Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world.
A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an octave. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world’s nations, is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians, as well as culturally by many non-Christians,and forms an integral part of the holiday season centered around it.
The traditional Christmas narrative
The traditional Christmas narrative, the Nativity of Jesus, delineated in the New Testament says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in accordance with messianic prophecies. When Joseph and Mary arrived in the city, the inn had no room and so they were offered a stable where the Christ Child was soon born, with angels proclaiming this news to shepherds who then further disseminated the information.
Although the month and date of Jesus’ birth are unknown, by the early-to-mid fourth century the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date that was later adopted in the East. Today, most Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world.
Eastern Christian Churches
However, some Eastern Christian Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar, the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany. This is not a disagreement over the date of Christmas as such, but rather a preference of which calendar should be used to determine the day that is December 25. Moreover, for Christians, the belief that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity, rather than the exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.
The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, viewing a Nativity play, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, pulling Christmas crackers and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. The economic impact of Christmas has grown steadily over the past few centuries in many regions of the world.
The Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are prominent in the gospels and early Christian writers suggested various dates for the anniversary. The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome in 336. Christmas played a role in the Arian controversy of the fourth century. In the early Middle Ages, it was overshadowed by Epiphany. The feast regained prominence after 800, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day.
Today, most Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world. However, some Eastern Christian Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar, the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany.
This is not a disagreement over the date of Christmas as such, but rather a preference of which calendar should be used to determine the day that is December 25. In the Council of Tours of 567, the Church, with its desire to be universal, “declared the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany to be one unified festal cycle”, thus giving significance to both the Western and Eastern dates of Christmas.
Associating it with drunkenness and other misbehaviour, the Puritans banned Christmas in the 17th century. It was restored as a legal holiday in 1660, but remained disreputable. In the early 19th century, the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church ushered in “the development of richer and more symbolic forms of worship, the building of neo-Gothic churches, and the revival and increasing centrality of the keeping of Christmas itself as a Christian festival” as well as “special charities for the poor” in addition to “special services and musical events”.
Charles Dickens and other writers helped in this revival of the holiday by “changing consciousness of Christmas and the way in which it was celebrated” as they emphasized family, religion, gift-giving, and social reconciliation as opposed to the historic revelry common in some places.