When is Christmas (07.05.2018)
Observed in Worldwide
Observed on December 25, or January 7 in some Orthodox Churches
Observed by Christians
Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus (the founder of Christianity) whom Christians believe to be the Son of God. The New Testament Gospels say that Mary gave birth to Jesus in the town of Bethlehem. The birth of Jesus (known as the Nativity) was taken to be the fulfillment of a Jewish prophesy, according to which a Messiah would come from King David’s lineage to save the Jewish people. Moreover soon after Jesus’ death, his message was taken as well to the Gentiles (one who is not of the Jewish faith or is of a non-Jewish nation).
The earliest Christians probably celebrated some events surrounding the birth of Jesus but it was not until much later that attempts were made to determine the specific date.
The date for Christmas on December 25 has long been part of the Christian calendar, however, and it is widely recognized as a religious holiday in most countries where Christians live. December 24, or Christmas Eve, is also an important part of the celebrations. Devout Christians usually begin Christmas by attending Mass or a Eucharistic or midnight prayer service and exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve. The Anglican Church has candlelight services that are characteristically held in the early evening on December 24, and these services often include dramas based on the Nativity.
St. Nicholas or Santa Claus who is associated with the delivering gifts to young children on this night has long been associated with the Christmas season. Christmas Eve also used to be the day when a Christmas tree was set up. In recent years, however, because the holiday season starts on a different schedule in some countries, Christmas trees are set up much earlier in the season. Lavish meals, with ham or turkey as featured items, are an integral part of the celebrations.
Origins and History
Christianity began and spread across the Old World by promising a new life in the hereafter and by promoting Jesus as the Messiah. By the fourth century the Roman Emperor Constantine reformed the Julian calendar and introduced the seven-day week, thereby changing the way the months were subdivided.
(It is possible that the idea of the seven-day week was modeled on the Christian sabbatical cycle.) Also during that century a calendar was established that emphasized Christian festivals, and these began to take over the dates and seasons of pagan celebrations and rituals.
The latter part of December was one such period. Previous to this time, according to the Julian calendar, the Saturnalia, a seven-day festival honoring the Roman deity Saturn, the god of agriculture, was observed on December 17. This festival included the winter solstice, which usually occurred around December 25. During the Saturnalia, the Romans feasted well, put aside all business and matters of war, exchanged gifts, and freed their slaves for the festival’s duration. The Romans also celebrated December 25 as the date honoring the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invicti), and the Persians performed rituals to honor Mithra, the god of light. All these celebrations welcomed the return of the light and the lengthening days. Over time, the winter festivities stretched to include January 1, the festival of Kalends, the day of the new Moon and the first day of the month and year of the Julian calendar.
The story of the birth of Jesus is based mainly on the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew, with traditionally accepted folkloric additions. The Gospels of St. John and St. Mark do not mention Jesus’ birth or childhood and, to add to the uncertainty, the accounts of St. Matthew and St. Luke are quite different.
According to the Gospel of St. Luke, the most popular version of the story and the one usually featured in Christmas Eve religious services, Mary (who was betrothed to Joseph) was told by the Archangel Gabriel that she was carrying God’s child, even though she was a virgin. Mary and Joseph were married soon after. Some time later Joseph, who was a Nazareth carpenter, (the son of Jacob and the adopted or legal son of Heli, both of the family of David), traveled with Mary to Bethlehem of Judea, to enroll in the census that Augustus, the Roman emperor, had ordered. Since the inns in the town were all full, they could only find a stable in which to sleep. It was there that Jesus was born. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, which was the home of King David, to whose lineage Joseph belonged, fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy about the birth of a savior. The magi (three wise men, named Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior) arrived in Jerusalem and reported to Herod, the local king, that they had witnessed a star signifying the birth of a king. (We are not told whether they were riding camels. They might have walked.) They eventually arrived at the stable where Mary and Joseph had taken shelter and offered Jesus “frankincense, gold, and myrrh.” During the night, each wise man dreamed that Herod wanted to murder the newborn, so they returned home without telling him they had found the child. The gospel of Matthew narrates that Jesus’ family then fled to Egypt to escape Herod, who was having all the newborn children of Jerusalem under the age of two killed in order to eradicate any threat to his position. The Magi, it should be noted, are mentioned only in St. Matthew’s Gospel and appear after he has reported Jesus’ genealogy and virgin birth. Jesus’ family finally returned to Israel after Herod’s death and settled in Nazareth.
The narratives credited to Matthew and Luke, both written decades after Jesus’ death, do not agree and focus on different parts of the story altogether.
Furthermore, there were no eyewitnesses who could confirm or deny the stories as they were presented, and the other two gospels fail to mention Jesus’ birth and childhood, leaving doubt regarding the accuracy of Matthew’s and Luke’s stories. It is not clear, for example, that the Romans would have taken a census during the worst time of the year, nor can authorities agree on whether shepherds would have been watching their sheep outdoors and at night, as reported, during the rainy season. What remain are questions that, two millennia later, remain unanswered and are probably unanswerable.
Christmas was not among the first festivals of the Christian religion, and attempts to fix a date for Jesus’ birth date did not begin until approximately two hundred years after his death, when the Catholic Church decided to establish its traditions.
Neither Irenaeus (130–202) nor Tertullian (155–230) mentions such an observance in his lists of feasts, Origen asserted in 495 that only sinners, not saints, celebrate their birthday, and Arnobius, writing in the 13th century, boldly mocked the “birthdays” attributed to the gods.
The pagan festival observing the Natalis Solis Invicti, which reached the peak of its popularity in 274, is the most logical source for the date of December 25, and the use of solar symbolism and language to refer to the Judeo-Christian God and Jesus has such a long history that relating its development would quickly become repetitious. The connections are numerous and incontrovertible. Thus Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25 in Protestant, Catholic, and some Orthodox churches. The Coptic, Russian, Jerusalem, Georgian, and Serbian Orthodox Churches observe the holiday on January 7 because they rejected both the reforms of the revised Julian calendar and its successor, the Gregorian calendar.
Dates for Christmas holiday celebrations vary around the world. The festive season conventionally runs for the 12 days following Christmas in the United Kingdom. This period, signified by merrymaking and feasting, ends on the 12th night after Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany, which matches the liturgical season. Swedish medieval laws proclaimed julefrid (Christmas peace) to be 20 days and doubled the fines for manslaughter and robbery during that period. King Knut (r. 1080–86) is considered a saint because of his virtues and generosity.
It was he who declared that Christmas should be celebrated for 20 days, officially ending the season on January 13. Until Saint Knut’s Day, the time is filled with numerous parties and great rejoicing. After this period, Christmas trees are taken down to mark the official close of the season.
Swedish children celebrate a party, and throw out the julgransplundring (Christmas tree) on January 13 (King Knut’s day).
The Armenian Church emphasizes the Epiphany (the magi’s visit to the baby Jesus), not Christmas. The period between Christmas Eve (December 24) and Epiphany (January 6) is commonly known as Yuletide. According to one of the prevalent theories, the root for “Yule” came from the aboriginal Scandinavians and denoted their winter solstice festival. Some scholars say that Yule probably means “feast,” while Yuletide meant the “season of feasting.” Christmas is, by any computation, the most widely celebrated festival in the world. In many Christian and non-Christian countries, it is a time to be with the family, a period filled with gifts and extravagant feasts of foods served only on this occasion.
This day also signifies a time of peace and harmony.
Children particularly look forward to this day because Santa Claus (also known as Father Christmas) will bring them the things they hope for.