Christmas is a Christian Festival and an international holiday which commemorates the birth of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity. Jesus was incarnation of god in the form of 'Son of God'. Jesus is widely considered as the founder of Christianity. He was the one who enlightened the larger populace about the greatness of god. He spread the message of peace and believing in 'One God' as opposed to the exploitation by Romans through their beliefs and practices. All through his life he worked selflessly for the welfare of poor and sick. He sacrificed his life in the service of mankind and was crucified by Romans for opposing their beliefs. He rose from the dead to show that God did exist in real. As per christian traditions Jesus was Incarnation of god in human form, free of sin and acting in obedience to and in fulfilment of the divine will of God, thereby undoing the damage caused by the fall of the first man, Adam, and opening the opportunity for salvation. His message and efforts did not go wasted as they still resound even today, inspiring the humanity towards good deeds. As a mark of respect and gratitude, christians celebrate the birth day of their Lord as Christmas. Though a predominantly christian festival, it is very popular amongst non-christian community all over the world. As per Western Christianity, Christmas falls on 25th December but as per Eastern Orthodox calendar this day falls on 7th January. The Christmas celebrated by Protestants and Catholics is widely accepted and celebrated than the Eastern Orthodox Christmas celebrated on January 7.
The History of Christmas
As per Christian scholars Jesus was born about 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, in Judea (now Palestine). He was born to Joseph and Virgin Mary in a manger. The news of his birth was spread by an angel to certain shepherds / 3 magi (wise men). The angel tells them they will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. They were guided by a star in their travel from the East to Jerusalem They brought gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh with them and presented to the 'Lord'. The young Jesus grew up to become one of the most revered figures in the history of the world. There is lot of controversy regarding the birth date of Jesus Christ. His birth date is controversial as there is very little information available about his early life. The only records available are those which account the events of his birth contained in two of the Canonical gospels. These biblical accounts are found in the Gospel of Matthew, namely Matthew 1:18, and the Gospel of Luke, specifically Luke 1:26 and 2:40. As per these accounts, Jesus was born to Mary, assisted by her husband Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. As per their accounts Christmas is dated to occur on 25th December. However, there is hardly any evidence to support this date. The date 25th December was first identified as the date of Jesus' birth by Sextus Julius Africanus in 221. With the passage of time this date became universally accepted. It is commonly considered that 25th December was chosen because of the Christianizing of the 'Dies Solis Invicti Nati' (day of the birth of the unconquered sun), a popular holiday in the Roman Empire. Also known as 'Bruma', this holiday celebrated the winter solstice (when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator) as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter and the heralding of the rebirth of spring and summer. In those times holidays were placed on solar dates and the date may have been officially declared as Christmas by the church in Rome in the early 4th century. Christmas date of December 25 was thus chosen to offset the Pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti.
A Second View suggests that December 25 became the date of Jesus' birth by a priori reasoning that identified the spring equinox as the date of the creation of the world and the fourth day of creation, when the light was created, as the day of Jesus' conception (i.e., March 25). December 25, nine months later, then became the date of Jesus' birth. For a long time the celebration of Jesus' birth was observed in conjunction with his baptism, celebrated January 6. In 1889, Louis Duchesne suggested that the date of Christmas was calculated as nine months after Annunciation, the traditional date of the conception of Jesus. After December 25 had become widely accepted as the date of Jesus' birth, Christian writers frequently made the connection between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son.
Origin of Christmas Celebrations
Similar to the vagueness of the history of Christmas, the origins are also vague. There are various accounts regarding the events related to origin of Christmas.
According to one account, in 350 AD, a Bishop of Rome, Julius I, chose December 25th as the observance of Christmas.
As per others during the first two centuries of Christianity (Common Era) during the year 300 there was strong opposition against recognizing birthdays of martyrs or Jesus. The roman church authority was of the view that the true birthday of saints and martyrs should be the one, on which they achieved martyrdom.
In the late 300's, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
By 1100, Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe, and Saint Nicholas was a symbol of gift giving in many European countries.
Christmas began to be widely celebrated with a specific liturgy (rite) during the 9th century.
In the early 20th century, Christmas became a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike and marked by an increasingly elaborate exchange of gifts.
With the spread of Christianity beyond Europe and North America the celebration of Christmas was transferred to societies throughout the non-Western world.
