Historians are unsure exactly when Christians first began celebrating the Nativity of Christ. However, most scholars believe that Christmas originated in the 4th century as a Christian substitute for the pagan Festival of Saturn celebrations of the winter solstice.
The story of Christ's birth has been handed down for centuries, based primarily on the Christian gospels of Matthew and Luke. The gospels of Mark and John do not address the childhood of Jesus, and those of Matthew and Luke give somewhat differing accounts, Luke's being closest to the public impression of the Christmas story and the version most often read in Christmas services. According to Luke, Mary learned from an angel that she was with child, by virtue of impregnation by the Holy Spirit without intercourse. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband Joseph left their home in Nazareth to travel to Joseph's ancestral home, Bethlehem, to enroll in the census ordered by the Roman emperor, Augustus. Finding no room in inns in the town, they set up primitive lodgings in a stable. There Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger or stall. Christ's birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the home of the house of David from which Joseph was descended, fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah.
Matthew's gospel begins by recounting the genealogy and virgin birth of Jesus, and then moves to the coming of the Wise Men from the East to where Christ was staying after his birth in Bethlehem. This leaves ambiguous at whose home they were staying and whether Mary and Joseph were residents of Nazareth or, as their access to a home in Bethlehem suggests, of Bethlehem. The wise men, or Magi, first arrived in Jerusalem and reported to the king of Judea, Herod the Great, that they had seen a star heralding the birth of a king. Further inquiry led them to Bethlehem of Judea and the home of Mary and Joseph. They presented Jesus with treasures of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh". While staying the night, each Wise Man had a dream that contained a divine warning that King Herod had murderous designs on the child. Resolving to hinder the ruler, they returned home without notifying Herod of the success of their mission. Matthew then reports that the family next fled to Egypt to escape the murderous rampage of Herod, who had decided to have the children of Bethlehem killed in order to eliminate any local rivals to his power. When Jesus and his family returned, it was then that they settled in Nazareth, where they believed they might live more anonymously.
Another aspect of Christ's birth which has passed from the gospels into popular lore is the announcement by angels to nearby shepherds of Jesus' birth. Some Christmas carols refer to the shepherds observing a huge star directly over Bethlehem, and following it to the birthplace. The Magi, who Matthew reports seeing a giant star as well, have been variously interpreted as "wise men" or as kings, but the Magi might even have been women. They are supposed to have come from Arabia, where they could have gotten their gifts of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh". Some astronomers and historians have proposed to explain what combination of traceable celestial events might explain the appearance of a giant star that had never before been seen, but there is no agreement among them.
Christmas is now celebrated on December 25 in Catholic, Protestant, and most Orthodox churches. The Coptic, Jerusalem, Russian, Serbian, Macedonian and Georgian Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on January 7. This date results from their having accepted neither the reforms of the Gregorian calendar nor the Revised Julian calendar, with their ecclesiastic December 25 thus falling on the civil (Gregorian) date of January 7 from 1900 to 2099. The Armenian Church places much more emphasis on the Epiphany, the visitation by the Magi, than on Christmas.
Some scholars suggest that December 25 is a date of convenience chosen for other reasons, related to the time of Emperor Constantine. December 25 in the Roman world was the Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun, but it may not have been as early as Christmas, if it was a Roman reaction to the Church being persecuted then. It may have served as an attempt to eclipse a precious Devotion of Christians, amidst attempts to kill all Christians off. Many of the earliest Christian Writings were destroyed during those persecutions.
St. Hippolytus, who was already knowledgeably defending the faith in writing at the turn of the century, entering the third century A.D., said that Christ was born Wednesday, December 25, in the 42nd year of Augustus' reign (see his Commentary on Daniel, circa A.D. 204, Bk. 4, Ch. 23).
