Christmas (i.e. the Mass of Christ) is a traditional holiday in the Christian calendar which takes place around the end of December and celebrates the nativity of Jesus Christ. Christmas is also celebrated as a secular holiday throughout much of the world. The precise date of the birth and historicity of Jesus are hotly debated (see Jesus).

The word "Christmas" is often abbreviated to "Xmas", the "X" being an uppercase Greek letter chi, which is the first letter of "Christos" in Greek. The abbreviation is widely but not universally accepted; some view it as demeaning to the name of Christ.

A house decorated for Christmas in Yate (south west England)

Table of contents
1 Date of Celebration
2 Customs and Celebrations
3 Christmas in Culture
4 History of the Date of Christmas
5 External link

Date of Celebration

Christmas is celebrated on December 25 in all Christian churches (Eastern Rite Roman & Protestant), but since most Eastern Orthodox churches have not accepted either the Gregorian calendar or the Revised Julian Calendar reforms, the Ecclesiastic December 25 will fall on the civil date of January 7 for the years between 1900 to 2099. The date comes from the tradition that Jesus was born during The Jewish Festival of Lights (i.e. Hanukkah the 25th of Kislev - the beginning of Tevet) Kislev being accepted generally to correspond with December. The modern popular choice of 5BC for the year of Jesus's birth would place the 25th of Kislev on the 25th of November with the Old Julian calendar.

Traditionally in the United Kingdom the Christmas season ran for twelve days following Christmas Day, the twelve days of Christmas, a period of feasting and merrymaking that ended on Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. This period corresponds with the liturgical season of Christmas.

Customs and Celebrations

An enormous number of customs surround Christmas, and vary from country to country. Many aspects, such as the Christmas Tree, the Yule Log, and the giving of presents, were taken from the earlier pagan holiday of Yule and the traditional celebrations of the Winter solstice. Thus a few Christian churches, most notably the Jehovah's Witnesses, view Christmas as a pagan holiday and do not celebrate it. Some of the more popular aspects of British and North American Christmasses include Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) who brings gifts to children on his sleigh pulled by reindeer; the giving of gifts to friends and family; decorating a Christmas Tree with lights and ornaments; and the decoration of the home with evergreen foliage, particularly holly and mistletoe. In North America and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with large numbers of lights.

"Now is it Christmas again", painting from 1907 by the Swedish artist Carl Larsson

In most Western countries, Christmas celebrations take have both religious and secular aspects. The religious celebrations start with the celebration of Advent around the start of December, and are marked by special church services. Advent services lead up to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and often include Advent carols. In the period immediately before Christmas, there are many Christmas services at which Christmas hymns and Christmas carols are sung, and there are special services, typified by the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Cambridge. At Christmas special services often include a Midnight Mass, or a Mass of the Nativity. The church's season of Christmas ends on the feast of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, the traditional date of the visit of the Three Kings to the child Jesus.

Christmas is also celebrated by the non-religious as a secular holiday and, often, an opportunity to catch up with one's extended family. In many it is a time for giving gifts, exchanging Christmas cards, and having Christmas parties, which often take place over several weeks before Christmas Day. On Christmas Day a special meal is usually served, for which there are varying traditional menus in every country. In the United Kingdom, the traditional meal consists of roast turkey or goose, served with roast potatoes and other vegetables, followed by christmas pudding, a heavy boiled pudding made with dried fruit (traditionally plums) and flour. Christmas is a time when shops will increase their sales, and introduce new products which are sold at premium prices, taking advantage of the many marketing opportunities. Radio and TV stations popularise Christmas by broadcasting Christmas carols and Christmas songs. However, some Christian religions and denominations (like the Jehovah's Witnesses and various Puritan groups), disdain the celebration of holidays without explicit Biblical authorization, and so neither celebrate Christmas nor exchange Christmas cards.

The Christmas period in some countries, such as the United Kingdom extends beyond Christmas day up to New Year, which also has its own parties, though in Scotland Hogmanay which occurs at the New Year is celebrated more than Christmas. The secular aspects of Christmas continue afterwards with the sales of goods in shops at the Christmas sales and New Year sales, when shops sell off goods which were not sold before Christmas, or use the opportunity to clear out goods, or simply take advantage of the many shoppers who go to these events in order to increase their sales. Another popular aspect of the Christmas season is the pantomime.

