- 1 Christmas
- 2 Etymology
- 3 Other names
- 4 Nativity
- 5 History
- 6 Relation to concurrent celebrations
- 7 Choice of December 25 date
- 8 Middle Ages
- 9 Reformation to the 18th century
- 10 19th century
- 11 20th century
- 12 Music and carols
- 13 Cards
- 14 Commemorative stamps
- 15 Gift giving
- 16 Date
- 17 Using the Julian calendar
- 18 Economy
- 19 Controversies
Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus, observed most commonly 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 prepared for 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 culturally by a large number of non-Christian people, and is an integral part of the holiday season, while some Christian groups reject the celebration.
In several countries, celebrating Christmas Eve on December 24 has the main focus rather than December 25, with gift-giving and sharing a traditional meal with the family.
While the month and date of Jesus’ birth are unknown, by the early-to-mid 4th century, the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date later adopted in the East.
Today, most Christians celebrate Christmas on the date of December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which is also the calendar in near-universal use in the secular world.
However, some Eastern churches celebrate Christmas on the 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 disagreement over which calendar should be used to determine the day that is December 25. The date of Christmas may have initially been chosen to correspond with the day exactly nine months after the day on which early Christians believed that Jesus was conceived, or with one or more ancient polytheistic festivals that occurred near the Roman winter solstice; a further solar connection has been suggested because of a biblical verse identifying Jesus as the “Sun of righteousness”.
This is not a disagreement over the date of Christmas as such, but rather a disagreement over which calendar should be used to determine the day that is December 25. The date of Christmas may have initially been chosen to correspond with the day exactly nine months after the day on which early Christians believed that Jesus was conceived, or with one or more ancient polytheistic festivals that occurred near the Roman winter solstice; a further solar connection has been suggested because of a biblical verse identifying Jesus as the “Sun of righteousness”.
The date of Christmas may have initially been chosen to correspond with the day exactly nine months after the day on which early Christians believed that Jesus was conceived, or with one or more ancient polytheistic festivals that occurred near the Roman winter solstice; a further solar connection has been suggested because of a biblical verse identifying Jesus as the “Sun of righteousness”.
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
Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift-giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly.
“Christmas” is a shortened form of “Christ’s mass”. It is derived from the Middle English Cristemasse, which is from Old English Crīstesmæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038 followed by the word Cristes-messe in 1131. Crīst is from Greek Khrīstos, a translation of Hebrew Māšîah “Messiah”, meaning “anointed”; and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist. The form
Crīst is from Greek Khrīstos, a translation of Hebrew Māšîah “Messiah”, meaning “anointed”; and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist. The form
The form Christmas was also historically used, but is now considered archaic and dialectal; it derives from Middle English Cristenmasse, literally “Christian mass”.
Xmas is an abbreviation of Christmas found particularly in print, based on the initial letter chi in Greek Khrīstos, “Christ”, though numerous style guides discourage its use; it has precedent in Middle English Χρ̄es masse.
In addition to “Christmas”, the holiday has been known by various other names throughout its history. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the feast as “midwinter”, or, more rarely, as Nātiuiteð.
“Nativity”, meaning “birth”, is from Latin nātīvitās. In Old English, Gēola (Yule) referred to the period corresponding to December and January, which was eventually equated with Christian Christmas. “Noel” (or “Nowel”) entered English in the late 14th century and is from the Old French noël or naël, itself ultimately from the Latin nātālis (diēs), “birth (day)”.
The canonical gospels of Luke and Matthew both describe Jesus as being born in Bethlehem in Judea, to a virgin mother.
In the Gospel of Luke account, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus is born there and laid in a manger. Angels proclaim him a savior for all people, and shepherds come to adore him.
In the Matthew account, astronomers follow a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, born the king of the Jews. King Herod orders the massacre of all the boys less than two years old in Bethlehem, but the family flees to Egypt and later settles in Nazareth.
Modern scholars such as E. P. Sanders, Geza Vermes and Marcus Borg consider both narratives non-historical, arguing that there are contradictions between them. Many biblical scholars view the discussion of historicity as secondary, given that gospels were primarily written as theological documents rather than historical accounts.
The Christian ecclesiastical calendar contains many remnants of pre-Christian festivals. Although the dating as December 25 predates pagan influence, the later development of Christmas as a festival includes elements of the Roman feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra as described in the Roman cult of Mithraism.
The Chronography of 354 AD contains early evidence of the celebration on December 25 of a Christian liturgical feast of the birth of Jesus. This was in Rome, while in Eastern Christianity the birth of Jesus was already celebrated in connection with the Epiphany on January 6.
The December 25 celebration was imported into the East later: in Antioch by John Chrysostom towards the end of the 4th century, probably in 388, and in Alexandria only in the following century.
Many popular customs associated with Christmas developed independently of the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, with certain elements having origins in pre-Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice by pagan populations who were later converted to Christianity.
Relation to concurrent celebrations
Prior to and through the early Christian centuries, winter festivals—especially those centered on the winter solstice—were the most popular of the year in many European pagan cultures.
