mass, which lasted from late at night to after midnight on Christmas morning. Christmas Day was a time of feasting. On the following day, the Feast of Saint Stephen people from rich households would carry boxes of food out to the street for the poor and hungry. Many people would go back to work but employers would give gifts of money to their workers. The Holy Days continued with the feast of Saint John and Holy Innocents' Day. The feasting and parties ended on the Feast of the Epiphany, the day of the Three Wise Men, often called the "Three Kings". The season is nowadays remembered by the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas". William Shakespeare wrote a play to be performed as part of the celebration, called "Twelfth Night".

Christmas shopping in a market in Italy

For many, Christmas has become a time when having parties, sending messages to family and friends and giving presents has become more important than the celebration of Jesus' birth. Manufacturers and stores have responded to the feasting and present-giving with lots of advertising, decorations and displays. In the US, the Christmas displays are put up right after Thanksgiving, late in November. In some countries such as Australia, stores put up decorations at the beginning of November. Given that Jesus himself called people making money in the Jewish Temple 'robbers' (Matthew 21:13) many Christians are uneasy about profit instead of prophets at Christmas.

Town councils celebrate by decorating streets and squares, and providing Christmas entertainment for shoppers. In countries of the Southern Hemisphere, where Christmas falls in Summer, there is a tradition of open-air Carol Services, often organised by the town council, which are attended by thousands of people.

Many Christians celebrate Christmas by attending church, and with prayers and singing. And each year there are Bible readings from the Gospels that tell the story of the birth of Jesus.

Christmas Traditions[change | edit source]

Christmas traditions are of several types. There are traditions of the church, traditions which are public celebrations and traditions that are kept by families. These traditions are different in different times, places, cultures and even families.

Traditions of the Church[change | edit source]

A Nativity scene from Germany

The celebration of Christmas is a very important time for churches. Almost every church has special services or celebrations. Here are some of the ways that churches celebrate Christmas.

The Crib[change | edit source]

It is the custom in many churches to set up a Crib (or Creche) scene of the Nativity or birth of Jesus. The first scene of this type was set up by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. They have been very popular in Italy ever since then, and the custom has spread to other countries.

Nativity scenes can be large with life-sized statues, or they can be tiny enough to fit in a matchbox. They are made of many different things including carved and painted wood, brightly coloured ceramics (pottery), painted paper glued to boards, and mixtures of material with clay, wood, cloth, straw and metal used for different parts.

An Advent wreath on the Second Sunday in Advent

Advent wreaths[change | edit source]

The Advent wreath is a circle of leaves, usually pine boughs, ivy and holly, with 4 (or sometimes 5) candles in it which is hung up in a church. The candles are lit on each Sunday in Advent, and the central candle is lit on Christmas morning. Churches are often decked with green branches and leaves, and many churches also have a Christmas tree.

Carols by Candlelight[change | edit source]

A popular tradition in many churches is the Carol Service which is often lit only by candles. The carol service generally has lots of singing and Bible readings. There is a tradition in England which began in the Temple Church in London and has now spread to many other places for a service of Nine Lessons and Carols. The lessons are Bible readings. Some carols are sung by a choir and others by the choir and people (the congregation). Every year one of these services is recorded in a large English Church, often King's College Chapel, Cambridge, and is broadcast on radio and television to be enjoyed by people who love good music and carol singing, but particularly for people who cannot go to a Christmas service.

Public and commercial celebrations[change | edit source]

A huge Christmas tree in Lisbon, Portugal

Many cities and towns celebrate Christmas by putting up decorations. These may be banners and bunting which are strung from buildings or lampposts. They may be Christmas lights which can also decorate buildings and street trees. Many large cities put up a huge Christmas tree in a public place, such as those in Trafalgar Square in London, Times Square in New York and Martin Place in Sydney. This is often combined with an appeal to the people of the city to give money or gifts to help the poor and needy.

In many cities, the usual shopping hours are made longer before Christmas so that workers have more time to buy Christmas food and presents. Shop windows are often decorated with Christmas scenes, with large department stores often having animated scenes to entertain children. Shopping malls and big stores often have a Santa Claus, who sits on a throne, while children tell him what they want for Christmas, and have their photos taken.