Additional calculations are made on the basis of the 6-year almanac of Priestly Rotations, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some believe that this almanac lists the week when John the Baptist's father would have served as a high priest. As it is implied John the Baptist could only be conceived during that particular week; and as his conception is believed to be tied to that of Jesus, it is claimed that an approximate date of December 25 can be arrived at for the birth of Jesus. However, most scholars (e.g. see Catholic Encyclopedia in sources), believe this calculation to be unreliable as it is based on a string of assumptions.
Dates for the more secular aspects of the Christmas celebration are similarly varied. In the United Kingdom, the Christmas season traditionally runs for twelve days following Christmas Day. These twelve days of Christmas, a period of feasting and merrymaking, end on Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. This period corresponds with the liturgical season of Christmas. Medieval laws in Sweden declared a Christmas peace (julefrid) to be twenty days, during which fines for robbery and manslaughter were doubled. Swedish children still celebrate a party, throwing out the Christmas tree (julgransplundring), on the 20th day of Christmas (January 13, Knut's day).
In practice, the Christmas period has grown longer in some countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, and now begins many weeks before Christmas, allowing more time for shopping and get-togethers. It extends beyond Christmas Day up to New Year's Day. This later holiday has its own parties. In some instances, including Scotland's Hogmanay-which occurs at the New Year-it is celebrated more than Christmas.
Countries that celebrate Christmas on December 25 recognize the previous day as Christmas Eve, and vary on the naming of December 26. In the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland, Christmas Day and the following day are called First and Second Christmas Day. In many European and Commonwealth countries, December 26 is referred to as Boxing Day, while in Ireland, Romania and Catalonia it is known as St. Stephen's Day.
An enormous number of customs, with either secular, religious, or national aspects, surround Christmas, and vary from country to country. Most of the familiar traditional practices and symbols of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas ham, the Yule Log, holly, mistletoe, and the giving of presents, were adapted or appropriated by Christian missionaries from the earlier Germanic pagan midwinter holiday of Yule. This celebration of the winter solstice was widespread and popular in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity, and the word for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages is still today the pagan jul (=yule). The Christmas tree is believed to have first been used in Germany.
Rather than attempting to suppress every tradition owned by pagans, Pope Gregory I allowed Christian missionaries to allow the innocuous ones as a means to make things already familiar ready aids to re-education through such props for illustrating new understandings of things long before them but ignorantly percieved, giving a rich Christian significance to things that, for lack of such Understanding, stood to bear the reflection of heathen culture. The give and take between religious and governmental authorities and celebrators of Christmas continued through the years. Places where conservative Christian theocracies flourished, as in Cromwellian England and in the early New England colonies, were among those where celebrations were suppressed. After the Russian Revolution, Christmas celebrations were banned in the Soviet Union for the next seventy-five years. A few newer religions, notably the Jehovah's Witnesses, some Puritan groups, and some ultraconservative fundamentalist denominations, view Christmas as a pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible, and do not celebrate it (although they are coming at it from a view detached from the historic Church).
Since the customs of Christmas celebration largely evolved in Northern Europe, many are associated with the Northern Hemisphere winter, whose motifs are prominent in Christmas decorations and in the Santa Claus myth.
Gift-giving is a near-universal part of Christmas celebrations. The concept of a mythical figure who brings gifts to children derives from Saint Nicholas, a good hearted bishop of 4th-century Asia Minor. The Dutch modeled a gift-giving Saint Nicholas around his death on December 5. In North America, Other colonists adopted the feast of Sinterklaas brought by the Dutch into their Christmas holiday, and Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, or Saint Nick. In the UK, whilst this name is widely known, "Father Christmas" is more common, and is also used in many West African countries. In the Anglo-American tradition, this jovial fellow arrives on Christmas Eve on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and lands on the roofs of houses. He then climbs down the chimney, leaves gifts for the children, and eats the food they leave for him. He spends the rest of the year making toys and keeping lists on the behavior of the children.
