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Christmas was traditionally a Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus , but in the early 20th century, it also became a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike. The secular holiday is often devoid of Christian elements, with the mythical figure Santa Claus playing the pivotal role.
Christmas is celebrated by many Christians on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar. For Eastern Orthodox churches that continue to use the Julian calendar for liturgical observances, this date corresponds to January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
Christians and non-Christians participate in some of the most popular Christmas traditions, many of which have no origins in Christianity. These customs include decorating evergreen trees —or, in India, mango or bamboo trees; feasting picnics and fireworks are popular in warm climates ; and exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
In ancient Rome, December 25 was a celebration of the Unconquered Sun, marking the return of longer days. It followed Saturnalia , a festival where people feasted and exchanged gifts. The church in Rome began celebrating Christmas on December 25 in the 4th century during the reign of Constantine , the first Christian emperor, possibly to weaken pagan traditions. The celebration of Christmas started in Rome about , but it did not become a major Christian festival until the 9th century. Christmas , Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus. In this secular Christmas celebration, a mythical figure named Santa Claus plays the pivotal role.
In particular, during the first two centuries of Christianity there was strong opposition to recognizing birthdays of martyrs or, for that matter, of Jesus. The precise origin of asing December 25 as the birth date of Jesus is unclear. The New Testament provides no clues in this regard.
One of the difficulties with this view is that it suggests a nonchalant willingness on the part of the Christian church to appropriate a pagan festival when the early church was so intent on distinguishing itself categorically from pagan beliefs and practices. Christmas began to be widely celebrated with a specific liturgy in the 9th century but did not attain the liturgical importance of either Good Friday or Easter , the other two major Christian holidays. Roman Catholic churches celebrate the first Christmas mass at midnight, and Protestant churches have increasingly held Christmas candlelight services late on the evening of December The service, inaugurated by E.
Benson and adopted at the University of Cambridge , has become widely popular. None of the contemporary Christmas customs have their origin in theological or liturgical affirmations, and most are of fairly recent date. The Renaissance humanist Sebastian Brant recorded, in Das Narrenschiff ; The Ship of Fools , the custom of placing branches of fir trees in houses.
Even though there is some uncertainty about the precise date and origin of the tradition of the Christmas tree , it appears that fir trees decorated with apples were first known in Strasbourg in The first use of candles on such trees is recorded by a Silesian duchess in The Advent wreath—made of fir branches, with four candles denoting the four Sundays of the Advent season—is of even more recent origin, especially in North America. The custom, which began in the 19th century but had roots in the 16th, 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 to four.
An analogous custom is the Advent calendar , which provides 24 openings, one to be opened each day beginning December 1. According to tradition, the calendar was created in the 19th century by a Munich housewife who tired of having to answer endlessly when Christmas would come. The first commercial calendars were printed in Germany in The intense preparation for Christmas that is part of the commercialization of the holiday has blurred the traditional liturgical distinction between Advent and the Christmas season, as can be seen by the placement of Christmas trees in sanctuaries well before December Toward the end of the 18th century the practice of giving gifts to family members became well established.
The practice of giving gifts, which goes back to the 15th century, contributed to the view that Christmas was a secular holiday focused on family and friends. This was one reason why Puritans in Old and New England opposed the celebration of Christmas and in both England and America succeeded in banning its observance. Moreover, in countries such as Austria and Germany , the connection between the Christian festival and the family holiday is made by identifying the Christ Child as the giver of gifts to the family.
In some European countries, St. Nicholas appears on his feast day December 6 bringing modest gifts of candy and other gifts to children. While both name and attire—a version of the traditional dress of bishop—of Santa Claus reveal his Christian roots, and his role of querying children about their past behaviour replicates that of St.
Nicholas, he is seen as a secular figure. In Australia , where people attend open-air concerts of Christmas carols and have their Christmas dinner on the beach, Santa Claus wears red swimming trunks as well as a white beard.
In most European countries, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, December 24, in keeping with the notion that the baby Jesus was born on the night of the 24th. The morning of December 25, however, has become the time for the exchange of gifts in North America. In 17th- and 18th-century Europe the modest exchange of gifts took place in the early hours of the 25th when the family returned home from the Christmas mass.
When the evening of the 24th became the time for the exchange of gifts, the Christmas mass was set into the late afternoon of that day. In North America the centrality of the morning of the 25th of December as the time for the family to open presents has led, with the exception of Catholic and some Lutheran and Episcopal churches, to the virtual end of holding church services on that day, a striking illustration of the way societal customs influence liturgical practices.
Given the importance of Christmas as one of the major Christian feast days, most European countries observe, under Christian influence, December 26 as a second Christmas holiday. This practice recalls the ancient Christian liturgical notion that the celebration of Christmas, as well as that of Easter and of Pentecost , should last the entire week. The weeklong observance, however, was successively reduced to Christmas day and a single additional holiday on December Eastern Orthodox churches honour Christmas on December However, for those that continue to use the Julian calendar for their liturgical observances, this date corresponds to January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
The churches of the Oriental Orthodox communion celebrate Christmas variously. For example, in Armenia , the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion , the church uses its own calendar; the Armenian Apostolic Church honours January 6 as Christmas.
Congregations of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria follow the date of December 25 on the Julian calendar, which corresponds to Khiak 29 on the ancient Coptic calendar. With the spread of Christianity beyond Europe and North America, the celebration of Christmas was transferred to societies throughout the non-Western world.
In many of these countries, Christians are not the majority population, and, therefore, the religious holiday has not become a cultural holiday. Christmas customs in these societies thus often echo Western traditions because the people were exposed to Christianity as a religion and cultural artifact of the West. In South and Central America , unique religious and secular traditions mark the Christmas celebration.
Christmas is a great summer festival in Brazil , including picnics, fireworks, and other festivities as well as a solemn procession of priests to the church to celebrate midnight mass. In some parts of India the evergreen Christmas tree is replaced by the mango tree or the bamboo tree, and houses are decorated with mango leaves and paper stars. Christmas largely remains a Christian holiday and is otherwise not widely observed. Japan serves as illustration of a different sort. Introduction Origin and development Contemporary customs in the West Contemporary customs in Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy Contemporary customs in other areas.
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External Websites. Articles from Britannica Encyclopedias for elementary and high school students. By Hans J. Hillerbrand View Edit History. Giotto: The Nativity. See all media. Show more. Top Questions. Full Article. Learn why Christmas is celebrated on December Get a Britannica Premium subscription and gain access to exclusive content.
Subscribe Now. Discover the history of Advent calendars and wreaths. Learn about the Christmas traditions of Advent calendars and wreaths. Lighting of the U. National Christmas Tree, Washington, D. Know about Christmas, a Christian religious holiday. Know about Christmas Eve. Learn about the tradition of gift-giving during Christmas. The Christmas tradition of gift giving. A front yard decorated for Christmas. Girls holding candles and singing in front of a Christmas tree in Seoul.
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The government removed Christmas from its list of national holidays inWhat is the meaning behind christmas
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What Is Christmas: Understanding the History and Origin