Christmas or Christmas Day (Old English: Crīstesmæsse, meaning “Christ’s Mass”) is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed most commonly on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is prepared for by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an Octave. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world’s nations, is celebrated culturally by a large number of non-Christian people, and is an integral part of the holiday season.
The Christian ecclesiastical calendar contains many remnants of pre-Christian festivals. Christmas includes elements of the Roman feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra.The Chronography of 354 AD contains early evidence of the celebration on December 25 of a Christian liturgical feast of the birth of Jesus. This was in Rome, while in Eastern Christianity the birth of Jesus was already celebrated in connection with the Epiphany on January 6.
The December 25 celebration was imported into the East later: in Antioch by John Chrysostom towards the end of the 4th century, probably in 388, and in Alexandria only in the following century. Even in the West, the January 6 celebration of the nativity of Jesus seems to have continued until after 380. In 245, Origen of Alexandria, writing about Leviticus 12:1–8, commented that Scripture mentions only sinners as celebrating their birthdays, namely Pharaoh, who then had his chief baker hanged (Genesis 40:20–22), and Herod, who then had John the Baptist beheaded (Mark 6:21–27), and mentions saints as cursing the day of their birth, namely Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14–15) and Job (Job 3:1–16).
In 303, Arnobius ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, a passage cited as evidence that Arnobius was unaware of any nativity celebration. Since Christmas does not celebrate Christ’s birth “as God” but “as man”, this is not evidence against Christmas being a feast at this time. The fact the Donatists of North Africa celebrated Christmas may indicate that the feast was established by the time that church was created in 311.
Many popular customs associated with Christmas developed independently of the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, with certain elements having origins in pre-Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice by pagan populations who were later converted to Christianity.
These elements, including the Yule log from Yule and gift giving from Saturnalia, became syncretized into Christmas over the centuries. The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has also continually evolved since the holiday’s inception, ranging from a sometimes raucous, drunken, carnival-like state in the Middle Ages, to a tamer family-oriented and children-centered theme introduced in a 19th-century transformation. Additionally, the celebration of Christmas was banned on more than one occasion within certain Protestant groups, such as the Puritans, due to concerns that it was too pagan or unbiblical.
One theory to explain the choice of December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Jesus is that the purpose was to Christianize the pagan festival in Rome of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, meaning “the birthday of the Unconquered Sun”, a festival inaugurated by the Roman emperor Aurelian (270–275) to celebrate the sun god and celebrated at the winter solstice, December 25.
According to this theory, during the reign of the emperor Constantine, Christian writers assimilated this feast as the birthday of Jesus, associating him with the “sun of righteousness” mentioned in Malachi 4:2 (Sol Iustitiae).
An explicit expression of this theory appears in an annotation of uncertain date added to a manuscript of a work by 12th-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi. The scribe who added it wrote: “It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day. This idea became popular especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Up to the 1950s, in the UK, many Christmas customs were restricted to the upper classes and better-off families. The mass of the population had not adopted many of the Christmas rituals that later became general. The Christmas tree was rare. Christmas dinner might be beef — certainly not turkey. In their stockings children might get an apple, orange and sweets. Full celebration of a family Christmas with all the trimmings only became widespread with increased prosperity from the 1950s. National papers were published on Christmas Day until 1912. Post was still delivered on Christmas Day until 1961. League football matches continued in Scotland until the 1970s while in England they ceased at the end of the 1950s.
Under the state atheism of the Soviet Union, after its foundation in 1917, Christmas celebrations—along with other Christian holidays—were prohibited. The League of Militant Atheists encouraged school pupils to campaign against Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, as well as other Christian holidays, including Easter; the League established an antireligious holiday to be the 31st of each month as a replacement. Furthermore, on Christmas Day, children in Moscow were encouraged to spit on crucifixes as protest against this holiday. It was not until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the persecution ended and Orthodox Christmas was celebrated for the first time in Russia after seven decades.
Christmas is basically an amalgamation of the different pagan, and other rituals, celebrated before Jesus Christ, and probably some that came afterwards.
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