Christmas Traditions and their History
Christmas customs have largely been derived from various cultures, including Teutonic, Celtic, Roman, West Asian and Christian. The traditions which are observed during the Christmas have their roots even before the birth of Christ. Various traditions like exchanging gifts, decorating trees, the burning of the Yule log were all winter traditions that were celebrated before Christ’s birth. These traditions were eventually incorporated into Christmas and with passage of time some more practices were added to the celebration.
Christmas Tree - As per Christian legend there was a saint named Boniface in the German town of Geismar during the 8th century. He had come to Germany on behalf of the Roman Church to preach the Christian faith. He was successful to a large extent and after a certain period of time, he went to Rome to confer with Pope Gregory II. Upon his return to germany, he is shocked to discover that all his teachings had gone wasted. The Germans had reverted to their former idolatry of pagan divinities and were preparing to celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under Odin's sacred oak tree. Angered by this, St. Boniface took an axe and struck the tree. With the first blow of the axe, a strong gust of wind instantly brought down the tree. Witnessing this event, germans felt that it was a god's sign to stop their practices. They sought the saint's advice who pointed to a small fir tree which had miraculously remained upright and intact beside the broken branches of the fallen oak. Boniface advised them to keep a fir tree in their home on christmas day. The tree became a symbol of peace, it's evergreen colour symbolised immortality and it's upward pointing top indicated heaven, the dwelling place of God. Soon other traditions followed with the fir tree being decorated with apples in Strasbourg in 1605. Similarly candles were also used on such trees, the first such practice being recorded by a Silesian duchess in 1611. There after the Christmas tree started to be decorated with a variety of paraphernalia including angel figures, bows, cards, candy cane, figurines of Santa, flowers, lights, mistletoes, photos, stockings, ribbons, sticky mirrors etc. Mostly Fir species of trees are used during christmas but in countries where these are not available similar looking trees or even artificial trees are used.
Santa Claus - Santa Claus is a legendary figure who gives gifts to children on Christmas. On Christmas night he secretly enters through the chimney of the house and places gifts for the children in stockings, in empty bag or under the pillow. He is characterised as a jolly fellow with a white beard and wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs. Santa Claus is actually a creation inspired by Saint Nicholas (prominent inspiration)- Bishop of Myra (Turkey), Dutch 'Sinterklaas' and English 'Father Christmas'. All these personalities were kind, gift givers and known for their love towards children. Other inspirations also facilitated in the development of Santa Claus. Major among them being - The book 'A New-year's present, to the little ones from five to twelve' published during 1821. It contained a poem titled 'Old Santeclaus', depicting an old man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. 'A Visit From St. Nicholas' (the night before christmas) published in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823 was also consequential in the popularity of santa claus. The figure was developed during the 19th century and acquired the name 'Santa Claus' from Dutch 'Sinterklaas'. The character as heavy and jolly person was popularised by Thomas Nast (editorial cartoonist) during 1800. As the legend goes Santa Claus lives in North Pole along with magical elves and 8 or 9 flying reindeer's. Santa Claus became so popular that people started dressing up like him and distributed gifts to children, even in modern times. Today, Santa epitomises the Christmas and it is unimaginable to see a christmas without a santa.
Christmas Stockings - Tradition has it that there was a poor peasant who lived happily in a small cottage in Patara, Saint Nicholas' hometown, with his wife and three daughters. One day tragedy struck when the wife suddenly died of an illness, leaving the poor man and his three daughters in despair. Her death made the father a disheartened man and his daughters were burdened with daily chores. As the time passed, the girls reached marriageable age. The father of the girls became more sad as he had no dowry to offer the prospective bridegrooms. Upon hearing this sad tale, St. Nicholas thought of a plan to help them. At night, he secretly entered their house to place a bag of gold to help the father. The nearest thing that was within his reach were daughter’s stockings, so he placed a bag of gold in one of the stockings. With the kindness of St. Nicholas, all the daughters were married happily. Thus began the tradition of hanging Christmas stockings. Talking of present times special stockings are created especially for the occasion.
Presents - The tradition of presenting gifts to family members has a religious significance. This is attributed to the act of presenting of gifts to Jesus by Wise Men or Magi. The custom of presents also arises out of the philosophy that Jesus was god's gift to mankind. This tradition became well established during the end of the 18th century. Imagining a christmas without gifts or presents is almost impossible, especially for children who eagerly await this day.
