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What is Christmas?

In the Christian religion, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ by the virgin Mary, which is observed on December 25 by Roman Catholics and Protestants. Many in the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity observe the Christmas holiday, Epiphany.

Many people today, even Christians, celebrate Christmas with traditions such as Christmas trees (follow link for a history of the Christmas tree) and the figure of Santa Claus (follow link to read about Saint Nicholas).

The English word "Christmas" derives from the old English Christes maesse, meaning "Christ's mass." Christians have been celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25 since at least the early fourth century. The first evidence of its observance is in Rome in 336 AD. {1} The earliest Christians do not appear to have commemorated the nativity, but only the baptism and resurrection of Christ and the deaths of the martyrs. In fact, some early Christians, most notably Origen of Alexandria {2}, strongly opposed the celebration of Christ's birth. Pointing out that only Pharaoh and Herod celebrate their birthdays in the Bible {3}, Origen argued that birthdays were for pagans, not Christians. Jehovah's Witnesses follow the same reasoning today in rejecting both Christmas and celebration of birthdays.

The History of Christmas

Despite the objections of some church fathers, attempts to determine Jesus' date of birth began early. By the close of the second century, numerous dates had been advanced, including May 20, April 18, April 19, May 28, January 2, November 17, November 20, March 21 and March 25. {4}

Holly berries in the snow

Putting to use the then-popular method of allegorical theology, some reasoned that Christ must have born on the same day the sun was created. Polycarp (d. 155 AD), for example, suggested that Christ was born on a Wednesday, since the sun was created on the fourth day in Genesis. 

So when was Jesus actually born? Modern scholarship estimates the year of his birth from 7 to 4 BC. Although the Gospel narratives offer no indication as to the date, they do seem to indicate it was not in the winter. Luke describes the shepherds "keeping watch over their flocks by night" {5} and this was not done in the coldest winter months.

But as early as 273 AD, Western Christians had decided on December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The December date for the holiday probably arose from a desire to provide an alternative to the Roman "birthday of the unconquered sun" and the Persian birthday of Mithras, both of which were celebrated on or around the winter solstice. A Christian writer explained in 320 AD:

We hold this day holy,
not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun,
but because of him who made it. {6}

In the early Eastern church, the main winter holiday was Epiphany, which commemorated both the birth and baptism of Christ on January 6. This date may have been derived from a calculation based on an assumed date of crucifixion of April 6 coupled with the ancient belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception. {7} The baptism of Christ was initially the more important event in the East, but January 6 became connected more with the nativity of Christ by the later 4th century. {8}

Christmas lights
An elaborate display of Christmas
lights on a house in Boston, Mass.

The Eastern church celebrated Christ's birth and baptism on January 6 until the middle of the 5th century, when the December date for Christmas was adopted there as well and Jesus' baptism was celebrated on January 6. An exception to the December date is the Armenian Church, which continues to commemorate both the birth and baptism of Christ on January 6. {9}

Although Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25, some still use the Julian calendar ("old calendar") for their religious calendar. The Julian calendar is the predecessor to the Gregorian calendar ("new calendar") that is now the civil calendar of the western world. The Julian calendar is 13 days different from the Gregorian, so December 25 on the Julian calendar occurs on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar and Epiphany on January 19. Those who use the Julian calendar include the Churches of Jerusalem, Russia and Serbia, and the monasteries on Mt. Athos. {10}

Christmas Customs and Observances

In addition to the date, other aspects of Christmas owe their origins to pagan celebrations, such as the Yule log, the Christmas tree, gift-giving, and lights. Although sometimes maligned today, the Christian appropriation of pagan customs would likely have been regarded positively by early Christians as a victory for Christ over paganism and a way to win more souls. This general strategy seems evident in the choice of December 25, as outlined above.

Religious Observances

Religious observances of Christmas center around special worship services, which are characterized by the extensive use of candlelight and are often held at midnight. In Bethlehem, Midnight Mass is celebrated at the place of Jesus' birth in the ancient Church of the Nativity. Another popular semi-religious observance is singing Christmas carols, both in church and door-to-door in one's neighborhood.

Christmas Trees

The English language phrase "Christmas tree" is first recorded in 1835. It was imported from the German-speaking world, where it is Tannenbaum, literally "fir tree", or Weinachtenbaum, "Christmas tree." The modern Christmas tree tradition probably began in Germany in the 18th century, though some argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century.

Midnight Mass in Bethlehem
Midnight Mass on Orthodox
Christmas at the Church of the
Nativity in Bethlehem. (P Berger.)

From Germany the Christmas tree custom was introduced to England, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. Around the same time, German immigrants introduced the custom into the United States. Christmas trees are usually decorated with lights and ornaments.

The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship.

Other popular holiday plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus. Christian tradition associates the holly tree with the crown of thorns, and says that its leaves were white until stained red by the blood of Christ. Along with a Christmas tree, the interior of a home may be decorated with these plants, along with garlands and evergreen foliage.

Christmas Lights and Other Decorations

In North and South America, Australia, and increasingly in Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures. Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well. Christmas banners may be hung from street lights and Christmas trees placed in the town square.

The display of Christmas villages has also become a tradition in many homes during the Christmas season. Other traditional decorations include bells, candles, candy canes, stockings, wreaths, and angels. In the Western world, rolls of brightly-colored paper with secular or religious Christmas motifs are manufactured for the purpose of wrapping gifts.

Santa Claus, St. Nick, and Other Gift-Bringers

In the Western world, where Christmas is characterized by the exchange of gifts among friends and family members, some of the gifts are attributed to a character called Santa Claus. He is also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, St. Nikolaus, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, Joulupukki, Weihnachtsmann, Saint Basil and Father Frost.

Santa Claus

The popular image of Santa Claus was created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who drew a new image of the character annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the form we now recognize. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s.

Father Christmas, who predates Santa Claus, was first recorded in the 15th century and then associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa. The French Père Noël evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image.

In Italy, Babbo Natale acts as Santa Claus, while La Befana is the bringer of gifts and arrives on the eve of the Epiphany. It is said that La Befana set out to bring the baby Jesus gifts, but got lost along the way. Now, she brings gifts to all children. In some cultures, such as Germany, Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter.

The current tradition in several Latin American countries is that Santa makes the toys, but gives them to the Baby Jesus to deliver to children's homes. This helps reconcile traditional religious beliefs with modern day globalization, most notably the iconography of Santa Claus imported from the United States.

In Southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Alto Adige/Südtirol (Italy) and Liechtenstein the Christkind (Christ Child) brings the presents as well. The German St. Nikolaus is not identical with the Weihnachtsman (Christmas Man, the German version of Santa Claus). St. Nikolaus wears a bishop's dress, brings small gifts (usually candies, nuts and fruits) on December 6, and is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht.

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  1. "Christmas," Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions.
  2. Origen (c. 245), ANF 9.428.
  3. Gen. 40:20; Matthew 14:6.
  4. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195 AD), ANF 2.333. See also Coffman, Elesh, "Why December 25?" Christianity History Newsletter, December 8, 2000.
  5. Luke 2:8.
  6. "Christmas." Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions.
  7. "The Season of Christmas."
  8. "Christmas." Oxford Encyclopedia of the Christian Church.
  9. "Armenian Christmas: Why Armenians Celebrate Christmas on January 6th."
  10. "The Calendar of the Orthodox Church." Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
  11. Some text in the "Observances" section is adapted from the Christmas article at Wikipedia under GFDL.
Christmas Links

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