Black and white image of houses and snow
Snow falls

When fall starts to go away, giving way to winter and snow starts to cover the ground, you know Christmas is just around the corner. Decorated Christmas trees begin to appear everywhere you look, presents begin to come in, and the family members begin to go to their homes to have a turkey feast.

While all of these are exciting and enjoyable, it eludes the true meaning of Christmas. What is Christmas? Is it the festival of annual economic boost? Is it the festival of giving gifts? Or is it a season for singing carols? We have tried to find the answers to this profound question in this article. Keep on reading to understand the festival of Christmas better.

What is Christmas?

Jesus and the three wise men, window glass stain image
Jesus and the three wise men

Christmas is an annual festival that celebrates and commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. On 25th December every year, Billions of people across the world celebrate this cultural and religious festival. In many countries, Christmas day is a public holiday. While the majority of Christians celebrate this occasion religiously, thousands of non-Christian people also celebrate this occasion culturally. For that reason, over the years a holiday season has been formed around Christmas day.

The Nativity of Jesus, the traditional Christmas narrative, depicted in the New Testament, indicates that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem following the messianic prophecies. When Mary and Joseph arrived in the city of Bethlehem, none of the inns of the city had any rooms. So, they stayed in a stable where the baby Jesus was born. The angels proclaimed the news of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, who further spread the word in different parts.

While the exact month and date of birth of Jesus are unknown, in the early decades of the fourth century, the church fixed 25th December as the birth date of Jesus. This date corresponds with the winter solstice date on the Roman calendar. However, most people celebrate the 25th December following the Georgian calendar that is adopted across the world.

Saying that, some of the eastern Christian churches celebrate Christmas on the 25th December of Julian Calendar, which corresponds to 7th January in the Georgian calendar. All in all, the belief that God came to the world in the form of a man to atone for the sins committed by humanity is the primary driving force of the Christmas celebrations of the Christians.

Over time, the celebratory customs of Christmas changed significantly. The popular celebration customs include giving gifts, advent wreath, Christmas carolling and music, exchanging Christmas cards, watching a Nativity play, displaying different decorations and having special meals.

Along with all these, several interchangeable figures, like Father Christmas, Santa Clause, Saint Nicolas, and Christkind are associated with bringing gifts to the children on Christmas day. These characters have their bodies of lore and traditions.

As gift-giving and other factors involve economic transactions, this season has been marked as one of the boosting business periods for the businesses and retailers. Over the past few centuries, the economic impact of Christmas has significantly grown in many countries across the world.

Etymology

The term Christmas is a short form of Christ’s mass. In 1038, the word Crīstesmæsse was first recorded. In 1131, yet another word Cristes-maesse was recorded. The term ‘Crist’ has been found from the Greek word Khristos, a translation of a Hebrew word Messiah, which means anointed.

Another word Christenmas was also found historically. However, this word is considered as dialectical and archaic. This term had been derived from the Middle English Cristenmasse, which means the Christian Mass. The abbreviation Xmas is the creation of the print medium. This abbreviation mostly relies on the initial letter Chi (X) in the Greek word Khristos.

Other names

The name of the holiday has witnessed significant changes throughout its history. The Anglo-Saxons referred to this event as the mid-winter. In Old English, the world Geola (Yule) was connected to the period spanned from December to January, which was eventually equated with the Christmas of the Christians.

The term ‘Noel’ entered English in the 14th century. This term came from the old French term noël or naël, which was again derived from the Latin word ‘nātālis’, that means birthday.

Nativity

The birth story of Jesus can be found in different gospels. The gospels of Matthew and Luke describe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary. These gospels explain that Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census. During that time, Jesus was born. It was the angels that proclaimed him as the saviour of humankind, and it was the shepherds who broadcasted the news.

Matthew again adds that the Magi came to Bethlehem bearing gifts for baby Jesus by following a star. It also says that King Herod ordered a massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem aged less than two years of age. However, the family was able to flee to Egypt and returned to Nazareth later.

History

The sequence of the nativity in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke encouraged the early Christian writers to suggest different birth dates for the baby Jesus. While these Gospels do not explain any dates, the first Christian writers connected the event with the help of the phrases as the sun of righteousness.

On 25th December, the Romans marked the winter solstice, and in 336 the first recorded Christmas celebration took place in Rome.

In the 3rd century, the date of the nativity was an excellent subject for discussion. Around 200 AD, the Clement of Alexandria wrote that there are people who have determined the birth year as well as the birth date of Jesus Christ.

They indicated that the birthday was on the 28th Year of Augustus and on the 25th day of the Pachon (Egyptian month) (20th May). Further, others said that Jesus was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmthi (April 20th or 21st).

The date of winter solstice played a significant role in deciding the birth date of Jesus. As the 25th December on the Roman calendar is the date of the winter solstice, it was easy to choose that day for the celebration. Another positive thing about this date was that it was exactly nine months away from 25th March, the date of the summer solstice. It is said that this is the date of the conception of Jesus.

