The most popular of the Christian festivals, also known as the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas (from “Christ's Mass”) celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The exact date of Jesus' birth is not known, and for more than three centuries it was a movable feast, often celebrated on EPIPHANY, January 6. The Western Church chose to observe it at the end of December, perhaps as a way of countering the various pre-Christian festivals celebrated around that time of year. Some believe that Pope Julius I fixed the date of Christmas at December 25 in the fourth century. The earliest reference to it is in the Philocalian Calendar of Rome in 336. Although the majority of Eastern Orthodox churches have celebrated the Nativity on December 25 since the middle of the fifth century, those that still adhere to the old Julian calendar—called Old Calendarists—mark the occasion 13 days later, on January 7. The Armenian Churches continue to celebrate OLD CHRISTMAS DAY on January 6.
The Christmas season in the church begins on Christmas Eve and ends on Epiphany, unlike the commercial season that may begin any time after HALLOWEEN.
December 25th is a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics, who must attend one of the three masses priests are permitted to say in honor of the occasion. These services are celebrated at midnight on CHRISTMAS EVE and at dawn and, usually, mid-morning on Christmas.
As a holiday, Christmas represents a strange intermingling of both Christian and the pagan traditions it replaced. Many of the secular customs now associated with Christmas—such as decorating with mistletoe, holly, and ivy; indulging in excessive eating and drinking; stringing lights in trees; and exchanging gifts—can be traced back to early pagan festivals like the SATURNALIA and ancient WINTER SOLSTICE rites.
Another example is burning the YULE log, which was part of a pre-Christian winter solstice festival celebrating the return of the sun in the middle of winter. Even the Christmas tree, a German custom introduced in Britain by Queen Victoria's husband, Albert, may trace its history back to ancient times One of the most universal Christmas traditions is the crèche, a model of the birth scene of Christ, with Jesus in the manger, surrounded by the Holy Family and worshipping angels, shepherds, and animals. Many families have their own crèche, with the three Wise Men set apart and moved closer each day after Christmas until they arrive at the manger on Epiphany. In Austria, the crèche is not put away until CANDLEMAS Day.
In Belgium, the manger also appears in shop windows, constructed of the material sold by the shop: bread at the bakery; silks and laces at dressmakers; a variety of materials from the hardware store; butter and cheese from dairies; and cravats and neckties at the haberdashers.
In Chile the crèche is called a pesebre. Some homes leave their doors open so people passing by can come in and say a brief prayer to the Nino Lindo (beautiful baby).
In Italy it is a presèpio and is placed on the lowest shelf of a ceppo, which is a pyramid of shelves, lit with candles, used to display secular Christmas decorations and ornaments.
In Poland, where the crèche is called a yaselko, it is believed to be the origin of the Christmas folk play called the King Herod play, based on Herod's order to kill all male babies in Bethlehem (see HOLY INNOCENTS' DAY). Thirteenth-century Franciscan monks brought the crèche to Poland. Eventually the wax, clay, and wooden figures were transformed into szopka, puppets that performed Christmas mystery plays, which told of the mysteries of Christ's life. Later, the monks acted the parts played by the puppets and were called “living szopka.” In time, the plays were blended with characters and events from Polish history. The performers are called “Herods” and go from house to house in their villages where they are invited in to sing carols, act, and later to eat and drink with the family.
In Burkina Faso (until 1984 called Upper Volta), in western Africa, the population is mostly in Ouagadougou, the capital, and there the children make nativities (manger scenes) around the entrance to their compound. They are ready on Christmas Day so friends and neighbors can come by and, if they like them, leave a few coins in the dish provided. Some are made of paper and set on a pedestal, others of mud bricks with a thatch roof, while others are in the form of the local round house and have the bricks covered with a coat of concrete and a masonry dome instead of thatch. All of this is ornately decorated with strings of plastic packing peanuts, bits of shiny metal, tinsel, plastic, and flashlight bulbs. Some are modeled after pictures of European churches, but the child who can build a multi-storied nativity is thought very clever. On the wall of the compound behind the nativity is painted a white panel on which are affixed pictures of the Holy Family, crosses, hearts, arrows, stars, and anything else that comes to the mind of the young creator.
In Japan, since the end of World War II, Christmas has become a very popular holiday, even for non-Christians. Christmas dinner is replaced with a commercial Christmas cake, called “decoration cake,” (dekoreshon keki), covered with ridges and waves of frosting. Grandfather Santa Claus brings the gifts, but stockings are hung on the pipe for the bathtub stove, which is the nearest equivalent to a fireplace in Japanese homes. NEW YEAR'S postcards are much more important than Christmas cards, and the most elaborate use of evergreen trees is also saved for New Year's. Christmas parties are a kind of blending with bonenkai, “closing of the year parties,” which may only be attended by men and professional women: geishas, waitresses, entertainers. All women can attend Christmas parties, which is one of the reasons why the Japanese consider Christmas to be democratic.
Secular Christmas customs have continued to evolve. The Christmas card didn't become popular until the 19th century in England; Santa Claus's reindeer were an American invention at about the same time. Modern Christmas celebrations tend to focus on the worldly—with such traditions as the office Christmas party, sending out greeting cards, and Christmas specials on television taking the place of church services and other religious observances for many. The movement to “put Christ back into Christmas” has not lessened the enjoyment of this holiday as much for its social and commercial events as for its spiritual significance. The way Christmas is celebrated today is actually no worse—and in many ways much less excessive—than the hedonistic medieval celebration, where the feasting and revelry often extended all the way from Christmas to Candlemas (February 2).
See also GANNA; KOLEDOUVANE; LIGHTING OF THE NATIONAL CHRISTMAS TREE; MISA DE GALLO; AND POSADAS
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