Reasons included the fact that less agricultural work needed to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached.
Many modern Christmas customs have been directly influenced by such festivals, including gift-giving and merrymaking from the Roman Saturnalia, greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year, and Yule logs and various foods from Germanic feasts.
The Egyptian deity Horus, son to goddess Isis, was celebrated at the winter solstice. Horus was often depicted being fed by his mother, which also influenced the symbolism of the Virgin Mary with baby Christ.
Choice of December 25 date
One theory to explain the choice of December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Jesus is that the purpose was to Christianize the pagan festival in Rome of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, meaning “the birthday of the Unconquered Sun”.
A festival inaugurated by the Roman emperor Aurelian (270–275) to celebrate the sun god and celebrated at the winter solstice, December 25.
According to this theory, during the reign of the emperor Constantine (306-337), Christian writers assimilated this feast as the birthday of Jesus, associating him with the “sun of righteousness” mentioned in Malachi 4:2 (Sol Iustitiae).
An explicit expression of this theory appears in an annotation of uncertain date added to a manuscript of a work by 12th-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi. The scribe who added it wrote: “It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part.
Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.”
This idea became popular especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome, is an early reference to the date of the nativity as December 25.
In the East, early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany (January 6), although this festival emphasized celebration of the baptism of Jesus.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in western Christianity focused on the visit of the magi.
But the medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the “forty days of St. Martin” (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours), now known as Advent.
In Italy, former Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent.
Around the 12th century, these traditions transferred again to the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 5); a time that appears in the liturgical calendars as Christmastide or Twelve Holy Days.
The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.
Reformation to the 18th century
Following the Protestant Reformation, many of the new denominations, including the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, continued to celebrate Christmas.
In 1629, the Anglican poet John Milton penned On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, a poem that has since been read by many during Christmastide.
Donald Heinz, a professor at California State University, states that Martin Luther “inaugurated a period in which Germany would produce a unique culture of Christmas, much copied in North America.”
Among the congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church, Christmas was celebrated as one of the principal evangelical feasts.
However, in 17th century England, some groups such as the Puritans, strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast”.
In contrast, the established Anglican Church “pressed for a more elaborate observance of feasts, penitential seasons, and saints’ days. The calendar reform became a major point of tension between the Anglican party and the Puritan party.”
The Catholic Church also responded, promoting the festival in a more religiously oriented form. King Charles I of England directed his noblemen and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter to keep up their old-style Christmas generosity.
Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.
In the early 19th century, writers imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote the novel A Christmas Carol that helped revive the “spirit” of Christmas and seasonal merriment.
Its instant popularity played a major role in portraying Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion.
Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century.
Superimposing his humanitarian vision of the holiday, in what has been termed “Carol Philosophy”, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
A prominent phrase from the tale, “Merry Christmas”, was popularized following the appearance of the story.
This coincided with the appearance of the Oxford Movement and the growth of Anglo-Catholicism, which led a revival in traditional rituals and religious observances.
The term Scrooge became a synonym for miser, with “Bah! Humbug!” dismissive of the festive spirit. In 1843, the first commercial Christmas card was produced by Sir Henry Cole.
The revival of the Christmas Carol began with William Sandys’s “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” (1833), with the first appearance in print of “The First Noel”, “I Saw Three Ships”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, popularized in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The First Congregational Church of Rockford, Illinois, “although of genuine Puritan stock”, was ‘preparing for a grand Christmas jubilee’, a news correspondent reported in 1864.
By 1860, fourteen states including several from New England had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday. In 1875, Louis Prang introduced the Christmas card to Americans.
He has been called the “father of the American Christmas card”. On June 26, 1870, Christmas was formally declared a United States federal holiday.
Up to the 1950’s, in the UK, many Christmas customs were restricted to the upper classes and better-off families.
The mass of the population had not adopted many of the Christmas rituals that later became general. The Christmas tree was rare.
Christmas dinner might be beef—certainly not turkey. In their stockings children might get an apple, orange and sweets.
Full celebration of a family Christmas with all the trimmings only became widespread with increased prosperity from the 1950s.
National papers were published on Christmas Day until 1912. Post was still delivered on Christmas Day until 1961.
League football matches continued in Scotland until the 1970s while in England they ceased at the end of the 1950s.
Under the state atheism of the Soviet Union, after its foundation in 1917, Christmas celebrations—along with other Christian holidays—were prohibited in public.
Music and carols
The earliest extant specifically Christmas hymns appear in 4th-century Rome. Latin hymns such as “Veni redemptor gentium”, written by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, were austere statements of the theological doctrine of the Incarnation in opposition to Arianism.
“Corde natus ex Parentis” (“Of the Father’s love begotten”) by the Spanish poet Prudentius (d. 413) is still sung in some churches today.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Christmas “Sequence” or “Prose” was introduced in North European monasteries, developing under Bernard of Clairvaux into a sequence of rhymed stanzas. In the 12th century the Parisian monk Adam of St.