The Advent wreath - The Christmas tree legend is shrouded as compared to the Advent wreath (decoration). As per historian records this tradition began in the 19th century. The wreath is made up of fir branches, with four candles denoting the four Sundays of the Advent season. Similar custom during the 16th century, originally involved a fir wreath with 24 candles (the 24 days before Christmas, starting December 1), but the awkwardness of having so many candles on the wreath reduced the number to 4.
Advent Calendar - A Special calendar created for counting or celebrating the days of Advent in anticipation of Christmas is known as Advent Calendar. A typical calendar provides 24 openings, one to be opened each day beginning December 1. As per the legend this type of first calendar was created in the 19th century. It was created by a Munich housewife who was frustrated of answering the question 'When will Christmas come'? Historically speaking first commercial calendars were printed in Germany in 1851. Today's calendars have become flashy and trendy with a variety of designs and features. Even online advent calendars are available.
Mistletoe and other Plants - Mistletoe is a partial parasitic plant which grows on the branches or trunk of a tree. Mistletoe was considered sacred as it had no roots yet remained green during the cold months of winter. Because of it's unique quality it was considered as magical, having the power to bestow life and fertility and antidote against poison; and an aphrodisiac. It was being used by Druid (pre-christian) priests, some 200 years before the birth of Christ in their winter celebrations. Another ancient Christmas custom involving the mistletoe is that if a man and a woman happened to meet under a hanging of mistletoe they are obliged to kiss. This custom has its roots in ancient legend. Frigga - goddess of love had a son named Balder, who was the god of the summer sun. One day balder had a dream of his death and when he told this to his mother, she was alarmed. To prevent this mishap, she went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would her son. But frigga overlooked one plant, mistletoe. Loki, god of evil used this knowledge to his advantage. Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe and gave it to the blind god of winter, Hoder who killed Balder with his shot. This event turned the sky pale and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. Each element of the nature tried to bring him back to life, but to no avail. Finally, he was restored by Frigga. The tears from distraught mother miraculously turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant. Overjoyed, kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. Frigga further blessed the plant with a decree that anyone who stands under the mistletoe plant would never be harmed and would be entitled to a kiss as a token of love. Another plant which is used in Christmas celebrations is 'Holly'. According to folklore 'Holly' sprang from the footsteps of Christ as he walked the earth. The pointed leaves are symbolic to the crown of thorns Christ wore while on the cross and the red berries symbolized the blood he shed. Poinsettias, a native Mexican plant is also used during the celebrations. As per the legend a young Mexican boy was on his way to visit the village Nativity scene. Soon he realized that he had brought no gift for the Christ. So he gathered pretty green branches from along the road and brought them to the church. Looking at this the other children mocked him but when the leaves were laid at the manger, a beautiful star-shaped flower appeared on each branch. The bright red petals, often mistaken for flowers, are actually the upper leaves of the plant. Mistletoe and other plants, thus became a common Christmas decoration used in variety of ways.
Activities and Events
Some of the activities undertaken during Christmas have been mentioned above.
There are other activities, like:
Church Services - Many churches hold special services on this day. This communal worship brings people together and strengthens their belief in god. It is also a time to thank god, hear sermons, choirs and seek god's blessings.
Depictions of Nativity - On this day children re-enact the events of the Nativity with animals to portray the event. They also display a small re-creation of the Nativity, known as a Nativity scene or crèche, in their homes, using figurines to portray the key characters of the event. A long artistic tradition has grown of producing painted depictions of the nativity in art. Nativity scenes are traditionally set in a barn or stable and include Mary, Joseph, the child Jesus, angels, shepherds and the Three Wise Men: Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, who are said to have followed a star, known as the Star of Bethlehem, and arrived after his birth
Carol Singing - Some people organize groups of singers who go Christmas carolling from door to door, or sing Christmas carols in public venues. Shopping centres often use speaker systems system to play traditional Christmas Christian songs. Some groups also sing carols on the streets to raise money for charity. Most of the carols are focused around christmas.
Christmastide Season - Christmastide Season is the period from Christmas Eve to the evening of 5 January, the day before Epiphany. This season lasts twelve days , as such it is also referred as 'Twelve Days of Christmas'.
