BBC – Religions – Christianity: Christmas

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Christmas is marked on the 25 December (7 January for Orthodox Christians).

Stained glass window showing Mary with the infant Jesus and her husband Joseph with a bright star above themThe Holy Family, Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus©

Christmas is a Christian holy day that marks the birth of Jesus, the son of God.

The story of Christmas

Jesus’ birth, known as the nativity, is described in the New Testament of the Bible.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke give different accounts. It is from them that the nativity story is pieced together.

Both accounts tell us that Jesus was born to a woman called Mary who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter. The Gospels state that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant.

In Luke’s account Mary was visited by an angel who brought the message that she would give birth to God’s son. According to Matthew’s account, Joseph was visited by an angel who persuaded him to marry Mary rather than send her away or expose her pregnancy.

Matthew tells us about some wise men who followed a star that led them to Jesus’ birthplace and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Luke tells how shepherds were led to Bethlehem by an angel.

According to tradition, Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus’ birth. Joseph had been ordered to take part in a census in his home town of Bethlehem.

All Jewish people had to be counted so the Roman Emperor could determine how much money to collect from them in tax. Those who had moved away from their family homes, like Joseph, had to return to have their names entered in the Roman records.

Joseph and Mary set off on the long, arduous 90-mile journey from Nazareth along the valley of the River Jordan, past Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Mary travelled on a donkey to conserve her energy for the birth.

But when they arrived in Bethlehem the local inn was already full with people returning for the census. The innkeeper let them stay in the rock cave below his house which was used as a stable for his animals.

It was here, next to the noise and filth of the animals, that Mary gave birth to her son and laid him in a manger.

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Date of Christmas and precursors

The first Christmas

Display of red and gold candlesCandles and fires have been lit at mid-winter celebrations for thousands of years©

The Gospels do not mention the date of Jesus’ birth. It was not until the 4th century AD that Pope Julius I set 25th December as the date for Christmas. This was an attempt to Christianise the Pagan celebrations that already took place at this time of year. By 529, 25th December had become a civil holiday and by 567 the twelve days from 25th December to the Epiphany were public holidays.

Christmas is not only a Christian festival. The celebration has roots in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festivals of the ancient Greeks, the beliefs of the Druids and the folk customs of Europe.

Midwinter celebrations

Christmas comes just after the middle of winter. The sun is strengthening and the days are beginning to grow longer. For people throughout history this has been a time of feasting and celebration.

Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives and because of this they had a great reverence for, and even worshipped, the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule (another name for Christmas) is thought to have come. At Winter Solstice the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.

The Romans also held a festival to mark the Winter Solstice. Saturnalia (from the God Saturn) ran for seven days from 17th December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved processions, decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles and giving presents.

Young holly berriesHolly©

Holly is one of the symbols most associated with Christmas. Its religious significance pre-dates Christianity. It was previously associated with the Sun God and was important in Pagan customs. Some ancient religions used holly for protection. They decorated doors and windows with it in the belief it would ward off evil spirits.

Before Christianity came to the British Isles the Winter Solstice was held on the shortest day of the year (21st December). The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.

Judaism was the main religion of Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. The Jewish midwinter festival of Hanukkah marks an important part of Jewish history. It is eight days long and on each day a candle is lit. It is a time of remembrance, celebration of light, a time to give gifts and have fun.

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Historical celebration

A mother playing guitar while her girls sing Christmas carolsChristmas carols have existed since medieval times. This painting is from the mid to late 19th century©

Christmas has always been a strange combination of Christian, Pagan and folk traditions. As far back as 389 AD, St Gregory Nazianzen (one of the Four Fathers of the Greek Church) warned against ‘feasting in excess, dancing and crowning the doors’. The Church was already finding it hard to bury the Pagan remnants of the midwinter festival.

Medieval

During the medieval period (c.400AD – c.1400AD) Christmas was a time for feasting and merrymaking. It was a predominantly secular festival but contained some religious elements.

Medieval Christmas lasted 12 days from Christmas Eve on 24th December, until the Epiphany (Twelfth Night) on 6th January. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means ‘to show’, meaning the time when Jesus was revealed to the world. Even up until the 1800s the Epiphany was at least as big a celebration as Christmas day.

Many Pagan traditions had been brought to Britain by the invading Roman soldiers. These included covering houses in greenery and bawdy partying that had its roots in the unruly festival of Saturnalia.

The Church attempted to curb Pagan practices and popular customs were given Christian meaning. Carols that had started as Pagan songs for celebrations such as midsummer and harvest were taken up by the Church. By the late medieval period the singing of Christmas carols had become a tradition.

The Church also injected Christian meaning into the use of holly, making it a symbol for Jesus’ crown of thorns. According to one legend, the holly’s branches were woven into a painful crown and placed on Christ’s head by Roman soldiers who mocked him, chanting: “Hail King of the Jews.” Holly berries used to be white but Christ’s blood left them with a permanent crimson stain.

Another legend is about a little orphan boy who was living with shepherds when the angels came to announce Jesus’ birth. The child wove a crown of holly for the newborn baby’s head. But when he presented it, he became ashamed of his gift and started to cry. Miraculously the baby Jesus reached out and touched the crown. It began to sparkle and the orphan’s tears turned into beautiful scarlet berries.

Ban on Christmas

From the middle of the 17th century until the early 18th century the Christian Puritans suppressed Christmas celebrations in Europe and America.

