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Christmas

Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25[a] as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world.[2][3][4] A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded 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.[5] Christmas Day is a public holiday in many countries,[6][7][8] is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians,[9] as well as culturally by many non-Christians,[1][10] and forms an integral part of the holiday season organized around it.

The traditional Christmas narrative recounted in the New Testament, known as the Nativity of Jesus, says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in accordance with messianic prophecies.[11] When Joseph and Mary arrived in the city, the inn had no room and so they were offered a stable where the Christ Child was soon born, with angels proclaiming this news to shepherds who then spread the word.[12]

There are different hypotheses regarding the date of Jesus' birth and in the early fourth century, the church fixed the date as December 25.[b][13][14][15] This corresponds to the traditional date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar.[16] It is exactly nine months after Annunciation on March 25, also the date of the spring equinox. Most Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world. However, part of the Eastern Christian Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. For Christians, believing that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity, rather than knowing Jesus' exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.[17][18][19]

The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins.[20] Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving; completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath; Christmas music and caroling; viewing a Nativity play; an exchange of Christmas cards; church services; a special meal; and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.[21] Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. Over the past few centuries, Christmas has had a steadily growing economic effect in many regions of the world.

Etymology

The English word "Christmas" is a shortened form of "Christ's Mass". The word is recorded as Crīstesmæsse in 1038 and Cristes-messe in 1131.[22] Crīst (genitive Crīstes) is from Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), a translation of Hebrew Māšîaḥ (מָשִׁיחַ), "Messiah", meaning "anointed";[23][24] and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist.[25]

The form Christenmas was also used during some periods, but is now considered archaic and dialectal.[26] The term derives from Middle English Cristenmasse, meaning "Christian mass".[27] Xmas is an abbreviation of Christmas found particularly in print, based on the initial letter chi (Χ) in Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός) ("Christ"), although some style guides discourage its use.[28] This abbreviation has precedent in Middle English Χρ̄es masse (where "Χρ̄" is an abbreviation for Χριστός).[27]

Other names

In addition to "Christmas", the holiday has had various other English names throughout its history. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the feast as "midwinter",[29][30] or, more rarely, as Nātiuiteð (from Latin nātīvitās below).[29][31] "Nativity", meaning "birth", is from Latin nātīvitās.[32] In Old English, Gēola (Yule) referred to the period corresponding to December and January, which was eventually equated with Christian Christmas.[33] "Noel" (also "Nowel" or "Nowell", as in "The First Nowell") entered English in the late 14th century and is from the Old French noël or naël, itself ultimately from the Latin nātālis (diēs) meaning "birth (day)".[34]

Nativity

The gospels of Luke and Matthew describe Jesus as being born in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary. In the book of Luke, Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus was born there and placed in a manger.[35] Angels proclaimed him a savior for all people, and shepherds came to adore him. The book of Matthew adds that the magi followed a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, born the king of the Jews. King Herod ordered the massacre of all the boys less than two years old in Bethlehem, but the family fled to Egypt and later returned to Nazareth.[36]

History

The nativity sequences included in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke prompted early Christian writers to suggest various dates for the anniversary.[37] Although no date is indicated in the gospels, early Christians connected Jesus to the Sun through the use of such phrases as "Sun of righteousness."[37][38] The Romans marked the winter solstice on December 25.[16] The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome on December 25, AD 336.[39] In the 3rd century, the date of the nativity was the subject of great interest. Around AD 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote:


There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] ... Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].[40]


Various factors contributed to the selection of December 25 as a date of celebration: it was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar and it was nine months after March 25, the date of the vernal equinox and a date linked to the conception of Jesus (celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation).[41]

Christmas played a role in the Arian controversy of the fourth century. After this controversy ran its course, the prominence of the holiday declined for a few centuries. The feast regained prominence after 800 when Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day.

In Puritan England, Christmas was banned, with Puritans considering it a Catholic invention and also associating the day with drunkenness and other misbehaviour.[42] It was restored as a legal holiday in England in 1660 when Puritan legislation was declared null and void, but it remained disreputable in the minds of some.[43] In the early 19th century, Christmas festivities and services became widespread with the rise of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England that emphasized the centrality of Christmas in Christianity and charity to the poor,[44] along with Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and other authors emphasizing family, children, kind-heartedness, gift-giving, and Santa Claus (for Irving),[44] or Father Christmas (for Dickens).[45]

Observance and traditions

Christmas Day is celebrated as a major festival and public holiday in countries around the world, including many whose populations are mostly non-Christian. In some non-Christian areas, periods of former colonial rule introduced the celebration (e.g. Hong Kong); in others, Christian minorities or foreign cultural influences have led populations to observe the holiday. Countries such as Japan, where Christmas is popular despite there being only a small number of Christians, have adopted many of the secular aspects of Christmas, such as gift-giving, decorations, and Christmas trees.

Among countries with a strong Christian tradition, a variety of Christmas celebrations have developed that incorporate regional and local cultures.

Church attendance

Christmas Day (inclusive of its vigil, Christmas Eve), is a Festival in the Lutheran Churches, a holy day of obligation in the Roman Catholic Church, and a Principal Feast of the Anglican Communion. Other Christian denominations do not rank their feast days but nevertheless place importance on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, as with other Christian feasts like Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost.[155] As such, for Christians, attending a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day church service plays an important part in the recognition of the Christmas season. Christmas, along with Easter, is the period of highest annual church attendance. A 2010 survey by LifeWay Christian Resources found that six in ten Americans attend church services during this time.[156] In the United Kingdom, the Church of England reported an estimated attendance of 2.5 million people at Christmas services in 2015.[157]

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