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Christmas Tips

Christmas (literally, the Mass of Christ) is a holiday in the Christian calendar, usually observed on Santa ClausDecember 25, which celebrates the birth of Jesus. According to the Christian gospels, Jesus was born to Mary in Bethlehem, where she and her husband Joseph had travelled to register in the Roman census. Christ's birth, or nativity, was said by his followers to fulfill the prophecies of Judaism that a messiah would come, from the house of David, to redeem the world from sin. Early Christians celebrated more the subsequent Epiphany, when the baby Jesus was visited by the Magi. Efforts to assign a date for his birth began some centuries later. The precise chronology of Jesus' birth and death as well as the historicity of Jesus are still debated.

Last Updated - 1st December 2005

In predominantly Christian countries, Christmas has become the most economically significant holiday of the year, and it is also celebrated as a secular holiday in many countries with small Christian populations. It is largely characterized by exchanging gifts within families, and by gifts brought by Santa Claus or other mythical figures. Local and regional Christmas traditions are still rich and varied, despite the widespread influence of American and British Christmas motifs through literature, television, and other media.

"Christmas" is a contraction of "Christ's Mass", derived from the Old English Cristes mæsse. It is often abbreviated Xmas, possibly because the letter X resembles the Greek letter ? (Chi), which is the first letter of "Christ" as spelled in Greek (???st?? [Christos]).

The story of Christmas

Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus, at "the first Christmas"The story of Christ's birth has been handed down for centuries, based primarily on the Christian gospels of Matthew and Luke. The gospels of Mark and John do not address the childhood of Jesus, and those of Matthew and Luke give somewhat differing accounts, Luke's being closest to the public impression of the Christmas story and the version most often read in Christmas services.

According to Luke, Mary learned from an angel that she was with child, by virtue of impregnation without intercourse by the Holy Spirit. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband Joseph left their Nazareth home to travel to Joseph's ancestral home, Bethlehem of Judea, to enroll in the census ordered by the Roman emperor, Augustus. Finding no room in inns in the town, they set up primitive lodgings in a stable. There Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger, which has been translated in various ways, most commonly a feeding trough or stall. Christ's birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the home of the house of David from which Joseph was descended, fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah.

Matthew's gospel begins by recounting the genealogy and virgin birth of Jesus, and then skips to the coming of the Wise Men from the East to the home where Christ was staying after his birth in Bethlehem of Judea. This leaves ambiguous at whose home they were staying and whether Mary and Joseph were residents of Nazareth or, as their access to a home in Bethlehem suggests, of Bethlehem. The wise men, or Magi, first arrived in Jerusalem and reported to the local King Herod that they had seen a star heralding the birth of a king. Further inquiry led them to Bethlehem of Judea and the home of Mary and Joseph. They presented Jesus with treasures of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh". While staying the night, each Wise Man had a dream that contained a divine warning that King Herod had murderous designs on the child. Resolving to hinder the ruler, they returned home without notifying Herod of the success of their mission. Matthew then reports that the family next fled to Egypt to escape the murderous rampage of Herod, who had decided to have the children of Bethlehem killed in order to eliminate any local rivals to his power. When Jesus and his family returned to Israel, it was then that they settled in Nazareth, where they believed they might live more anonymously.

Another aspect of Christ's birth which has passed from the gospels into popular lore is the announcement by angels to nearby shepherds of Jesus' birth . Some Christmas carols refer to the shepherds observing a huge star directly over Bethlehem, and following it to the birthplace. The Magi, who Matthew reports seeing a giant star as well, have been variously interpreted as "wise men" or as kings. They are supposed to have come from Arabia, where they could have gotten their gifts of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh". Astronomers and historians have sought with varying success to explain what combination of traceable celestial events might explain the appearance of a giant star that had never before been seen.1

The major gaps in narrative details between Matthew and Luke, the absence of any reference to Christ's birth in the other gospels, and the fact that even the accounts of Matthew and Luke were written decades later, without confirmation by eyewitnesses, have led to much speculation about the accuracy of these reports. As one of the tenets of their faith, Christians accept the veracity of the story of Christmas, apparent difficulties reconciling the different versions of events notwithstanding.

Dates of celebration

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Christians. Efforts to fix a date for the birth of Christ began some two centuries after his death, as the Catholic Church began to establish its traditions. Christmas is now celebrated on December 25 in catholic, protestant, and most orthodox churches. The Coptic, Jerusalem, Russian, Serbian and Georgian orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on January 7. This date results from their having accepted neither the reforms of the Gregorian calendar nor the Revised Julian calendar, with their ecclesiastic December 25 thus falling on the civil (Gregorian) date of January 7 from 1900 to 2099. The Armenian Church places much more emphasis on the Epiphany, the visitation by the Magi, than on Christmas.

Some scholars suggest that December 25 is a date of convenience chosen for other reasons, related to the time of Emperor Constantine. Prior to the celebration of Christmas, December 25th in the Roman world was the Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.

Dates for the more secular aspects of the Christmas celebration are similarly varied. In the United Kingdom, the Christmas season traditionally runs for twelve days following Christmas Day. These twelve days of Christmas, a period of feasting and merrymaking, end on Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. This period corresponds with the liturgical season of Christmas. Medieval laws in Sweden declared a Christmas peace (julefrid) to be twenty days, during which fines for robbery and manslaughter were doubled. Swedish children still celebrate a party, throwing out the Christmas tree (julgransplundring), on the 20th day of Christmas (January 13, Knut's day).