The Puritan movement began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England (1558-1603). They believed in strict moral codes, plenty of prayer and close following of New Testament scripture.

As the date of Christ’s birth is not in the Gospels the Puritans thought that Christmas was too strongly linked to the Pagan Roman festival and were opposed to all celebration of it, particularly the lively, boozy celebrations inherited from Saturnalia. In 1644 all Christmas activities were banned in England. This included decorating houses with evergreens and eating mince pies.

Nativity display with crib outside a churchModern-day crib outside a church©

The crib and the nativity play

The telling of the Christmas story has been an important part of the Christianisation of Christmas. One way that the Christmas story has been maintained is through the crib, a model of the manger that Jesus was born in.

The tradition of crib making dates back to at least 400 AD when Pope Sixtus III had one built in Rome. In many parts of Europe in the 18th century crib making was an important craft form. This was not the case in England until much later, suggesting that British Christmases were less Christian than those in other parts of Europe.

The tradition of Nativity plays began in churches where they were used to illustrate the Christmas story as told in the Bible.

Victorian Christmas

After a lull in Christmas celebrations the festival returned with a bang in the Victorian Era (1837-1901). The Victorian Christmas was based on nostalgia for Christmases past. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) inspired ideals of what Christmas should be, capturing the imagination of the British and American middle classes. This group had money to spend and made Christmas a special time for the family.

Detail from a Victorian christmas card: a girl reaches up to a doll hanging on a decorated Christmas treeDetail from a Victorian Christmas card©

The Victorians gave us the kind of Christmas we know today, reviving the tradition of carol singing, borrowing the practice of card giving from St. Valentine’s day and popularising the Christmas tree.

Although the Victorians attempted to revive the Christmas of medieval Britain, many of the new traditions were Anglo-American inventions. From the 1950s, carol singing was revived by ministers, particularly in America, who incorporated them into Christmas celebrations in the Church. Christmas cards were first sent by the British but the Americans, many of whom were on the move and away from their families, picked up the practice because of a cheap postal service and because it was a good way of keeping in contact with people at home.

Christmas trees were a German tradition, brought to Britain and popularised by the royal family. Prince Albert first introduced the Christmas tree into the royal household in Britain in 1834. He was given a tree as a gift by the Queen of Norway which was displayed in Trafalgar Square.

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Modern celebration

Advent

Congregation in churchChristmas service at a church©

Advent is the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and begins on Sunday nearest to 30th November. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus meaning coming. Traditionally it is a penitential season but is no longer kept with the strictness of Lent and Christians are no longer required to fast.

Advent wreaths are popular especially in churches. They are made with fir branches and four candles. A candle is lit each Sunday during Advent.

Christmas Day is the Christian festival most celebrated by non-churchgoers, and churches are often completely full for the service late on Christmas Eve.

Father Christmas

An important part of today’s Christmas is the myth of Father Christmas (called Santa Claus in America). His origins are in Christian and European tradition. But the visual image of Father Christmas that we have today is the one popularised by American card-makers in the Victorian era.

Traditionally, Father Christmas visits houses at midnight on Christmas Eve, coming down the chimney to leave presents. Children hang up stockings – nowadays usually large socks with Christmas patterns knitted into them – for Father Christmas to fill with little toys and presents (‘stocking fillers’).

Dutch statue of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) with red clothing, a long white beard and a sack of presents slung over his shoulderA Dutch Father Christmas©

Some traditions surrounding Father Christmas pre-date Christianity. His sleigh, pulled by reindeer, is left over from Scandinavian mythology. The practice of leaving mince pies and a glass of milk or brandy for him on Christmas Eve may be a remnant of Pagan sacrifices made to mark the end of winter and the coming of spring.

The USA has the figure of Santa Claus, whose name comes from Saint Nicholas via the Dutch Sinterklaas. Saint Nicholas of Myra (a location in modern-day Turkey) is, among other things, the patron saint of sailors. A famous story has him anonymously delivering bags of gold coins to a man who could not afford dowry for his daughters to get married. Some versions of this story even have Saint Nick dropping the bags down the chimney.

In modern times the figures of Father Christmas and Santa Claus are indistinguishable.

Christmas today

Today, only around 60 percent of people in the UK are Christian but Christmas remains the biggest holiday in the calendar. It is a largely secular holiday, with the main element the exchange of gifts on Christmas day.

Rows of foil-wrapped chocolate Father ChristmasesChocolate Father Christmases©

In previous centuries the Church worried about Pagan influence on the Christian festival, but today ethical considerations are focused on the over-commercialism of the holiday, with the average person in the UK spending hundreds of pounds on Christmas-related purchases (an average of £384 in 2007, according to a Halifax report).

Protests against consumerism have been made by Christians and non-Christians such as ‘Buy Nothing Christmas’, encouraging people to spend time with their families instead of spending money on them.

With carol concerts, Christmas trees, office parties, midnight mass, and television programmes, today’s festival has elements of the Pagan, Christian and folk traditions.

Christmas remains a time to forget about the long dark days and celebrate with friends and family.

Bibliography

The Making of A Modern Christmas, J.M. Golby & A.W. Purdue, Sutton Publishing, 1986

Victorian Christmas, Joy to the World, C. Hart, J. Grossman & P. Dunhill, Ebury Press, 1991

The Christmas Alumanac, Michael Stephenson, Oxford Univesity Press, 1992

The Book of Christmas, Thomas K. Hervey, Folklore Society Books, 2000

Christmas. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 26, 2003, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

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