One belief in the United Kingdom and United States which has been passed down the generations, is the idea of 'Good' and 'Bad' lists of children. Throughout the year, Santa would add names of children to either the good or bad list depending on their behaviour. When it got closer to Christmas time, parents would use the belief to encourage children to behave well. Those who were on the bad list and whose behaviour did not improve before Christmas were said to receive a piece of coal for their 'gift' on Christmas Eve rather than presents.
The French equivalent of Santa, Père Noël, evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image Haddon Sundblom painted for a worldwide Coca-Cola advertising campaign in the 1930s. In some cultures Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. In some versions, elves in a toy workshop make the holiday toys, and in some he is married to Mrs. Claus. Many shopping malls in North America and the United Kingdom have a holiday mall Santa Claus whom children can visit to ask for presents.
In many countries, children leave empty containers for Santa to fill with small gifts such as toys, candy, or fruit. In the United States, children hang a Christmas stocking by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, because Santa is said to come down the chimney the night before Christmas to fill them. In other countries, children place their empty shoes out for Santa to fill on the night before Christmas, or for Saint Nicholas on December 5. Gift giving is not restricted to these special gift-bringers, as family members and friends also bestow gifts on each other.
In many countries, Saint Nicholas Day remains the principal day for gift giving. In much of Germany, children put shoes out on window sills on the night of December 5, and find them filled with candy and small gifts the next morning. In such places, including the Netherlands, Christmas day remains more a religious holiday. In other countries, including Spain, gifts are brought by the Magi at Epiphany on 6 January. In Poland, Santa Claus (Polish: Swiety Mikolaj) gives gifts at two occasions: on the night of 5 December (so that children find them on the morning of 6 December), and on Christmas Eve, 24 December, (when children finds gifts that same day). In Russia, Grandfather Frost brings presents on New Years Eve, and these are opened on this night.
One of the many customs of gift timing is suggested by the song "Twelve Days of Christmas", celebrating an old British tradition of gifts each day from Christmas to Epiphany. In most of the world, Christmas gifts are given at night on Christmas Eve, or in the morning on Christmas Day. Until the recent past, gifts were given in the UK to nonfamily members on Boxing Day.
Christmas cards are extremely popular in the United States and Europe, in part as a way to maintain relationships with distant relatives and friends, and with business acquaintances. Many families enclose an annual family photograph, or a family newsletter telling activities of family members during the preceding year.
Decorating a Christmas tree with lights and ornaments, and the decoration of the interior of the home with garlands and evergreen foliage, particularly holly and mistletoe, are common traditions. In North and South America and to a lesser extent Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights, and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures.
The traditional Christmas flower is the poinsettia. Other popular holiday plants are holly, red amaryllis and Christmas cactus. Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well, hanging Christmas banners from street lights or placing Christmas trees in the town square. In the United States, decorations once commonly included religious themes. This practice has led to much adjudication, as opponents insist that it amounts to the government endorsing one particular religious faith. In 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (Lynch v. Donnelly) that a city-owned Christmas display including a Christian nativity scene was depicting the historical origins of Christmas, and was not in violation of the First Amendment ("establishment of religion").
In many countries, businesses, schools, and communities have Christmas parties and dances during the several weeks before Christmas Day. Christmas pageants, common in Latin America, may include a retelling of the story of the birth of Christ. Groups may go caroling, visiting neighborhood homes to sing Christmas songs. Others are reminded by the holiday of man's fellowship with man, and do volunteer work, or hold fundraising drives for charities.
On Christmas Day or on Christmas Eve, a special meal of Christmas dishes is usually served, for which there are traditional menus in each country. In some regions, particularly in Eastern Europe, these family feasts are preceded by a period of fasting. Candy and treats are also part of the Christmas celebration in many countries. Candy canes are a popular Christmas treat, and may double as a decoration or Christmas ornament
The religious celebrations begin with Advent, the anticipation of Christ's birth, around the start of December. These observations may include Advent carols and Advent calendars, sometimes containing sweets and chocolate for children. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services may include a midnight mass or a Mass of the Nativity, and feature Christmas carols and hymns.