Christmas is also somewhat popular in Japan, encouraged by the commercial sector who see the opportunities in encouraging gift-giving. The gift-giving is mainly done between lovers, and Christmas does not carry religious connotations. Christmas is not as important as New Year's Day in Japan. The Japanese use the American and British Santa Claus in their holiday.

The holiday's popularity is so pronounced that other faiths have emphasized their own winter holidays to serve as their own religion's equivalent. The most obvious example is Judaism's Chanukah which has evolved in the 20th century into a similar family gift giving holiday.

In the Republic of China on Taiwan, Christmas is not officially celebrated, but December 25 coincidentially falls on the date of the signing of the Constitution of the Republic of China in 1947 and hence there is an official holiday on that date, which is largely treated as if it was Christmas.

See also List of winter festivals

John Denver and the Muppets:
A Christmas Together

Christmas is traditionally associated with the Northern Hemisphere winter, and thus winter motifs are prominent in Christmas decorations and in the Santa Claus myth. Residents of countries located in the tropics and the Southern Hemisphere thus experience somewhat of a dissonance between popular culture depictions of Christmas and their own balmy Christmas celebrations.

Christmas is, typically, the largest annual economic stimulus for the economies of celebrating Christian nations.

Countries that celebrate Christmas on December 25th precede it by Christmas Eve, and some of them follow it by Boxing Day. In the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark Christmas Day and Boxing Day are called (the equivalent of) First and Second Christmas Day.

For some shops and other businesses Christmas Day is the only day in the year that they are closed.

The traditional Christmas flower is the poinsettia.

Christmas in Culture

A large number of fictional Christmas stories have been written, usually involving heart-touching tales that involve a Christmas miracle. Several of these stories have passed into popular culture and been accepted as part of the tradition of Christmas.

One of the most popular is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in which the curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who rejects compassion and philanthropy, and Christmas as a symbol of both, is visited by the "Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future" who show him the consequences of his ways. Dickens is sometimes credited with shaping the modern celebration of Christmas (tree, plum pudding, carols) through his novel and other Christmas-related stories.

Another Christmas story is the acclaimed film, It's a Wonderful Life which is essentially the reverse of A Christmas Carol where the hero, George Bailey, is a businessman who sacrifised his dreams to help his community. On Christmas Eve, a guardian angel prevents from committing suicide in despair and magically shows him how much he meant to the world around him.

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History of the Date of Christmas

Many scholars have argued over the exact birthday and year of Christs birth. It is not a conclusive matter. It is probably impossible to say that He was born on one date or another. What we do know is that the year was between 5-7BC due to the astrological pnomen at that time, and the date of the Census. Where these coincide there we have the most likely date. Some say it was not possible to have been born in deep winter. But this is speculation. The fairest thing is to say that He was born probably between October and March 5-7BC. Originally, Christmas' date was set to correspond with Roman festival of the birth of the Sun God Mithra. As early as A.D. 354, the Birth of Christ was celebrated on Dec. 25th in Rome. Other cities had other traditional dates. The history of Christmas is closely associated with that of the Epiphany. The earliest body of gospel tradition, represented by Mark no less than by the primitive non-Marcan document embodied in the first and third gospels, begins, not with the birth and childhood of Jesus, but with His baptism; and this order of accretion of gospel matter is faithfully reflected in the time order of the invention-of feasts. The great church adopted Christmas much later than Epiphany, and before the 5th century there was no general consensus of opinion as to when it should come in the calendar, whether on the 6th of January, or the 25th of March, or the 25th of December.

The earliest identification of the 25th of December with the birthday of Christ is in a passage, otherwise unknown and probably spurious, of Theophilus of Antioch (171-183), preserved in Latin by the Magdeburg centuriators, to the effect that the Gauls contended that as they celebrated the birth of the Lord on the 25th of December, whatever day of the week it might be, so they ought to celebrate the Pascha on the 25th of March when the resurrection befell.