Victor began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something closer to the traditional Christmas carol.By the 13th century, in France, Germany, and particularly, Italy, under the influence of Francis of Asissi, a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in the native language developed.
By the 13th century, in France, Germany, and particularly, Italy, under the influence of Francis of Asissi, a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in the native language developed.
Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty-five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house.
Christmas cards are illustrated messages of greeting exchanged between friends and family members during the weeks preceding Christmas Day.
The traditional greeting reads “wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”, much like that of the first commercial Christmas card, produced by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843.
The custom of sending them has become popular among a wide cross-section of people with the emergence of the modern trend towards exchanging E-cards.
Christmas cards are purchased in considerable quantities, and feature artwork, commercially designed and relevant to the season.
The content of the design might relate directly to the Christmas narrative with depictions of the Nativity of Jesus, or Christian symbols such as the Star of Bethlehem, or a white dove which can represent both the Holy Spirit and Peace on Earth.
A number of nations have issued commemorative stamps at Christmastide.
Postal customers will often use these stamps to mail Christmas cards, and they are popular with philatelists.
These stamps are regular postage stamps, unlike Christmas seals, and are valid for postage year-round. They usually go on sale some time between early October and early December, and are printed in considerable quantities.
In 1898 a Canadian stamp was issued to mark the inauguration of the Imperial Penny Postage rate.
The stamp features a map of the globe and bears an inscription “XMAS 1898” at the bottom.
In 1937, Austria issued two “Christmas greeting stamps” featuring a rose and the signs of the zodiac.
In 1939, Brazil issued four semi-postal stamps with designs featuring the three kings and a star of Bethlehem, an angel and child, the Southern Cross and a child, and a mother and child.
Both the US Postal Service and the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail regularly issue Christmas-themed stamps each year.
The exchanging of gifts is one of the core aspects of the modern Christmas celebration, making it the most profitable time of year for retailers and businesses throughout the world.
On Christmas, people exchange gifts based on the Christian tradition associated with St.
Nicholas, and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which were given to the baby Jesus by the Magi.
The practice of gift giving in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia may have influenced Christian Christian customs, but on the other hand the Christian “core dogma of the Incarnation, however, solidly established the giving and receiving of gifts as the structural principle of that recurrent yet unique event”, because it was the Biblical Magi, “together with all their fellow men, who received the gift of God through man’s renewed participation in the divine life.”
Irenaeus (c. 130–202) viewed Christ’s conception as March 25 in association with the Passion, with the nativity nine months after on December 25.
Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) may also have identified December 25 for the birth of Jesus and March 25 for the conception.
Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160–c. 240) identified December 25, later to become the most widely accepted date of celebration, as the date of Jesus’ birth in 221.
The precise origin of assigning December 25 to the birth of Jesus is unclear. Various dates were speculated: May 20, April 18 or 19, March 25, January 2, November 17 or 20.
When celebration on a particular date began, January 6 prevailed at least in the East; but, except among Armenians (the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Evangelical Church), who continue to celebrate the birth on January 6, December 25 eventually won acceptance everywhere.
Using the Julian calendar
Some jurisdictions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, including those of Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Jerusalem, mark feasts using the older Julian calendar.
As of 2018, there is a difference of 13 days between the Julian calendar and the modern Gregorian calendar, which is used internationally for most secular purposes.
As a result, December 25 on the Julian calendar currently corresponds to January 7 on the calendar used by most governments and people in everyday life.
Therefore, the aforementioned Orthodox Christians mark December 25 (and thus Christmas) on the day that is internationally considered to be January 7.
Christmas is typically a peak selling season for retailers in many nations around the world. Sales increase dramatically as people purchase gifts, decorations, and supplies to celebrate.
In the U.S., the “Christmas shopping season” starts as early as October. In Canada, merchants begin advertising campaigns just before Halloween (October 31), and step up their marketing following Remembrance Day on November 11.
In the UK and Ireland, the Christmas shopping season starts from mid November, around the time when high street Christmas lights are turned on.
In the United States, it has been calculated that a quarter of all personal spending takes place during the Christmas/holiday shopping season.
Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that expenditure in department stores nationwide rose from $20.8 billion in November 2004 to $31.9 billion in December 2004, an increase of 54 percent.
In other sectors, the pre-Christmas increase in spending was even greater, there being a November–December buying surge of 100 percent in bookstores and 170 percent in jewelry stores.
In the same year employment in American retail stores rose from 1.6 million to 1.8 million in the two months leading up to Christmas.
Industries completely dependent on Christmas include Christmas cards, of which 1.9 billion are sent in the United States each year, and live Christmas Trees, of which 20.8 million were cut in the U.S. in 2002. In the UK in 2010, up to £8 billion was expected to be spent online at Christmas, approximately a quarter of total retail festive sales.
Christmas has at times been the subject of controversy and attacks from various sources.
Historically it was prohibited by Puritans when they briefly held power in England during the English Interregnum (1649–1660), and In Colonial America where the Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas in 1659.
Christmas celebrations have also been prohibited by atheist states such as the Soviet Union and more recently majority Muslim states such as Somalia, Tajikistan and Brunei.