A Christmas market in Dresden, Germany

Many towns hold Christmas parades, street entertainment and concerts. Some towns have a tradition of carols with a choir and entertainers in the town hall, while in Australia and New Zealand, these concerts of Christmas entertainment and carols are usually held outdoors, in parks or even on beaches, with families bringing picnics. The arrival of Santa Claus at the end of the evening is accompanied by a firework display.

A traditional part of Christmas is the theatre entertainment. This includes the performance of classical music such as Handel's Messiah as well as orchestral concerts and band recitals. Pantomimes are often played at Christmas and favourites include "Peter Pan and Wendy" and "Cinderella". Many children's movies are released during the Christmas season.

Because many people feel very lonely, hungry and sad at Christmas, many cities, churches, charities and service organisations try to help the poor and lonely by providing Christmas food and gifts for poor families, and Christmas parties for people who are hungry or who are lonely and without any friends or family.

Family celebrations[change | edit source]

Family celebrations are often very different from each other, depending on where a family comes from, and the customs that have grown in particular families.

Family get-togethers[change | edit source]

A family celebrating Christmas with music and singing

Most families think of Christmas as a time to get together with other members of the family. People often travel from far away to be with other family members at Christmas. Those people who cannot travel often make long-distance phone calls on Christmas Day. Many people also see Christmas as a time to reach out to others that they know might be lonely, and invite them to dinner on Christmas Day. Christmas is seen as a time for people of all ages to have fun together, for cousins to get to know each other, for grandparents to see their grandchildren and for the family to admire the babies that have been born during the year. Big family parties are usually a time of joy, but some families often talk about their disagreements and have big fights at Christmas time.

Family traditions are very different. Some families might all go off to church together, to a Carol Service, a Midnight Mass, or a Christmas Morning service. Some families are pulled out of bed very early by children who want to open their presents. In other families, presents are given on St. Nicholas Day, on Christmas Eve or not until after church on Christmas morning. The Christmas feast might start on Christmas Eve, with a special breakfast on Christmas morning, or at midday on Christmas Day.

Some families have a tradition of carol singing, and might go around the streets, to hospitals and other such places singing with members of their church. Other families like to watch certain television programs together, which might include carol services and the Queen's Message. Some families use Christmas as a time to play music and sing together, or to read a favourite book such as "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. In countries in the Southern Hemisphere, a visit to the beach or a swim in a pool is often part of the Christmas Day tradition.

Christmas dinner[change | edit source]

Christmas Dinner, usually eaten in the middle of the day, is an important part of the family celebration. The food differs from country to country and also from family to family. In the Northern Hemisphere, roasted meat and vegetables is generally the main course of the meal. Often several types of meat are served, which may include turkey, ham, roast beef or lamb. There are often several courses, with special treats that are usually only eaten at Christmas.

The Christmas pudding is served at the end of Christmas dinner on the verandah in Australia.

In English-speaking countries, the traditional dessert is Christmas plum pudding. Nowadays these are often bought from bakers, but many people make their own to a family recipe. The tradition came from the Middle Ages when the pudding was used to preserve some of the fruit from the Autumn until the mid-winter. A traditional pudding is baked six weeks before Christmas and is left tied up in a cloth, in a cool place. Stirring the pudding is sometimes a family tradition, with everyone making a wish as they stir. Traditionally a silver coin would be stirred into the pudding, to bring luck to the person who found it. Nowadays most coins cannot be used because they taste horrible and may be poisonous. Some families use old coins or silver charms. On Christmas Day the pudding must be boiled in a pot for several hours. When it is served, the cloth is cut off, brandy is poured onto the pudding, and is set on fire before it is carried to the table.