The next mention of December 25 is in Hippolytus' (c. 202) commentary on Daniel. Jesus, he says, was born at Bethlehem on December 25, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of Augustus. This passage also is almost certainly interpolated. In any case he mentions no feast, nor was such a feast congruous with the orthodox ideas of that age. As late as 245 Origen, in his eighth homily on Leviticus, repudiates as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Christ "as if he were a king Pharaoh." The first certain mention of December 25 is in a Latin chronographer of A.D. 354, first published entire by Mommsen. It runs thus in English: "Year I after Christ, in the consulate of Caesar and Paulus, the Lord Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December, a Friday and 15th day of the new moon." Here again no feastal celebration of the day is attested.

There were, however, many speculations in the 2nd century about the date of Christ's birth. Clement of Alexandria, towards its close, mentions several such, and condemns them as superstitions. Some chronologists, he says, alleged the birth to have occurred in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, on the 25th of Pachon, the Egyptian month, i.e. the May 20. These were probably the Basilidian gnostics. Others set it on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi, i.e. the 19th or 20th of April. Clement himself sets it on the November 17, 3 B.C. The author of a Latin tract, called the De Pascha computus, written in Africa in 243, sets it by private revelation, ab ipso deo inspirali, on the March 28. He argues that the world was created perfect, flowers in bloom, and trees in leaf, therefore in spring; also at the equinox, and when the moon just created was full. Now the moon and sun were created on a Wednesday. The 28th of March suits all these considerations. Christ, therefore, being the Sun of Righteousness, was born on the 28th of March.

The same symbolical reasoning led Polycarp (before 160) to set his birth on Sunday, when the world's creation began, but his baptism on Wednesday, for it was the analogue of the sun's creation. On such grounds certain Latins as early as 354 may have transferred the human birthday from January 6 to December 25, which was then a Mithraic feast and is by the chronographer above referred to, but in another part of his compilation, termed Nat ails invicti solis, or birthday of the unconquered Sun. Cyprian calls Christ Sot verus, Ambrose Sol novus foster, and such rhetoric was widespread. The Syrians and Armenians, who clung to January 6, accused the Romanss of sun-worship and idolatry, contending with great probability that the feast of the 25th of December had been invented by disciples of Cerinthus and its lections by Artemon to commemorate the natural birth of Jesus. John Chrysostom also testifies December 25 to have been from the beginning known in the West, from Thrace even as far as Gades. Ambrose, On Virgins, writing to his sister, implies that as late as the papacy of Liberius 352 - 356, the Birth from the Virgin was feasted together with the Marriage of Cana and the Banquet of the 4000, which were never feasted on any other day but January 6.

Chrysostom, in a sermon preached at Antioch on December 20, 386 or 388, says that some held the feast of December 25 to have been held in the West, from Thrace as far as Cadiz, from the beginning. It certainly originated in the West, but spread quickly eastwards. In 353 - 361 it was observed at the court of Constantius II. Basil of Caesarea (died 379) adopted it. Honorius, emperor (395 - 423) in the West, informed his mother and brother Arcadius (395 - 408) in Byzantium of how the new feast was kept in Rome, separate from January 6, with its own troparia and sticharia. They adopted it, and recommended it to Chrysostom, who had long been in favour of it. Epiphanius of Crete was won over to it, as were also the other three patriarchs, Theophilus of Alexandria, John of Jerusalem, Flavian I of Antioch. This was under Pope Anastasius I, 398 - 400.

John or Wahan of Nice, in a letter printed by Combefisinhis Historiamonoizeiitarurn, affords the above details. The new feast was communicated by Proclus, patriarch of Constantinople (434 - 446), to Sahak, Catholicos of Armenia, about 440. The letter was betrayed to the Persian king, who accused Sahak of Greek intrigues, and deposed him. However, the Armenians, at least those within the Byzantine pale, adopted it for about thirty years, but finally abandoned it together with the decrees of Chalcedon early in the 8th century. Many writers of the period 375 - 450, e.g. Epiphanius, Cassian, Asterius, Basil, Chrysostom and Jerome, contrast the new feast with that of the Baptism as that of the birth after the flesh, from which we infer that the latter was generally regarded as a birth accoding to the Spirit. Instructive as showing that the new feast travelled from West eastwards is the fact (noticed by Usener) that in 387 the new feast was reckoned according to the Julian calendar by writers of the province of Asia, who in referring to other feasts use the reckoning of their local calendars. As early as 400 in Rome an imperial rescript includes Christmas among the three feasts (the others are Easter and Epiphany) on which theatres must be closed.

See also: Christmas carol, Christmas song, christmas dishes.

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