In practice, the Christmas period has grown longer in some countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, and now begins many weeks before Christmas, allowing more time for shopping and get-togethers. It extends beyond Christmas Day up to New Year's Day. This later holiday has its own parties. In some instances, including Scotland's Hogmanay—which occurs at the New Year— it is celebrated more than Christmas.

Countries that celebrate Christmas on December 25th recognize the previous day as Christmas Eve, and vary on the naming of December 26th. In the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland, Christmas Day and the following day are called First and Second Christmas Day. In many European and Commonwealth countries, December 26th is referred to as Boxing Day, while in Ireland and Romania it is known as St. Stephen's Day.

Customs and celebrations

An enormous number of customs, with either secular, religious, or national aspects, surround Christmas, and vary from country to country. Most of the familiar traditional practices and symbols of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas ham, the Yule Log, holly, mistletoe, and the giving of presents, were adapted or appropriated by Christian missionaries from the earlier Ásatrú pagan midwinter holiday of Yule. This celebration of the winter solstice was widespread and popular in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity, and the word for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages is still today the pagan jul (=yule). The Christmas tree is believed to have first been used in Germany.

Secular customs

A house decorated for Christmas in Yate, EnglandSince the customs of Christmas celebration largely evolved in Northern Europe, many are associated with the Northern Hemisphere winter, whose motifs are prominent in Christmas decorations and in the Santa Claus myth.

Santa Claus and other bringers of gifts

Gift-giving is a near-universal part of Christmas celebrations. The concept of a mythical figure who brings gifts to children derives from Saint Nicholas, a good hearted bishop of 4th-century Asia Minor. The Dutch modeled a gift-giving Saint Nicholas around his feast day of December 6. In North America, English colonists adopted aspects of this celebration into their Christmas holiday, and Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, or Saint Nick. In the UK, whilst this name is widely known, "Father Christmas" is more common, and is also used in many West African countries. In the Anglo-American tradition, this jovial fellow arrives on Christmas Eve on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, climbs down the chimney, leaves gifts for the children, and eats the food they leave for him. He spends the rest of the year making toys and keeping lists on the behavior of the children.

The French equivalent of Santa, Père Noël, evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image Haddon Sundblom painted for a worldwide Coca-Cola advertising campaign in the 1930s. In some cultures Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. In some versions, elves in a toy workshop make the holiday toys, and in some he is married to Mrs. Claus. Many shopping malls in North America and the United Kingdom have a holiday mall Santa Claus whom children can visit to ask for presents.

A classic image of jolly old Saint NickIn many countries, children leave empty containers for Santa to fill with small gifts such as toys, candy, or fruit. In the United States, children hang a Christmas stocking by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, because Santa is said to come down the chimney the night before Christmas to fill them. In other countries, children place their empty shoes out for Santa to fill on the night before Christmas, or for Saint Nicholas on December 5. Gift giving is not restricted to these special gift-bringers, as family members and friends also bestow gifts on each other.

Timing of gifts

In many countries, Saint Nicholas Day remains the principal day for gift giving. In much of Germany, children put shoes out on window sills on the night of December 5, and find them filled with candy and small gifts the next morning. In such places, including the Netherlands, Christmas day remains more a religious holiday. In other countries, including Spain, gifts are brought by the Magi at Epiphany on 6 January.

One of the many customs of gift timing is suggested by the song Twelve Days of Christmas, celebrating an old British tradition of gifts each day from Christmas to Epiphany. In most of the world, Christmas gifts are given at night on Christmas Eve, or in the morning on Christmas Day. Until the recent past, gifts were given in the UK to non-family members on Boxing Day.

Christmas cards

Christmas cards are extremely popular in the United States and Europe, in part as a way to maintain relationships with distant relatives and friends, and with business acquaintances. Many families enclose an annual family photograph, or a family newsletter telling activities of family members during the preceding year.

Decorations

Christmas tree in a German home - Decorating a Christmas tree with lights and ornaments, and the decoration of the interior of the home with garlands and evergreen foliage, particularly holly and mistletoe, are common traditions. In North and South America and to a lesser extent Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights, and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures.

The traditional Christmas flower is the poinsettia. Other popular holiday plants are holly, red amaryllis and Christmas cactus.

Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well, hanging Christmas banners from street lights or placing Christmas trees in the town square. In the United States, decorations once commonly included religious themes. This practice has led to much adjudication, as opponents insist that it amounts to the government endorsing one particular religious faith.

Social aspects and entertainment

In many countries, businesses, schools, and communities have Christmas parties and dances during the several weeks before Christmas Day. Christmas pageants, common in Latin America, may include a retelling of the story of the birth of Christ. Groups may go carolling, visiting neighborhood homes to sing Christmas songs. Others are reminded by the holiday of man's fellowship with man, and do volunteer work, or hold fundraising drives for charities.

On Christmas Day or on Christmas Eve, a special meal of Christmas dishes is usually served, for which there are traditional menus in each country. In some regions, particularly in Eastern Europe, these family feasts are preceded by a period of fasting. Candy and treats are also part of the Christmas celebration in many countries.

Candy canes are a popular Christmas treat, and may double as a decoration or Christmas ornament

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Religious customs and celebrations

The religious celebrations begin with Advent, the anticipation of Christ's birth, around the start of December. These observations may include Advent carols and Advent calendars, sometimes containing sweets and chocolate for children. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services may include a midnight mass or a Mass of the Nativity, and feature Christmas carols and hymns.

Other faiths have emphasized their own winter holidays to serve as a Christmas surrogate, including Judaism's Hanukkah, which has evolved a similar tradition of gift-giving. Christmas has some acceptance in the Islamic world, where Jesus is regarded as a prophet. Many secular aspects of Christmas are becoming common in developed Muslim nations.

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