Christmas, A Brief History

By Randall Orser | Small Business

Christmas or Christmas Day is based on the old term Christ’s Mass (Crīstesmæsse in Olde English), and was used as celebrating Jesus Christs’ birthday (though no one knows when he was born, maybe April or September). By the early-to-mid 4th century the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date which was later adopted in the East. Today, most Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world. However, some Eastern churches celebrate Christmas on the December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar, the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany.

Although it is not known why December 25 became a date of celebration, there are several factors that may have influenced the choice. December 25 was the date the Romans marked as the winter solstice, and Jesus was identified with the Sun based on an Old Testament verse. The date is exactly nine months following Annunciation, when the conception of Jesus is celebrated. Finally, the Romans had a series of pagan festivals near the end of the year, so Christmas may have been scheduled at the time to appropriate, or compete with, one or more of these festivals.

The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore. Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. The economic impact of Christmas has grown steadily over the past few centuries in many regions of the world.

“Christmas” is a shortened form of “Christ’s mass”. It is derived from the Middle English Cristemasse, which is from Old English Crīstesmæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038 followed by the word Cristes-messe in 1131. Crīst (genitive Crīstes) is from Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), a translation of Hebrew Māšîa (מָשִׁיחַ), “Messiah”, meaning “anointed”; and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist. The form Christenmas was also historically used, but is now considered archaic and dialectal; it derives from Middle English Cristenmasse, literally “Christian mass”. Xmas is an abbreviation of Christmas found particularly in print, based on the initial letter chi (Χ) in Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), “Christ”, though numerous style guides discourage its use; it has precedent in Middle English Χρ̄es masse (where “Χρ̄” is an abbreviation for Χριστός).

The earliest known Christian festivals were attempts to celebrate Jewish holidays, especially Passover, per the local calendar. Modern scholars refer to such holidays as “Quatrodecmials” because Passover is dated as 14 Nisan on the Jewish calendar. All the major events of the life of Jesus were celebrated in a single festival, including conception, birth, and passion. In Greek-speaking areas of the Roman Empire, the Macedonian calendar was used. In these areas, the Quartodecimal was celebrated on April 6. In Latin-speaking areas, the Quartodecimal was March 25. The significance of the Quartodecimal declined after 165, when Pope Soter moved celebration of the Resurrection to a Sunday, thereby creating Easter. This put celebration of the passion on Good Friday, and thus moved it away from the Quartodecimal.

Today, many non-Christians celebrate Christmas, or the spirit of Christmas (peace, love, harmony), and partake in the activities. Christmas trees, presents, a big family dinner are all done by many non-Christians.

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