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 both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. December 25–Christmas Day–has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.

An ancient celebration[change | change source]

The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the Sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.

The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.

Saturnalia[change | change source]

In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.

Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.

In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.

By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.

Christmas traditions[change | change 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 | change 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 | change 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

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 | change 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 | change 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 | change 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 | change 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 | change 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 | change 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 | change 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 | change source]

Other websites[change | change source]