Judaism's Hanukkah, has developed a similar tradition of gift-giving. Christmas has some acceptance in the Islamic world, where Jesus is regarded as a prophet. Many secular aspects of Christmas are becoming common in developed Muslim nations.
Many fictional Christmas stories capture the spirit of Christmas in a modern-day fairy tale, often with heart-touching stories of a Christmas miracle. Several have become part of the Christmas tradition in their countries of origin. Unlike many films, which date rapidly, Christmas movies are the reliable annuals of the movie business. Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker ballet tells of a Christmas ornament come to life in a young Russian girl's dream. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is the tale of curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge rejects compassion and philanthropy, and Christmas as a symbol of both, until he 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 Christmas of English-speaking countries (tree, plum pudding, carols, etc.) and the movement to close businesses on Christmas day.
Thomas Nast and Clement Moore provided the English-speaking countries with their popular images of Santa Claus. Nast's 19th-century cartoons gave Santa his familiar form (Harper's Weekly, 1863), while Moore's poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (Sentinel, 1823, popularly known as "The Night Before Christmas") supplied the rotund Santa and his sleigh landing on rooftops on Christmas Eve.
In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg's poem "Tomten" featuring the first painting by Jenny Nyström of this traditional Swedish mythical character (tomte, elf, goblin) which she turned into the white-bearded friendly figure associated with Christmas. It was further developed in 1931 by Haddon Sundblom for the Coca-Cola Company.
Although these Christmas icons have become widespread through television and movies, Christmas is still a time when national traditions are strong, and both Santa's appearance and the stories told vary from country to country. Some Scandinavian Christmas stories are less cheery than Dickens', notably H. C. Andersen's "The Little Match Girl". The destitute little slum girl walks barefoot through snow-covered streets on Christmas Eve, trying in vain to sell her matches, and peeking in at the celebrations in the homes of the more fortunate. She dares not go home because her father is drunk. Unlike the principals of Anglophone Christmas lore, she meets a tragic end.
Many Christmas stories have been popularized as movies and TV specials. Since the 1980s, many video editions are sold and resold every year during the holiday season. A notable example is the film It's a Wonderful Life, the theme of which mirrors A Christmas Carol. Its hero, George Bailey, is a businessman who sacrificed his dreams to help his community. On Christmas Eve, a guardian angel finds him in despair and prevents him from committing suicide, by magically showing him how much he meant to the world around him. Perhaps the most famous animated production is A Charlie Brown Christmas where Charlie Brown tries to address his feeling of dissatisfaction with the Holidays by trying to find a deeper meaning to them. A few true stories have become enduring Christmas tales. The story behind the Christmas carol "Silent Night" and the story of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" are among the most well-known of these.
Radio and television also cultivate Christmas themes. Radio stations broadcast Christmas carols and Christmas songs, including classical music such as the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah. Among other classical Christmas pieces are the Nutcracker Suite, adapted from Tchaikovsky's ballet score, and Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). Television networks add Christmas themes, run traditional holiday movies, and produce a variety of Christmas specials.
Christmas is typically the largest annual stimulus for the economies of celebrating nations. Sales increase in almost all retail areas and shops introduce new products, as people purchase gifts, decorations, and supplies. In the United States, the Christmas shopping season now begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Christmas Day is the only day in the year that most shops and businesses are closed. The economic impact continues after the holiday, with Christmas sales and New Year's sales, when stores sell off excess inventories.
Many Christians, as well as anti-consumerists both religious and secular, decry the "commercialization" of Christmas. They accuse the Christmas season of being dominated by money and greed, at the expense of the holiday's more important values. Frustrations over these issues and others can lead to a rise in Christmastime social problems.
In North America, studios release many high-budget movies in the holiday season, most of them being Christmas films and fantasy movies, both to capture holiday crowds and to position themselves for Oscars. Next to summer, this is the second most lucrative season for the industry. Christmas movies generally open no later than late November, as their themes are not so popular once the season is over. The winter movie season spans from the first week of November until mid-February.