Sending Christmas Card - On christmas people send Christmas greeting cards to their family, relative, friends etc. to show their happiness and joy. Online cards have become a cheap and convenient way of sending christmas messages. These cards feature Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, or other events of Christmas story. These increasingly feature jokes, winter pictures, Father Christmas, or romantic scenes of life in past times.
Christmas Meal - Christmas family meal is an important part of the celebrations. The food served varies from country to country. Conventional food items include turkey, goose, gravy, potatoes, vegetables, bread and cider. Special desserts like christmas pudding, mince pies and fruit cake are also prepared.
Light Decorating - Coloured lights are used to decorate houses, town centres, shops and other public places. These may be accompanied by shiny decorations and artificial snow.
Shopping - Since christmas is about gifts, lights, colour etc., shopping becomes mandatory. But this compulsion is fun as most of the people get a chance to buy things they cherish for themselves and others. Special offers and merchandise are on the offer at shops and malls.
Partying - Various types of parties are organised at discotheques, hotels, clubs etc. to set the mood for the celebrations.
Major Christmas Celebrations in other parts of the world
Christmas in Australia - Christmas in Australia is unique in the sense, that it is never White. This is because snow falls very rarely on this day. As Australia falls in the southern hemisphere, celebrations here differ from those of the Northern Hemisphere, where the cold season is prevalent.
Candlelight Services are the main activities on this day. These are held in each State Capital City. 'Carols by Candlelight' is such a service. In this ceremony tens of thousands of people spread blankets on the ground, light candles and sing Christmas songs accompanied by a band.
Another major event, held on this day is 'Carols in the Domain'. It is a free concert, held annually in the Domain Gardens, Sydney, Australia.
Most of towns and cities organise festivals, hold parades related to the birth of Jesus. Some also indulge in fireworks display.
Australians also have their own versions of Christmas carols, some of which are 'Australians Let Us Barbeque', Santa's Moving To The South Pole' and 'Santa never made it into Darwin'.
People hang wreaths (flower arrangement) on their front doors. These decorations include bunches of 'Christmas Bush', a native Australian tree with small green leaves and cream coloured flowers.
As compared to warm dinner, most people here have a cold Christmas dinner, a barbecue or a picnic in the backyard or the beach. This dinner includes prawns, lobsters, cold turkey, ham and salad along with the 'traditional english' food. Other food items like 'Pavlova' may replace a Plum Pudding and 'Eggnog' may replace 'Champagne'.
Visit to the Bondi Beach in Sydney has become a sort of tradition especially for tourists. On this day up to 40,000 people visit the beach.
As Christmas falls in the middle of summers, families will often celebrate Christmas away from home. They may visit their relatives or may go for Camping.
If Santa arrives on a Sleigh in other parts of the world, you can expect Santa to arrive in a rubber boat or a surfboard to distribute gifts to children, at the beach. The Santa may use kangaroos or 'Six White Boomers' (a popular Australian Christmas song). Santa's clothings also change to cooler one's.
Christmas in France - French have their own traditions which vary from region to region. 25th is the date when most states celebrate Christmas but in eastern and northern France, Christmas is slated to begin on 6th December. In these regions the celebration is referred as 'La fête de Saint Nicolas' (the feast of St. Nicholas).
The French version of Santa Claus is known as 'Père Noël'. Instead of stockings children here use shoes for gifts to be placed by Father Christmas. Children put their shoes in front of the fireplace and expect it to be filled with gifts by the 'Gift Giver'.
Le Réveillon is another typical french practice. Le Réveillon is a huge feast which symbolises awakening towards the birth of christ. The meal mostly consists of dishes prepared with capon, chicken, goose, turkey and white pudding (boudin blanc). It is not necessary that this feast should be enjoyed at home as many families visit restaurant or a hotel to savour the meal. Some of the traditional dishes are La bûche de Noël (Yule log-shaped cake) and Le pain calendeau.
After Réveillon, its customary to leave a candle burning. This is done to appease Virgin Mary if she happens to pass.
French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, in the hopes that Père Noël (aka Papa Noël) will fill them with gifts. Candy, fruit, nuts, and small toys will also be hung on the tree overnight. In some regions there's also Père Fouettard who gives out spankings to bad children (sort of the equivalent of Santa Claus giving coal to the naughty).
