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Christmas
I

INTRODUCTION

Christmas, annual Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. Most members of the Roman Catholic Church and followers of Protestantism celebrate Christmas on December 25, and many celebrate on the evening of December 24 as well. Members of most Orthodox Churches around the world also celebrate the holiday on December 25. Some Orthodox Christians in Russia, Ukraine, the Holy Land (the historic region of Palestine), and elsewhere celebrate Christmas on January 7 because they follow the Julian calendar. Members of the Armenian Church observe Christmas on January 6, following the unique custom of celebrating both the birth and baptism of Christ on the same day.

The official Christmas season, popularly known as either Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas, extends from the anniversary of Christ’s birth on December 25 to the feast of Epiphany on January 6. On the Epiphany, some Catholics and Protestants celebrate the visit of the Magi while Orthodox Christians, who call the feast Theophany, celebrate the baptism of Christ.

The most important holiday on the Christian calendar is Easter, which commemorates the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. Nevertheless, many people, particularly in the United States and Canada, consider Christmas to be the most significant annual Christian event. In addition to being a religious holiday, Christmas is a widely observed secular festival. For most people who celebrate Christmas, the holiday season is characterized by gatherings among family and friends, feasting, and gift giving.

Christmas is based on the story of Jesus’ birth as described in the Gospel according to Matthew (see Matthew 1:18-2:12) and the Gospel according to Luke (see Luke 1:26-56). Roman Catholics first celebrated Christmas, then known as the Feast of the Nativity, as early as 336 ad. The word Christmas entered the English language sometime around 1050 as the Old English phrase Christes maesse, meaning “festival of Christ.” Scholars believe the frequently used shortened form of Christmas—Xmas—may have come into use in the 13th century. The X stands for the Greek letter chi, an abbreviation of Khristos (Christ), and also represents the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

II

ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS

Historians are unsure exactly when Christians first began celebrating the Nativity of Christ. However, most scholars believe that Christmas originated in the 4th century as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Before the introduction of Christmas, each year beginning on December 17 Romans honored Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture, in a festival called Saturnalia. This festival lasted for seven days and included the winter solstice, which usually occurred around December 25 on the ancient Julian calendar. During Saturnalia the Romans feasted, postponed all business and warfare, exchanged gifts, and temporarily freed their slaves. Many Romans also celebrated the lengthening of daylight following the winter solstice by participating in rituals to glorify Mithra, the ancient Persian god of light (see Mithraism). These and other winter festivities continued through January 1, the festival of Kalends, when Romans marked the day of the new moon and the first day of the month and year.

Although the Gospels describe Jesus’ birth in detail, they never mention the date, so historians do not know on what date he was born. The Roman Catholic Church chose December 25 as the day for the Feast of the Nativity in order to give Christian meaning to existing pagan rituals. For example, the Church replaced festivities honoring the birth of Mithra, the god of light, with festivities to commemorate the birth of Jesus, whom the Bible calls the light of the world. The Catholic Church hoped to draw pagans into its religion by allowing them to continue their revelry while simultaneously honoring the birthday of Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church took a slightly different course. By the end of the 4th century the Eastern Church in Constantinople had also begun to acknowledge December 25 as Jesus’ birthday, but it emphasized the celebration of Christ’s baptism on January 6 as the more important holiday.

Over the next 1000 years, the observance of Christmas followed the expansion of Christianity into the rest of Europe and into Egypt. Along the way, Christian beliefs combined with existing pagan feasts and winter rituals to create many long-standing traditions of Christmas celebrations. For example, ancient Europeans believed that the mistletoe plant held magic powers to bestow life and fertility, to bring about peace, and to protect against disease. Northern Europeans associated the plant with the Norse goddess of love, Freya, and developed the custom of kissing underneath mistletoe branches. Christians incorporated this custom into their Christmas celebrations, and kissing under a mistletoe branch eventually became a part of secular Christmas tradition.

During the Reformation of the 16th century, Protestants challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, including its toleration of surviving pagan traditions during Christmas festivities. For a brief time during the 17th century, Puritans banned Christmas in England and in some English colonies in North America because they felt it had become a season best known for gambling, flamboyant public behavior, and overindulgence in food and drink.

