People send each other cards and give gifts to their families and friends. In homes and in stores, evergreen trees glitter with colorful lights and ornaments. Children look forward to seeing a jolly, white-bearded man in a red suit named Santa Claus.
It all can mean just one thing: It’s the season of Christmas, a holiday celebrated every year on December 25.
WHAT IS CHRISTMAS?
Christmas is a Christian holiday. It commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago. Christian churches hold religious services to celebrate Christmas. At midnight on Christmas Eve, most churches hold special candlelight services.
But Christmas is also a social and family holiday. It is a festival of goodwill, a time for family, friends, food, and gift-giving.
Many Americans share Christmas cookies, decorate their homes, and place presents under the family Christmas tree. Children often hang up stockings for Santa Claus to fill with small gifts. According to tradition, Santa arrives on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Presents are usually opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
THE STORY OF CHRIST’S BIRTH
The story of Christ’s birth comes mainly from the New Testament of the Bible, a holy book of Christianity. According to the Bible, Joseph and his wife, Mary, traveled from Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem. The town’s inn had no room for them, even though Mary was expecting a child. Her baby was born in a stable and placed in a manger, a criblike holder for animal feed.
In the fields near Bethlehem, an angel appeared before shepherds who were guarding their flocks. The angel told the shepherds that a holy child named Jesus Christ had been born. Other angels appeared and sang. After the angels had gone, the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the child.
Three Wise Men came from the east looking for a newborn king. They followed a bright, guiding star called the Star of Bethlehem. It led them to Christ in the manger. There, they knelt in worship before the baby Jesus and gave him gifts.
TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
The official Christmas season is popularly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. It extends from the anniversary of Christ’s birth on December 25 to the feast of Epiphany on January 6. The Epiphany honors Jesus’ baptism and the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem.
THE ROOTS OF CHRISTMAS
No one knows exactly when Jesus Christ was born. For many years, local Christian churches celebrated Christ’s birth at different times. Then, in the ad 300s, the Roman Catholic Church set the birth date at December 25.
At that time, older non-Christian festivals were celebrated around Christmas. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a festival honoring their god of harvest and god of light. Other Europeans held festivals in mid-December marking the end of the harvest season. The Roman Catholic Church probably chose December 25 to give a Christian meaning to these older festivals.
The Orthodox Church, the Christian church in the east, also began using December 25 as the birth date of Jesus. But the Orthodox Church places more importance on celebrating Jesus’ baptism on January 6.
The custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas comes from the ancient Romans. During Saturnalia, the Romans exchanged tokens of good luck. Later, it became customary for Romans to exchange more valuable gifts, such as clothes or jewelry. The Biblical story of the Three Wise Men who presented gifts to baby Jesus also shaped this Christmas custom.
The tradition of the Christmas tree came to North America from Germany. Long ago, Germans began decorating evergreen trees in their homes at Christmas. They trimmed their trees with fruits, cookies, and lighted candles. German immigrants to the United States brought this custom with them in the 1800s.
Before Christian times, ancient people used evergreens for decoration and religious ceremonies. Because evergreens do not die in the winter, they came to symbolize eternal life.
STAR OF BETHLEHEM
The Star of Bethlehem is one of the oldest symbols of Christmas. A star traditionally sits atop Christmas trees. Stars are used for many other Christmas decorations, too.
Lighted candles have always been a part of Christmas celebrations. The candles represent Jesus Christ, who the Bible calls “the light of the world.” Today, most people decorate their homes and yards with electric lights in place of candles.
MISTLETOE AND HOLLY
The custom of decorating with mistletoe at Christmastime dates to the Romans. They thought of mistletoe as a symbol of peace. They believed enemies would resolve their differences when they met beneath it. The Christmas custom of kissing under the mistletoe is thought to come from this ancient belief.
Holly, too, is a popular Christmas decoration. Its sharp, pointed leaves are considered a symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns. Christ wore the crown when he was crucified (nailed to a cross).
CHRISTMAS AROUND THE WORLD
Each part of the world has its own Christmas traditions. In many countries, gifts are exchanged on January 6 to mark the Epiphany. On January 5, the eve of the Epiphany, children in Spain leave grain in their shoes for the Wise Men’s camels. The next morning, they find small gifts in place of the grain.
In Mexico, singing children parade from house to house in a tradition called posadas. They ask for shelter, like Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth. The children are turned away at many doors before they are finally invited in. Then, everyone enjoys a large meal, singing, and dancing.
In the southern part of the world, in places like Australia, Christmas arrives in summer. Australians often celebrate Christmas with a beach picnic! And Santa’s sleigh is said to be pulled by eight kangaroos!