Christmas also played a significant role in the Arian Controversy which took place in the 4th century. After this controversy was over, the popularity of the Christmas celebration took a back seat for a couple of centuries. The feast again came to the forefront after the 800s, when Charlemagne was crowned on the Christmas day.

The popularity of this celebration again took a hit during the Protestants reformation. During this time, the Puritans banned Christmas celebration in England. They associated the festival with different misbehaviour and drunkenness.

In 1660, the holiday was again restored in England. However, the celebration of Christmas was still considered as a scandalous affair by most people. It is the personalities, like Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, etc. who reconceived the Christmas celebration in the early 19th century. They emphasized it as a holiday highlighting, the family, kindheartedness, children, gift-giving and Santa Claus.

The Beginning Of The festival

The festival of Christmas could not make any space in the lists of festivals provided by the early Christian authors, like the Tertullian and Irenaeus. Arnobius and Origen both accused the pagan ritual of celebrating the birthdays. It merely suggests that Christmas was not celebrated during their times. The chronography of 354 different records showed that the first Christmas celebration took place in Rome in 336 AD.

The birth of Jesus was celebrated in the East with the Epiphany on 6th January. During this time, the celebration did not focus on the nativity. It concentrated on the baptism of Jesus. In the East, Christmas was promoted to revive the Orthodox Christianity.

It followed the death of the Pro-Arian Emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD. The introductory feast was held in Constantinople in 379 AD. Dinner was also held on Anicon by John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century. Most probably the year was 288 AD. A feast was also held in Alexandria in the next century.

Solstice Date

As we have already stated earlier, 25th December was the date of Winter Solstice on the Roman Calendar. A fourth-century sermon of saint Augustine explained that Jesus was born on the day, which was the shortest and from which the length of the subsequent days started to increase.

Saint Augustine window glass stain image
Saint Augustine

Linking the birth of Jesus to the sun was supported by different other Biblical passages as well. According to the Prophesies of Malachi, Jesus was considered as the sun of righteousness.

An anonymous piece of work, known as the De Pascha Computus (243), depicted the idea that the creation started in the spring Equinox, which was on 25th March of the Romanian Calendar. It also linked the conception or the birth of Jesus Christ through the word ‘Nascor’, which depicted both meanings. One of the translations indicated that on the very day the sun was created, 28th March, a Wednesday, Christ should be born.

Issac Newton argued that the Christmas day was chosen on 25th December to match with the timing of the solstice in the 17th century. Steven Hijmans of the University of Alberta also keeps somewhat the same view about the event. According to him, the whole affair is a cosmic symbolism. He believed that it is the symbolism that inspired the church leadership to elect the date of the Southern solstice as the birthday of Christ. The Northern Solstice, on the other hand, was selected as the date of the conception.

Calculation Hypothesis

According to the calculation hypotheses, the earlier holidays that were held on 25th March were associated with the incarnation. This feast is referred to by modern scholars as to the Quartodecimal. Christmas was then calculated nine months later. It was the French writer Louise Duchesne, who propagated the calculation theory for the first time in 1889.

The early Christians celebrated the life of Jesus on a day that was equivalent to 14 Nisan (Passover) on the local calendar. As the Passover was celebrated on the 14th of a month, this feast was described as the Quartodecimal. Almost all the major events of the life of Jesus Christ, especially the passion, used to be celebrated on this date. In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentioned the matter of Passover, which was being celebrated according to the local calendar of Corinth.

According to Tertullian (d. 220) who used to live in the Latin speaking area of North America, the date of passion celebration was 25th March. Later the date of passion celebration was moved onto Good Friday after the Easter day was created.

Pope Soter reassigned the resurrection of Jesus to a Sunday to create Easter day. The calculation hypothesis indicates that the celebration of the Quartodecimal keeps continuing in some parts, and the feast became associated with the incarnation.

Academically, the calculation hypothesis is considered as a thoroughly viable hypothesis. However, it still does not provide any certainty.

History of Religions Hypothesis

The history of religions hypothesis, on the other hand, indicates that the church Selected 25th December to match the Roman festivities that were held in honour of Sol Invictus, the Sun God. This cult was created by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 274 AD.

Jacob Bar Salibi, who was a 12th century Syrian Bishop, wrote that the Pagans used to observe the 25th Match as the birthday of the Sun God. On that day, they ignited lights as a festivity token. The Christians also used to take part on these occasions. When the church perceived this leaning of the Christians towards this celebration, they resolved that the real nativity should be solemnized on that same day.

In 1743, Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, said that the emperor Aurelian instituted the holiday of the Sun God on 25th December December in 274 Ad. It is argued that the emperor did so to give the critical date of the Christians of the Roman empire a pagan significance.

Hermann Usener and others said that the reason for which the Christians chose this date was because of the Roman feast in celebration of the birthday of the Sun God. S.E. Hijmans, one of the modern scholars, however, opposed this view and said that while the Christians know that the pagans celebrate the birthday of the Sun God, it did not affect their choice of the date of Christmas. Contrarily, Thomas J. Talley said that the Roman Emperor Aurelian started celebrating the festival of the birthday of the Sun God on the same date to Christmas to undermine the growing trend of Christianity.