Christmas in Italy - Italian Christmas season starts 8 days before Christmas and is known as Novena. It is celebrated for 3 days. During the season children go from house to house dressed as shepherds, playing pipes, singing and reciting Christmas poems. They are given money to buy presents.
Traditional bonfires are often held on Christmas Eve in the main square of town, especially in mountain areas. Italian version of santa claus is known as 'Babbo Natale' who distributes gifts to children.
A huge christmas tree is created with the help of hundred of lights near the top of Monte Ingino, above Gubbio, Umbria. It is so long that it's star top can be seen from as far as 50 kilometres. The tree is lit up every year on 7th December, the evening before the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Fiaccole di Natale or Festival of Christmas Torches (Christmas Eve) is celebrated in Abbadia di San Salvatore, near Montalcino. It is observed with carols and torchlight processions in memory of the shepherds from the first Christmas Eve.
A skiers torchlight parade is organised at Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Alps. Hundreds of people ski down an Alpine peak carrying torches at midnight before christmas.
During the evening of the christmas, a group of canoeing event is observed at Città di Castello, in Umbria. In this event a group of canoeists dressed as Father Christmas pass along the Tiber river to the bridge at Porta San Florido where a crib is suspended over the water. Upon getting out of their illuminated canoes, they give small presents to the children gathered there.
Cenone, italian name for 'Feast of the Seven Fishes' is a traditional feast observed for 24 hours before Christmas. This feast is preceded by fasting or eating less or abstinence of certain foods, especially meat. This fast is observed owing to the tradition of penance for sins before the festival. Eel is one of the favourite food served during the feast along with other sea food. Meat based dinner is the most common among italian families. Naples is one of the famed places in italy where 'Feast of the Seven Fishes' is the most popular. Nativity scenes are also the most famed one's here.
Presenting gifts in italy is performed through 'Urn of Fate', which is large ornamental bowl which contains gifts for the family. Each members takes his turn at drawing a gift from the urn. In the morning , candles are lighted around the family crib known as the Presepio, prayers are said, and children recite poems.
Christmas is marked by a another significant event at noon when the Pope gives his Christmas message from the window of his apartment overlooking the square.
At Torino, about 20 kilometres of streets and squares are illuminated by some of the best illumination artists in Europe from late November through early January.
Ecological nativity powered by solar energy is the speciality of Manarola, Cinque Terre.
Christmas in Spain - Christmas festivities start during the first week of december, mostly 8th december and continue till the first week of January. The event that takes place on the date is Immaculada (Feast of the Immaculate Conception) and the one which the most famous is held in Seville.
The day which marks the winter solstice (shortest day) is characterised by Bonfires before christmas are known as Hogueras. It involves people jumping in fire, this fire-jumping is prominent in Granada and Jaén.
El Gordo (the fat one) is the name of the Christmas Lottery which is drawn on 22nd December. It is a lottery which everyone buys because apart from the big three prizes there are thousands of smaller prizes shared by people all over Spain. Thus the winning number usually means that a good number of people from the same village become a lot better off overnight.
Spaniards call Christmas Eve as Nochebuena. Celebrated on 24th December it is marked by La Nochebuena feasting which include prawns, roasted lambs, Turrón (christmas sweet) which is a nougat made of toasted sweet almonds and Polvorones made from almonds, flour and sugar. Drinks, especially Cava, Catalan champagne and other Spanish wines also accompany the meal.
The Christmas Day is however, is somewhat a sober affair as all the shops are closed on this day. The day is marked by indulging in a large family meal in noon. Some families may go out for lunch in a restaurant for the meal.
Santos Inocentes (Holy Innocents) is post christmas event observed on 28th December. It is the Spanish version of April Fool's Day, wherein the national media will often include a stupid story in their broadcasts. Light bonfires are created in some villages and one of the village youngster acts as the mayor who orders the rural folks to carry out civic tasks such as sweeping the streets. If anyone refuses he is fined and this money is used to pay for the celebration.
Continuing with christmas celebrations, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrated on 6th January. It is most awaited day of the year for children as they expect to wake up and find gifts given to them by the Los Reyes Magos (the Three Kings). The Three Kings carry on distributing gifts to children in hospitals all over Spain. By 7th January the Christmas season culminates.
Alternate Names - Christmas Day, Christ's Mass, Nativity, Feast of the Nativity, Noel (French), Navidad (Spanish), Natale (Italian).