Although many believe that Christmas is the Christian feast par excellence, Christmas is in fact second to Easter in its importance. Christmas is the joyful commemoration of the birth of Jesus, which, according to the traditions preserved in the Gospels (cf. Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2) occurred in Bethlehem. In much of the Christian world, Christmas is celebrated on December 25. The Orthodox Church in the Holy Land also celebrates Christmas on December 25 but according to the Julian calendar (and thus Christmas falls on January 7 due to the thirteen days that separate the Julian from the Gregorian calendars). In fact, no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. The date of December 25 was fixed in the fourth century, at the time that the Roman Empire was being Christianized. The date chosen represents the transformation of a pagan feast that celebrated the victory of the sun at the height of winter. The victory of light over darkness in the midst of winter is commemorated in many traditions. In the Jewish tradition this is the period of Hannukah. For Christians, Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 7:12) and thus this period is particularly appropriate to give thanks for his birth. The fixing of the birth of Jesus at this time of the year led to the establishment of a number of other feasts around the same period, all connected to the appearance of Jesus in the world.
In many Christian communities, the period before Christmas is a time of preparation that focuses on the waiting for the birth of the Savior. This period is longer in the Eastern traditions whereas in the Catholic Church it begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and lasts four weeks. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the liturgical year has concluded the week before with the Feast of Christ the King, commemorating Jesus as king of the world. Advent then is the beginning of the new liturgical year. In the Orthodox Churches the liturgical year begins in September and already then preparations begin for the coming feast of Christmas. Christians, particularly in the Eastern Churches will practice certain forms of fasting at this time, abstaining from particular foods as they do also during Lent. The focus is on preparing oneself in order to be ready to welcome Jesus when he appears. Many of the Biblical readings that Christians hear in this period underline the fact that they are waiting for Jesus to come again – a second coming that will bring about the fullness of salvation. Reading the Book of Isaiah is an important part of the preparations for Christmas at this time.
Many popular traditions are associated with the period including the setting up and decoration of a Christmas tree (a tradition that spread from Northern Europe) and the slow assembly of a scene called a “crèche” that represents the different characters participating in the Christmas tale: Mary, Joseph, the baby, the shepherds and the kings, all mentioned in the Gospel accounts. The crèche tradition originated with St Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century. The period of four weeks is marked with the lighting of a candle for each week.
In many Christian Churches, the central celebration of Christmas is a late night (often midnight) celebration of the Eucharist on December 24. The eyes of many Christians throughout the world turn to Bethlehem at this time and the celebrations in the Church of the Nativity are broadcast widely throughout the world. In many Churches, Christmas is celebrated for twelve days. The prayers of joyful celebration for the birth of Jesus are repeated throughout this period.
In Bethlehem, Christmas is celebrated at three different times. The Roman Catholic Church (as well as the Eastern Catholic Churches) celebrates Christmas on December 25. The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates on December 25 too but this date according to the Julian calendar is thirteen days later, corresponding to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. The Armenians celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem only on January 19, after the Greek Orthodox have finished their celebration of the twelve days of Christmas. The Armenians, never having adopted the Roman decision to fix Christmas on December 25, retain January 6 as the date for the Feast of the Nativity (which according to the Julian calendar falls on January 19) and celebrate together the Nativity, the Epiphany (the manifestation to the three kings) and the Theophany (the Baptism of Jesus).
Many folk traditions from popular culture accompany the celebration of Christmas including the decoration of a Christmas tree. Another tradition is the singing of special songs that herald a time of peace for the world with the birth of the Messianic King. Christmas traditionally is associated also with the giving of presents especially to children. The well known figure of Santa Claus has little to do with Christmas as a religious feast but is the folk commemoration of Saint Nicholas of Smyrna (his feast day is on December 6), renowned for his love of children.
The new year of the calendar adopted by Christianity was marked on January 1. The Church gave a religious meaning to this otherwise non-religious holiday. This day was commemorated as the day of the circumcision of Jesus, eight days after his birth (as recounted in the Gospel, cf. Luke 2:21). Roman Catholics overlaid the commemoration of the Circumcision with a celebration of the motherhood of the Virgin Mary and in more recent times, the Roman Catholic Popes have transformed this day, at the beginning of the year, into a day of prayer for peace in the world. The popular revelry that accompanies the eve of December 31 has no real religious significance and religious Christians prefer to consecrate the final hours of the year to prayer. The name “Sylvester” given to December 31 refers to Saint Sylvester, an early Pope in Rome, whose feast is celebrated on that day.
In some Churches Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord (Theophany) are celebrated together as they both have as their principal theme Jesus’ manifestation to the world. Whereas Christmas has as its principal theme the celebration of the birth of the child Jesus, the Epiphany/Theophany have as their theme the manifestation of the Divine Word of God incarnate in the Christ. The Feast of the Epiphany refers to the visit of the three wise men (known as kings in some traditions) to the child Jesus shortly after his birth (cf. Matthew 2:1-12). These wise men represent the nations who come to adore the new born king of Israel and the savior of the world, according to the Old Testament prophecies (cf. Isaiah 60:1-6). The Baptism of the Lord refers to the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist at the Jordan River. It is at this time that God explicitly reveals that Jesus is the Son of God (Theophany – manifestation of God) and John, traditionally seen as the last of a long line of Old Testament prophets awaiting the Messiah, recognizes Jesus (cf. Matthew 3:1-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:1-22, John 1:19-34). The Roman Catholic Church has formally separated these two commemorations; Epiphany is on January 6, and the Baptism on the Sunday after Epiphany. The commemoration of these two events closes the Christmas period and inaugurates what many Christians know as “ordinary time” – a time characterized by regular worship and that stretches from the first part of January until Lent, when the preparation for Easter begins. The Orthodox celebrations of the Epiphany/Theophany at the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River east of Jericho are attended by thousands of local faithful and pilgrims from the Orthodox world.