Europeans who settled in North America often found they had to change their Christmas celebrations because they could not faithfully recreate the traditions of their homelands. For example, colonists in the American South may have aspired to recreate a sense of the English Christmas. But colonial accounts of Christmas celebrations in the South do not mention the presence of mummers (masked or costumed merrymakers) or waits (musicians or carolers paid to perform at Christmastime), both of which were central figures of the traditional English Christmas. Nor do historical accounts describe settlers engaging in such traditional English customs as feasting on boars’ heads or drinking from wassail bowls (bowls filled with spiced ale or wine).

Colonists from England, France, Holland, Spain, and other countries also gradually modified their Christmas ceremonies as they encountered new cultures and traditions in the New World. For example, in large towns, where diverse groups lived close together, the common ground for celebration could often be found in public and secular festivities rather than in potentially divisive religious ceremonies. Thus, at least in New York City, the winter’s holidays often culminated on New Year’s, not Christmas.

III

RISE OF THE MODERN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS

In the United States and Canada, many elements of modern Christmas celebrations did not emerge until the 19th century. Before then Christmas had been an ordinary workday in many communities, particularly in New England, where early Puritan objections to Christmas celebrations remained highly influential. Among some groups, Christmas was an especially boisterous event, characterized by huge feasts, drunkenness, and raucous public revelry. In an English tradition that survived in some parts of North America, Christmas revelers would dress in costume and progress from door to door to receive gifts of food and drink. Most holiday gifts were limited to small amounts of money and modest presents passed from the wealthy to the poor and from masters to their servants. Families almost never exchanged Christmas gifts among themselves.

The rapidly expanding industrial economy of the 19th century not only flooded the market with new goods for sale, but also helped establish a new middle class, one that placed special value on home and family life. Christmas gained increased prominence largely because many people believed it could draw families together and honor children. Giving gifts to children and loved ones eventually replaced the raucous public celebrations of the past, and Christmas became primarily a domestic holiday.

The new custom of Christmas gift giving allowed the marketplace to exert an unprecedented influence on holiday celebrations. Commercial innovations such as department stores and mass advertising further expanded the custom of exchanging Christmas gifts. Seasonal retail sales helped fuel the economy, causing merchants and advertisers to become some of the season’s most ardent promoters. Many holiday celebrants regretted these changes, however, and began voicing the now common lament that Christmas had become too commercial.

Christmas also gained new importance among urban residents. Cities became crowded with immigrants, who introduced a wide variety of religious and cultural practices to North American life. Celebrating Christmas emerged as a way for people from different parts of the world to create a sense of community in the city. The holiday forged a broad, nondenominational sense of Christian spirit while promoting an idealized sense of communal good will.

A

Santa Claus

As Christmas evolved in the United States, new customs were adopted and many old ones were reworked. The legend of Santa Claus, for example, had origins in Europe and was brought by Dutch settlers to New York in the early 18th century. Traditionally, Santa Claus—from the Dutch Sinter Klaas—was depicted as a tall, dignified, religious figure riding a white horse through the air. Known as Saint Nicholas in Germany, he was usually accompanied by Black Peter, an elf who punished disobedient children. In North America he eventually developed into a fat, jolly old gentleman who had neither the religious attributes of Saint Nicholas nor the strict disciplinarian character of Black Peter.

Santa’s transformation began in 1823, when a New York newspaper published the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which Clement Clark Moore had written to amuse his daughter. The poem introduced many Americans to the story of a kindly saint who flew over housetops in a reindeer–drawn sleigh. Portraits and drawings of Santa Claus by American illustrator Thomas Nast further strengthened the legend during the second half of the 19th century. Living at the North Pole and assisted by elves, the modern Santa produced and delivered toys to all good children. By the late 19th century he had become such a prominent figure of American folklore that in 1897, when Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun newspaper asking if Santa were real, she received a direct answer: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

B

The Christmas Tree

While Santa Claus became increasingly familiar to Americans, the German Christmas tree also acquired popularity in North America. As early as the 17th century, Germans had transformed this pagan symbol of fertility into a Christian symbol of rebirth. According to legend, the Christmas tree tradition began with the founder of German Protestantism, Martin Luther. While walking through the forest on Christmas Eve, Luther was so moved by the beauty of the starlit fir trees that he brought one indoors and decorated it with candles to remind his children of God’s creation. In 1841 Prince Albert of Germany gave his wife, Queen Victoria of England, a gift of a Christmas tree. This was reputedly the first Christmas tree in England, but the custom spread quickly. German immigrants took the Christmas tree to other parts of Europe and to the United States and Canada, where it soon became a popular tradition. Blown-glass ornaments, tin angels, paper chains, candles, cornucopias filled with sugarplums, and other decorations made the simple evergreen tree into a beautiful parlor centerpiece at Christmastime.

