Annual Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. Most members of the Roman Catholic Church and followers of Protestantism celebrate Christmas on December 25, and many celebrate on the evening of December 24 as well. Members of the Eastern Orthodox Church usually delay their most important seasonal ceremonies until January 6, when they celebrate Epiphany, a commemoration of the baptism of Jesus. Epiphany also traditionally commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men of the East in Bethlehem (near Jerusalem, Israel), where they adored the infant Jesus and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The official Christmas season, popularly known as either Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas, extends from the anniversary of Christ’s birth on December 25 to the feast of Epiphany on January 6. See also Christianity.
The most important holiday on the Christian calendar is Easter, which commemorates the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus
. Nevertheless, many people, particularly in the United States and Canada, consider Christmas to be the most significant annual Christian event. In addition to being a religious holiday, Christmas is a widely observed secular festival. For most people who celebrate Christmas, the holiday season is characterized by gatherings among family and friends, feasting, and gift giving.
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Christmas is based on the story of Jesus’ birth as described in the Gospel according to Matthew (see Matthew 1:18-2:12) and the Gospel according to Luke (see Luke 1:26-56). Roman Catholics first celebrated Christmas, then known as the Feast of the Nativity, as early as 336 ad. The word Christmas entered the English language sometime around 1050 as the Old English phrase Christes maesse, meaning “festival of Christ.” Scholars believe the frequently used shortened form of Christmas—Xmas—may have come into use in the 13th century. The X stands for the Greek letter chi, an abbreviation of Khristos (Christ), and also represents the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
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 pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Before the introduction of Christmas, each year beginning on December 17 Romans honored Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture, in a festival called Saturnalia. This festival lasted for seven days and included the winter solstice, which usually occurred around December 25 on the ancient Julian calendar. During Saturnalia the Romans feasted, postponed all business and warfare, exchanged gifts, and temporarily freed their slaves. Many Romans also celebrated the lengthening of daylight following the winter solstice by participating in rituals to glorify Mithra, the ancient Persian god of light (see Mithraism). These and other winter festivities continued through January 1, the festival of Kalends, when Romans marked the day of the new moon and the first day of the month and year.
Although the Gospels describe Jesus’ birth in detail, they never mention the date, so historians do not know on what date he was born. The Roman Catholic Church chose December 25 as the day for the Feast of the Nativity in order to give Christian meaning to existing pagan rituals. For example, the Church replaced festivities honoring the birth of Mithra, the god of light, with festivities to commemorate the birth of Jesus, whom the Bible calls the light of the world. The Catholic Church hoped to draw pagans into its religion by allowing them to continue their revelry while simultaneously honoring the birthday of Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church took a slightly different course. By the end of the 4th century the Eastern Church in Constantinople had also begun to acknowledge December 25 as Jesus’ birthday, but it emphasized the celebration of Christ’s baptism on January 6 as the more important holiday.
Over the next 1000 years, the observance of Christmas followed the expansion of Christianity into the rest of Europe and into Egypt. Along the way, Christian beliefs combined with existing pagan feasts and winter rituals to create many long-standing traditions of Christmas celebrations. For example, ancient Europeans believed that the mistletoe plant held magic powers to bestow life and fertility, to bring about peace, and to protect against disease. Northern Europeans associated the plant with the Norse goddess of love, Freya, and developed the custom of kissing underneath mistletoe branches. Christians incorporated this custom into their Christmas celebrations, and kissing under a mistletoe branch eventually became a part of secular Christmas tradition.
During the Reformation of the 16th century, Protestants challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, including its toleration of surviving pagan traditions during Christmas festivities. For a brief time during the 17th century, Puritans banned Christmas in England and in some English colonies in North America because they felt it had become a season best known for gambling, flamboyant public behavior, and overindulgence in food and drink.
Europeans who settled in North America often found they had to change their Christmas celebrations because they could not faithfully recreate the traditions of their homelands. For example, colonists in the American South may have aspired to recreate a sense of the English Christmas. But colonial accounts of Christmas celebrations in the South do not mention the presence of mummers (masked or costumed merrymakers) or waits (musicians or carolers paid to perform at Christmastime), both of which were central figures of the traditional English Christmas. Nor do historical accounts describe settlers engaging in such traditional English customs as feasting on boars’ heads or drinking from wassail bowls (bowls filled with spiced ale or wine).
Colonists from England, France, Holland, Spain, and other countries also gradually modified their Christmas ceremonies as they encountered new cultures and traditions in the New World. For example, in large towns, where diverse groups lived close together, the common ground for celebration could often be found in public and secular festivities rather than in potentially divisive religious ceremonies. Thus, at least in New York City, the winter’s holidays often culminated on New Year’s, not Christmas.
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