In the modern days, Annunciation is celebrated on 25th March. This holiday was created during the 7th century. The celebration was assigned to a day nine months before Christmas. Creation of this celebration was different from the Quartodecimal system, which was long forgotten by this time.

Post-Classical History

During the early middle age, the Christian holidays used to dominate the calendars. The forty days before Christmas became the forty days of St.Martin, also known as the advent. Former Saturnalian traditions were added to the advent in Italy. In the 12th century, these traditions changed their position again, and twelve days of Christmas became one of the most celebrated affairs.

The prominence of the Christmas day became more prominent once Charlemagne became the emperor on the same day. King Edmund the Martyr was blessed on the Christmas day in 855. King William I of England was also crowned on the Christmas day in 1066.

In the high middle age, the holiday became so prominent that the chronicles started noting where different high-class people celebrate Christmas. The Yule boar became a common feature of the Christmas feasts. Carolling also became very popular. It was first performed by a team of dancers who sang the carols while performing.

However, many writers of that time demeaned carolling labelling it as lewd. The writings indicate that the writers thought the unruly traditions of the Yule and Saturnalia have continued in this form. Gambling, promiscuity and gambling were common during Christmas. Gifts were exchanged on the New Year’s day, and a special Christmas ale was consumed. The gift-giving, however, was conducted between people with legal relations.

During the 16-17th century, the Protestants of Europe when many Protestants changed the gift-giving ceremony to the Christ Child or Christkindl. It shifted the date of exchanging gifts to Christmas Eve.

Modern History

The puritans prohibited the Christmas celebration in 1647 England due to drunkenness and other misbehaviour. Vehement protests started as the pro-Christmas riots broke out in different cities. For weeks, the rioters controlled Canterbury and decorated the doorways with holly and shouted the royalist slogans.

The restoration of the position of King Charles II reinstated the ban on the celebration. While the holiday was restored in 1660, celebrating Christmas was still considered as a disreputable affair by many Calvinist clergymen.

King Charles II
King Charles II

In Scotland, the Presbyterian Church dissuade people from celebrating Christmas. The parliament of Scotland officially abolished Christmas celebration in 1640. Christmas again became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958.

While the Pilgrims of New England in colonial America shared extreme disapproval of Christmas, the residents of Virginia and New York celebrated the festival freely. In the United States, Christmas celebrations fell out of fashion after the American Revolution. During the battle of Trenton, George Washington attacked the German mercenaries on the day after Christmas.

In France, the Atheistic Cult of Reason became famous during this period. In the era of the French Revolution, the religious service of Christmas was banned, and after that, the three kings cake got a new name – the equality cake.

19th century

Charles Dicken sitting at his writing desk
Charles Dicken

In 1834, Christmas became a bank holiday in the UK. In 1871, Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, was added. In 1843, Charles Dicken wrote the novel a Christmas carol, which helped to bring the seasonal merriment and the spirit of Christmas back on track. The instant popularity of the book helped to portray the love, family, goodwill and compassion of the Christmas celebration.

Dickens impacted many aspects of the celebration, which formed a new type of Christmas that we celebrate today. Attending family gatherings, dancing, drinking, eating seasonal dishes, and the festive generosity of spirit; everything was emphasized in the novels of Dickens. The phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ was popularized from Dickens’s book. This, along with the Oxford movement and the growth of the Anglo-Catholicism, impacted the religious observances and traditional rituals associated with Christmas.

In 1843, Henry Cole produced the first commercial Christmas card. The Christmas tree was introduced in Britain in the early 19th century. In 1832, the future Queen Victoria wrote about her pleasure of having a Christmas tree decorated with the ornaments and lights and presents placed around it. After her marriage to Prince Albert in 1941, this custom became more widespread in England.

In America, the Christmas spirit was revived by several short stories of Washington Irvin. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem a visit from St. Nicolas. The poem popularised the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping started to get economic importance.

20th century

A decorated Christmas tree
Decorated Christmas tree

Until the 1950s, the celebration of Christmas was restricted to the upper-class and the better-off sections of the society. The Christmas tree was rare, and the mass did not adopt the rituals associated with celebrating Christmas. Since the 1950s, the prosperity of general people has increased. Along with enhanced wealth, Christmas celebration among the ordinary people became normal.

Exchanging cards, decorating their homes, singing carols, and giving gifts started to become standard. As Christmas celebrations began to take place across the world outside of the traditional Christian cultures, some Muslim -majority countries banned Christmas claiming that it undermines Islam.

Even though Christmas has been subject to attack at different times in history, it still withstood the changes through centuries. In the 21st century, while many people celebrate Christmas while following religious rituals, most people across the world celebrate the day as a time for merriment and family gathering.

A couple Christmas shopping
Christmas shopping

Christmas is also a peak selling season for retailers across the world. As people purchase gifts for their family and friends, the sales of goods increase dramatically. Christmas day, however, is one of the least active days of the year for the industries and businesses. Almost all the retail, commercial and institutional businesses remain closed whether the law of the land demands it or not. In short, the people of today have chosen Christmas as the time to become happy, no matter what.

Merry Christmas all