C

Christmas Cards

The practice of exchanging Christmas cards also became a widespread custom in the 19th century. Europeans had distributed wood prints of religious themes for Christmas during the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century). In 1843 English illustrator John Callcott Horsley created the first modern Christmas card. The card depicted a family celebration and its caption read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” In the United States, German-born printer Louis Prang made advances in color lithography that enabled him to mass-produce a colorful Christmas card in 1875. The card sold extremely well, and soon the custom of exchanging Christmas cards spread throughout the country.

IV

IN THE UNITED STATES TODAY

The inhabitants of the United States have emigrated from all over the world. As a result, many traditions have mingled to form modern American Christmas celebrations and folklore. Some Swedish American communities hold Santa Lucia festivals to honor a young girl who was killed in the 4th century for her Christian beliefs. German Americans in Pennsylvania create elaborate landscapes, called putzes, beneath their Christmas trees. These displays—made of moss, pine branches, stones, and logs—depict the birth of Christ. Christmas Eve bonfires illuminate the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana so that Papa Noël (French for “Father Christmas”) will be able to find his way to the homes of the local Cajun children. In the southwestern United States, Mexican Americans hold festivals called posadas that recreate Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay where Mary could give birth to Jesus (see Virgin Mary and Joseph). In addition to these Christian celebrations, the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah and the seven-day African American festival of Kwanzaa are increasingly popular celebrations that coincide with the Christmas season.

Despite this variety of people and faiths, there is a striking unity to Christmas celebrations in the United States. For many people, the holiday season begins with the arrival of Santa Claus in the annual Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City sponsored by Macy’s department store. Television advertisements heralding the beginning of the Christmas shopping season can begin even earlier in autumn. Many Americans participate in a communal sense of holiday spirit: Cities decorate their streets with Christmas lights; stores fill their shelves with extra merchandise; friends and relatives exchange holiday cards; communities decorate public Christmas trees; and volunteers from the Salvation Army ring bells on city streets to solicit charity donations.

Most people who celebrate Christmas also participate in special holiday rituals in their homes. Families often decorate evergreen trees and place colorfully wrapped presents beneath them. A family member might give a reading of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” or read passages from the Bible. Or families might gather around the television to watch old movie favorites such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947), or holiday cartoons such as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Each year as Christmas approaches, many families attend church pageants that recount the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve, children often hang stockings; they awake in the morning to find the stockings filled with gifts from Santa Claus. Many families attend church on Christmas Eve and open their gifts that evening. Others wait until the next morning to exchange gifts.

V

IN CANADA TODAY

Canada, like the United States, combines sacred and secular customs brought from many parts of the world. Canadians with an English Protestant heritage are likely to enjoy a feast of turkey and plum pudding and focus their holiday celebrations on December 25. The French Catholic population generally attends midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, then holds a Christmas feast known as a réveillon. Many Dutch Canadians begin their Christmas on December 6, when children leave their shoes filled with grain for Santa’s horse, Sleipner. Ukrainian Canadians in the western part of the country celebrate the season much as their ancestors in the Eastern Orthodox church did, by feasting on a 12–course dinner and distributing gifts on January 6.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, an old English custom called mummering has shown signs of being revived. Mummering takes place sometime during the 12 days of Christmas, usually on the night of January 5, the eve of Epiphany which is usually referred to as the Old Twelfth, or Twelfth Night. Adults practice the custom by disguising themselves with masks or by dressing in the clothing of the opposite sex. They visit the homes of friends and neighbors, where they perform a short song or dance while trying not to be identified. In return for their performance, they receive small cakes and wine or perhaps a glass of eggnog, which is a blend of eggs, cream, sugar, and alcohol.