Because of the focus on celebration, friends, and family, people who are without these, or who have recently suffered losses, are more likely to suffer from depression during Christmas. This increases the demands for counseling services during the period. Suicide and murder rates may spike during the holiday season, but the peak months for suicide are May and June. Because of holiday celebrations involving alcohol, drunk driving-related fatalities may also increase.
Non-Christians in predominantly Christian nations may be left bereft of entertainment around Christmas. The cliché recreation for them is "movies and Chinese food"; movie theaters remaining open to bring in holiday dollars and Chinese restaurants being less likely to be closed. However, that is generally only in large urban areas; in other communities, practically everything is closed.
Some groups in Britain, are actually trying to ban Christmas, claiming it has no place in multiculturism, in positive discrimination, whilst ignoring the mass celebrations of Eid in November. Despite their efforts, they have been compared to in the press as Scrooge.
Many different dates have been suggested for the celebration of Christmas. No explanation of why it is celebrated on December 25 is universally accepted. Theories include the following:
The Catholic Encyclopedia article on "Christmas" offers a starting point for Christmas, which does not appear among the earliest lists of Christian feasts, those of Irenaeus and Tertullian. The earliest evidence of celebration is from Alexandria, about AD 200, when Clement of Alexandria says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign not just the year but the actual day of Christ's birth, on 25 Pachon (May 20) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. By the time of the Council of Nicaea, AD 325, the Alexandrian church had fixed a dies Nativitatis et Epiphaniae. The December feast reached Egypt in the 5th century. In Jerusalem, Egeria the 4th-century pilgrim from Bordeaux, witnessed the feast of the Presentation, forty days after January 6, which must have been the date of the Nativity there. At Antioch, probably in 386, St John Chrysostom urged the community to unite in celebrating Christ's birth on December 25, a part of the community having already kept it on that day for at least ten years. It is an appropriation of the pagan Midwinter festivals, such as the Germanic Yule and the Roman festival of the birth of Unconquered Sun, celebrated on the day after the winter solstice, or the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
It derives from the tradition that Jesus was born during the Jewish Festival of Lights (Hanukkah, the 25th of Kislev and the beginning of Tevet). Kislev is generally accepted as corresponding with December. Under the Old Julian calendar, the popular choice of 5 BC for the year of Jesus' birth would place the 25th of Kislev on the 25th of November.
The date of Christmas is based on the date of Good Friday, the day Jesus died. Since the exact date of Jesus' death is not stated in the Gospels, early Christians sought to calculate it, and arrived at either March 25 or April 6. To then calculate the date of Jesus' birth, they followed the ancient idea that Old Testament prophets died at an "integral age"-either an anniversary of their birth or of their conception. They reasoned that Jesus died on an anniversary of the Incarnation (his conception), so the date of his birth would have been nine months after the date of Good Friday-either December 25 or January 6. Thus, rather than the date of Christmas being appropriated from pagans by Christians, the opposite is held to have occurred.
The apparition of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah, announcing that he was to be the father of John the Baptist, was believed to have occurred on Yom Kippur. This was due to a belief (not included in the Gospel account) that Zechariah was a high priest and that his vision occurred during the high priest's annual entry into the Holy of Holies. If John's conception occurred on Yom Kippur in late September, then his birth would have been in late June. (The traditional date is June 24.) If John's birth was on June 24, then the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, said by the Gospel account to have occurred three month's before John's birth, would have been in late March. (Tradition fixed it on March 25.) The birth of Jesus would then have been on December 25, nine months after his conception. As with the previous theory, proponents of this theory hold that Christmas was a date of significance to Christians before it was a date of significance to pagans.
It was appropriated from the birthday of Mithras, a savior figure of a Greco-Roman mystery religion who was popular with the Roman Legions.
Reproduced from Wikipedia