Many families have a Christmas Cake or a special bread instead of a pudding (or as well as a pudding). These are very different depending on the country, but often have Marzipan which is made from almonds and is traditional in many countries at Christmas. In France Buche de Noel or gingerbread men and women are decorated and hung on the Christmas tree. In Scotland a pastry biscuit called shortbread is made and has become a popular tradition in many countries. A German tradition is pfeffernuss, spiced cookies rolled in powdered sugar. Other Christmas food includes raisins, sultanas, ginger, Turkish delight, almonds, chocolates, caramel toffee, candy canes and oranges.

Many families also prepare mulled wine which is warmed with cinnamon and nutmeg or egg nogs, a sweet drink made of milk, sugar, eggs, nutmeg and sometimes alcohol.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the traditional roast dinner is often replaced with cold cuts of meat, and served with salads. The first course might be prawn cocktail or a cold soup like borsch. The plum pudding might be served with ice cream. White wine and beer are both served cold (beer is kept in a refrigerator). Christmas dinner may be served on the veranda, or sometimes as a picnic.

Tree and decorations[change | edit source]

A traditional Christmas tree

In most homes when Christmas is celebrated, people set up a Christmas tree in the house. This old Yuletide custom began in Germany as the "Tannenbaum" (German for Fir Tree). These are traditionally evergreens, the best type being the Fir Tree which does not shed its needles or lose its fragrance. The tree may be a cut tree that is bought from a plantation or taken from the forest. Artificial trees are sometimes preferred to real trees. The Christmas tree is decorated with lights, shiny coloured balls, sparkly tinsel and other ornaments. A wreath of leaves or pine is often put on the front door of a house as a sign of welcome. Other plants that have special significance at Christmas are holly which is used as decoration and mistletoe which is hung in the centre of a room. The tradition is that people who meet under the mistletoe must kiss.

Many people decorate their homes at Christmas time. These decorations and the Christmas tree are generally inside, but may be put where they can also be seen through a window by people passing by. In the mid 20th century there grew up a custom for decorating the outside of houses as well. These decorations may be just a few lights around the porch, or hundreds of lights and colourful Christmas figures decorating the whole house and garden. Some neighbourhoods hold competitions for the best-decorated house, and driving around the streets to look at them has become another family tradition.

Santa Claus is a popular Christmas tradition.

Cards and presents[change | edit source]

The giving of gifts at Christmas comes from several different ideas. One is that God gave his son, Jesus, to the world at Christmas. There is also the story of the Wise Men who came to the baby Jesus with three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. For many centuries it has been the custom for people to give small gifts at Christmas, and also to give generously to the poor and needy to help them through the winter. Another tradition has become linked to this one, and the result is the tradition of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas as he is sometimes called, and who is nowadays thought by many children to be the bringer of presents and happiness.

In the 4th century, in a Greek village that is now part of Turkey, there was a good man who would secretly given presents to the poor to help them. He became a bishop and is called Saint Nicholas. Over the centuries, he became a very popular saint and lots of churches were named after him. He was very popular in places where there were lots of sailors. One of those places was the Netherlands. In the Netherlands and many other European countries, presents are given on the feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6th. Traditionally, the presents are not big, and are sometimes hidden, or have a funny joke or poem that must be read. In many towns of Europe a man dressed in bishop's robes comes on a horse or in a boat, acting as St. Nicholas. His name was often shortened to Sante Claus, or Santa Claus in English.

In Spain it is the Three Wise Men who bring gifts to children.

In English speaking countries, where presents are usually given on Christmas Day, not December 6th, Santa Claus, (or Father Christmas) is usually thought of as coming on Christmas Night, when his magic sleigh is pulled across the sky by reindeer, and he comes into houses through the chimney. While in Europe, children put out their shoes for St. Nicholas, the English tradition is to hang up stockings (or long socks) in front of the fireplace. Santa Claus would traditionally fill the socks or shoes with nuts, raisins, chocolates and an orange. Nowadays children usually get much more expensive presents, and hang up pillow cases or have the presents in a big pile under the Christmas tree.

Another Christmas tradition is the sending of cards to friends and relatives. These contain warm greetings and may also have a letter telling all the things that have happened to the person or family during the year.

Related pages[change | edit source]

References[change | edit source]

Other websites[change | edit source]