Despite these varied customs, Canadians share the traditions of most modern Christmas celebrations around the world. The holiday helps create a sense of unity among Canadians as they decorate Christmas trees, attend church, shop for and exchange gifts, and join in Christmas feasts.

VI

RELIGIOUS PRACTICE AND POPULAR CUSTOMS

The Bible provides no guidelines that explain how Christmas should be observed, nor does it even suggest that it should be considered a religious holiday. Because of the lack of biblical instructions, Christmas rituals have been shaped by the religious and popular traditions of each culture that celebrates the holiday. Traditionally, the sacred Christmas season starts with Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and continues to Christmas Day. The sacred season ends on Epiphany, January 6. During Advent, Christians make preparations for the commemoration of Jesus’ birth on December 25, and also look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. Each of the four weeks symbolizes a different way in which believers perceive Christ: through the flesh, the Holy Spirit, death, and Christ’s judgment of the dead. The Advent wreath, which consists of four candles anchored in a circle of evergreen branches, originated with German Lutherans; the tradition has been adopted by many churches and families. At the beginning of each of the four weeks preceding Christmas, Christians light an Advent candle as they say a prayer.

On Christmas Eve, churches around the world hold evening services. At midnight, most Catholic and many Protestant churches hold special candlelight services. The Catholic midnight Mass was first introduced by the Roman Catholic Church in the 5th century. Christmas Masses are sometimes solemn and sometimes buoyant, depending on the particular culture that conducts them. Among some congregations, worshipers enter the church in communal processions. Church services often feature candlelight and organ music. Some also include a dramatization of the biblical story of Jesus’ birth, a practice begun by Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century.

Christmas observances have also assimilated remnants of ancient midwinter rituals that celebrate the returning light of the sun following the winter solstice. For example, many cultures continue the pre-Christian custom of burning Yule logs during the midwinter season; the Yule log symbolizes the victory of light over the darkness of winter. The tradition of lighting the Yule log is still observed, especially by Europeans. Families light the log on Christmas Eve and keep it burning until Epiphany. Some families save the remains of the Yule log to help kindle the fire the following year. According to ancient tradition, the ashes provide protection against bad luck during the year.

Christians traditionally exchange gifts as a reminder of God’s gift of a savior to humankind. Gift giving also recalls an ancient Roman custom of exchanging gifts to bring good fortune for the new year. In most cultures that celebrate Christmas, a mythical figure delivers gifts to children. Many of these legendary gift givers bear a passing resemblance to pre-Christian elves and pranksters, who would distribute gifts while also making mischief in the community. As cultures adapted to Christianity, however, the gift givers often required that children behave well in order to receive their treats. This good behavior usually entailed obedience to parents and recitation of verses from the Bible. If the children misbehaved, they might receive a lump of coal or a switch rather than sweets and toys. Since the 19th century, Santa Claus and other mythical gift givers have become increasingly gentle, generous, and forgiving.

VII

CHRISTMAS AROUND THE WORLD

Christmas customs around the world reflect the variety of cultures that celebrate the holiday. For some people, Christmas is primarily a holy day marked by religious services. For others, gift giving, feasting, and good times figure more prominently. At its root, Christmas celebrates one of the fundamental events of Christianity, the birth of Jesus. However, the celebration of Christmas also incorporates many secular customs that have been handed down through families and borrowed from other cultures. This complex layering of sacred and secular observances creates celebrations that vary from nation to nation, and from culture to culture.

A

Among Eastern Orthodox Christians

In Greece and Russia, countries where the Orthodox Church is strongest, Christmas is not as prominent a holiday as it is in the West. Epiphany holds more significance for members of the Orthodox Church, while New Year’s Day is the more popular secular festival in these countries.

A1

In Greece

The Greek Christmas, or Christougenna, pays homage to the Nativity of Christ while also incorporating popular folklore and superstitions. On Christmas Eve, Greek children go from house to house knocking on doors and singing Greek songs that herald the arrival of the Christ child. The family celebration focuses on a Christmas Eve dinner, which, in the Greek Orthodox tradition, follows several weeks of fasting. According to legend, mischievous, often hideous–looking elves called Kallikantzaroi wreak havoc in houses for the next 12 days. Burning incense or leaving a peace offering may offer some protection against the elves. Most families decorate a small wooden cross with basil and dip it into a shallow bowl of water. This is believed to give the water holy powers. The water is then sprinkled throughout the house to keep the mischievous spirits away. In the Greek Orthodox Church, the water bowl and cross are also part of an important Epiphany rite known as the Blessing of the Waters (see Holy Water).

A2

In Russia

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, authorities of the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) prohibited the practice of all religions. Millions of Russian Orthodox Christians could no longer openly celebrate Christmas or Epiphany. After the USSR dissolved in 1991, however, the Russian Orthodox Church revived Christmas rituals. Like the Greeks, some Russians fast during a period before Christmas. Then, at the sight of the first star in the sky on Christmas Eve, a 12-course supper begins, with one course for each of Jesus’ 12 disciples. The meal includes borscht, or beet soup; stuffed cabbage; and kutiya, a dish of kasha (whole-wheat grains) soaked in water for hours and seasoned with honey, nuts, and crushed poppy seeds.

Despite the widespread influence of Western culture in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, the American custom of holiday shopping has not spread among Russians. In fact, December 25th holds little religious or secular significance for most Russians. New Year’s Day remains the most festive holiday in the country. The Russian Pryaznik Zimy (Winter Festival) is celebrated during the Christmas and New Year’s season. Festivities include carnivals, sports, and special circus performances. During this festival, Russians decorate evergreen trees, which they call New Year’s trees. Like Santa Claus, Dyed Moroz (Grandfather Frost) has a white beard and appears dressed in red, with black boots. He arrives on New Year’s Day to give children toys, ginger cakes, and perhaps a traditional set of Matryoshka dolls, which open to reveal smaller dolls nested inside one another.

B

Among Roman Catholics

Among Catholic populations in Europe, Latin America, and the Philippines, Christmas celebrations have distinctive local variations. Nevertheless, Catholics in all these regions share customs that have become longstanding Catholic traditions of the Christmas season. People in many Catholic cultures celebrate the days before Christmas with elaborate public reenactments of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging before the birth of Jesus. Official Catholic observations of Christmas Day center on three Masses: at midnight, dawn, and during the day. However, the Christmas season among Catholics usually begins with special prayers and church services on or around December 16. Since 1969 the Roman Catholic Church has also observed a holiday known as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1. This holiday replaced the traditional Feast of the Circumcision, which commemorated Jesus’ circumcision. The Catholic Christmas season does not end until the Sunday after Epiphany.

B1

In Italy

During the Christmas season Italians perform music at shrines of the Virgin Mary. They also play songs at the homes of carpenters in honor of Saint Joseph, who was a carpenter. On Christmas Eve, after a day of fasting, Italians enjoy a feast of eels and a spaghetti dish with anchovies called cennone. Santa Claus is not a prominent figure in Italian folklore. Instead, Italian children wait for La Befana, a good witch who rides her broom to their homes on Epiphany to distribute gifts. According to folk belief, La Befana—whose name refers to the word Epifania (Epiphany)—was too busy to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Now, to atone for her failing, she visits all good children, leaving treats. She also visits bad children and leaves them lumps of coal or bags of ash.

B2

In France

Christmas in France is called Noël. Celebrations reach their peak on Christmas Eve, which tends to be more boisterous than solemn, especially in the cities. The festival meal is the réveillon, a midnight supper that may consist of oysters, sausages, baked ham, fowl, fruit, pastries, and wine. In the French countryside, families often burn a large Yule log and preserve the ashes to protect the home from evil during the coming year. In the cities, the Yule log custom survives as a bûche de noël, a pastry baked in the shape of a log and iced with chocolate cream that is made to look like bark. Children put their shoes in front of the fireplace on Christmas Eve for Pere Noël (Father Christmas) to fill with gifts, but the traditional day for exchanging gifts is New Year’s day. In northern France, children receive gifts on December 6, the feast day of Saint Nicholas.

B3

In Spain

Spaniards attend church at Christmas, but during the Christmas season they also participate in seasonal rituals that can be traced back to pagan times. For example, townspeople gather in village squares around an “urn of fate.” Each person writes his or her name on a piece of paper and places it in the urn. A designated person then draws the names out, two at a time. According to an old belief, those whose names are drawn together will be best friends for the coming year.

Some Spaniards also play a traditional game called Catalonia as part of their observance of Christmas. To play the game, adults fill a hollow tree trunk with candy and nuts, and children hit the tree with long sticks, trying to knock out the treats. The children of Cadiz try to “swing in the sun,” another old wintertime custom. Each child tries to swing higher than the others in order to lead the sun farther north, thereby lengthening the days. In addition to observing Christmas, children in Spain celebrate the eve of Epiphany, popularly known as Noche de Reyes (Twelfth Night). On this night they commemorate the journey of the Three Wise Men who traveled to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ child. On Noche de Reyes, children put barley in their shoes and place them outside their doors. The barley is for the wise men to feed their camels while traveling to visit Jesus. By morning, the barley has disappeared and the wise men have left candy and gifts in its place.

B4

In Central and South America

The Spanish conquerors of Latin America brought many of their Christmas traditions with them. Today, Latin American Christmas celebrations mix the strong Catholic heritage and folk culture of Spain with various indigenous customs that predate the Spanish conquest. Because most of South America lies below the equator, Christmas falls during the hottest period of the year there. In the warm December weather of most Latin American countries, people stroll the streets at Christmastime, buying candles, pictures of the Nativity, toys, drinks, and special foods. However, the streets empty as whole communities attend Midnight Mass at local churches. Children in some countries receive gifts on Christmas Eve from either Santa Claus or from a mythical figure of local folklore. In other regions, the Three Wise Men leave gifts for children on the eve of Epiphany.

In Chile, a significant number of people have German heritage, and many Chileans decorate Christmas trees in the German tradition. A traditional Christmas feast in Chile often includes a pudding of dried fruit and a drink called a rompon, which is made with milk, eggs, and alcohol. Chileans also drink a Christmas beverage called cola de mono that is made with coffee, a liqueur, milk, and eggs.

As part of their Christmas celebration, Puerto Ricans go caroling in small processions called trullas. Most people in Puerto Rico wait until the Feast of the Epiphany to exchange gifts. For Epiphany celebrations, children place straw and bowls of water under their beds for the camels of the Three Wise Men. In the morning they find that the straw and water have been replaced with gifts.

Cuba shares a Catholic heritage with the rest of Latin America, but the practice of religion has been officially banned on the island since the Communist regime led by Fidel Castro took power in 1960. In 1997 Castro allowed Cubans to celebrate Christmas in honor of the first visit to the island by Pope John Paul II.

Portuguese colonists brought Roman Catholicism to Brazil in the 16th century. Today, Papai Noel (Father Christmas) and his helpers walk the streets of Brazilian cities to wish people Feliz Natal (Merry Christmas) and give small gifts to children. Because Christmas falls during the summer, many Brazilians celebrate the holiday by having parties on the beach. Midnight Mass is especially popular among the poor, who have no money to buy gifts or to build Nativity scenes. After church, they celebrate by exploding firecrackers and ringing bells.

B5

In Mexico

Mexicans decorate their homes with flowers, evergreen boughs, and colored paper lanterns during the Christmas season. Most houses also build pesebres, replicas of the manger scene where Jesus was born. The main events of the holiday season are the posadas, which begin on December 16 and continue until Christmas Eve. Posadas are evening processions that commemorate Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. Friends and relatives accompany people dressed as Mary and Joseph; some people in the procession dress as angels. The group goes from house to house carrying candles and singing songs, while Mary and Joseph knock on doors and ask to stay. Each house refuses them entry, but eventually a household invites them in to pray at their presebra. After each posada, participants dance, sing, and eat a large meal. Children often try to break a piñata, a clay or papier-mâché figure filled with sweets and small gifts. Piñatas are usually decorated to look like a donkey, a bird, or some other kind of animal. They are suspended from a tree branch or some other high place, and blindfolded children try to break them with long sticks.

Although some Mexican children hope for a visit from Santa Claus, many wait to receive gifts on Christmas Eve from Quetzalcoatl, a Toltec and Aztec god and the legendary ruler of Mexico (see Aztec Empire). In addition, many children write letters to the Christ child, listing the gifts they hope to receive. On the night before Epiphany, they place their shoes at the foot of their beds for the Three Wise Men to fill with presents.

B6

In the Philippines

Spanish priests introduced Roman Catholicism to the Philippines in the 16th century, and today most Filipinos observe Catholic holidays, including Christmas. The Christmas season starts December 16 with a Mass called the Misa de Gallo. Each Christmas Eve, Filipinos hold the Panunuluyan pageant, in which a couple reenacts Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter. Filipinos do not decorate the inside of their homes, but they carefully cover the outside with flags, colorful flowers, and star-shaped paper lanterns called parols.

C

Among Protestants

After the Reformation in the 16th century, most Protestant churches retained Christmas celebrations, but they attempted to rid the holiday of its surviving pagan customs. During the 17th century Puritans in England and in parts of the American colonies tried to abolish Christmas altogether because they objected to the influence of pre-Christian traditions. However, Christmas eventually was revived among most Protestant communities as a largely secular celebration. Today it is probably the most widely celebrated holiday among Protestants around the world.

C1

In Scandinavia

Because the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are high in the northern hemisphere, daylight hours are extremely short during the midwinter Christmas season. Therefore, many Christmas celebrations there incorporate ancient Yule festivals that honor the first lengthening of days following the winter solstice. For example, Swedes sing carols in honor of the legendary Queen of Light, who is believed to bring hope during periods of darkness.

The holiday season in many parts of Scandinavia begins on December 13 with the celebration of Santa Lucia’s Day. According to legend, Lucia was burned at the stake because she refused to deny her Christian faith and marry a pagan. In her honor, young girls dress in white robes and red sashes, and wear crowns of greenery and glowing candles. In some communities, these girls lead processions of carolers through the streets. Scandinavians also celebrate Christmas by decorating evergreen trees and preparing such special foods as lutefisk (preserved cod); pickled herring; and krummkake, a delicate, cone-shaped cookie. Scandinavians give farm animals extra feed at Christmastime, in memory of the animals that were present when Jesus was born, and leave grain outdoors for birds. According to ancient legends, elves play mischievous tricks during the midwinter season, but they also help Santa Claus bring gifts to children. In Sweden, children hope to receive gifts from Santa Claus, known as Jultomten; in Denmark, he is Nisse; and in Norway, Julenisse. Many children simply know him as Santa Claus and believe that he lives in Greenland.

C2

In Germany

The German custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmastime has become one of the most popular images of Christmas around the world. At one time, Germany supplied the world with almost all of the decorative glass ornaments for Christmas trees. The Christmas season begins in Germany during the first week of December, when town squares become filled with stalls selling everything from toys to hot spiced wine. On the evening of December 5, children wait for a visit from Saint Nicholas, who brings them gifts. Most children also receive gifts on Christmas Eve. In some parts of Germany, Santa Claus distributes gifts, but in other regions children’s treats are delivered by Knecht Ruprecht, a mythical figure dressed in animal skins. From Christmas Eve through all of Christmas Day and the next day, stores are closed and all work stops as families exchange gifts, attend church, and wish one another Fröhliche Weihnachten (happy Christmas). On Christmas Eve, families traditionally gather around Christmas trees decorated with lights, ornaments, and Lebkuchen, which are spiced cookies cut into decorative shapes. Church services on Christmas Eve are illuminated by worshipers holding candles.

C3

In England

Religious customs of Christmas celebrations in England center on recounting the story of Christ’s birth. Most people who celebrate Christmas also participate in such secular customs as watching Christmas plays, feasting, singing, and helping the poor. Before Christmas Day, children write wish lists to Father Christmas, who is the British version of Santa Claus. They then throw these letters into the fire. Children believe that if a draft draws the letter up through the chimney, their wishes will be fulfilled. Children open their gifts on Christmas afternoon, following a meal of goose or roast beef and a dessert of plum pudding.

The day after Christmas is also a national holiday in England, known as Boxing Day or Saint Stephen’s Day (see Saint Stephen). Long ago, English gentry gave small gifts known as Christmas boxes to their servants on the day after Christmas. English custom still sets aside Boxing Day for tipping the delivery person and others who have performed personal services throughout the year. Many people in England also make charitable contributions to churches and to the needy on Boxing Day.

C4

In India

The relatively few Christians in India celebrate Christmas with festivities that bear the marks of former British rule. Many decorate Christmas trees, distribute greeting cards, and exchange gifts. Servants accept baksheesh (money tips) from their employers. In turn, the servants give a lemon to the head of the household on Christmas morning as a symbol of their esteem. During the Christmas season, Indians in the southern part of the country decorate their houses with clay lamps at night.

C5

In Australia and New Zealand

Because Australia and New Zealand are in the southern hemisphere, Christmas there falls during summertime. In the warm weather of the season, many Australians and New Zealanders celebrate Christmas with picnics on the beach. British colonizers introduced traditional European holiday customs in the late 18th century, but these customs have since been modified to accommodate local conditions. For example, in addition to making decorations with evergreen boughs and Christmas trees, Australians and New Zealanders adorn their homes with flowers and other summer plants. Australians gather at large festivals to sing Christmas carols by candlelight. Some carols feature imagery of the Australian Christmas bush, a local plant that flowers at Christmastime.

D

Among Africans

Because Christianity is not native to cultures in Africa, the celebration of Christmas is not widespread there. European missionaries introduced Christianity to the continent, so the Christmas celebrations that occur among Africans resemble Western holiday traditions. However, Africans generally embellish European celebrations with their own local customs. For example, in Ghana children travel in groups from house to house, chanting and singing songs that use imagery from local folklore. If a member of a household rewards them with a gift, the children sing a song of thanks. In Ghana and other former English colonies of Africa, children hang their stockings for Father Christmas and carolers make rounds in the community on Boxing Day.

European traditions have similarly influenced regional holiday customs in areas once colonized by various countries of Europe. For example, in the former French colony of the Republic of the Congo, Catholics dramatize Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging, much as Catholic communities do elsewhere in the world. In Ethiopia, Orthodox Christians observe the Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7. They call this celebration Lidet or Genna, and attend a church service lasting throughout the night.

E

Among Asians

European missionaries also introduced Christianity to the countries of Asia, but relatively small numbers of Asians observe such Christian traditions as Christmas celebrations. Beginning in the early 20th century, increased interest in Western culture has led many Asians to celebrate the holiday, particularly in Japan. However, most Asians who observe Christmas celebrate it primarily as a secular festival. In many countries, businesses welcome the commercial activity generated by Christmas gift giving, and traditional Western decorations transform stores during the holiday season.

E1

In Japan

Although Portuguese missionaries brought Christianity to Japan in 1549, popular Christmas customs were not introduced to the country until the middle of the 19th century. At first, only the wealthier citizens of larger cities observed Christmas. By the 1920s, however, the holiday had become an annual festival even in rural areas and among the lower classes. Textbooks for English-language classes—a compulsory subject in Japanese middle schools—often featured an essay on Christmas and suggested that holiday gift giving expressed the Western idea of democracy.

Today Christmas is celebrated throughout Japan. About half of Japanese households hold a family Christmas celebration, even though it is not a legal holiday. Family feasts include a decorated cake and other holiday treats. Children wait for Santa Claus, or Santa Kurōsu ojiisan, to leave gifts next to their pillows. Usually, though, Christmas acts as a prelude to the more important New Year’s festival.

E2

In China

Although Christianity is not officially sanctioned by the Chinese government, a curiosity about the West and a growing commercial sector in China have led to an increase of Christmas celebrations in the country. Men dressed as Santa Claus appear in stores to hand out candy, and waiters in restaurants wear Santa hats. The relatively small number of Chinese Christians celebrate the holiday by building artificial trees—called trees of light—and decorating them with paper chains, flowers, lanterns, and other ornaments. Children hang muslin stockings in hopes that the mythical figure Dun Che Lao Ren will fill them with presents.

F

In Bethlehem

In December, thousands of Christians from all over the world gather in Bethlehem, the town of Jesus’ birth, to witness annual rituals at the Church of the Nativity. On Christmas Eve, a horseman bearing a large cross leads a procession of church members and dignitaries into the church. They continue down steep stairs and enter the Grotto of the Nativity, a long, narrow underground cavern. Carrying an ancient image of the baby Jesus, which they wrap in swaddling clothes, they place the figure in a manger at what is believed to be the actual birthplace of Christ.

Contributed By:
Penne Restad
Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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