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Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ,[7][8] observed most commonly on December 25[4][9][10] as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world.[2][11][12] 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;[13] in some traditions, Christmastide includes an Octave.[14] Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world's nations,[15][16][17] is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians,[18] as well as culturally by many non-Christians,[1][19] and forms an integral part of the holiday season. In several countries, celebrating Christmas Eve has the main focus rather than Christmas Day.

Although the month and date of Jesus' birth are unknown, by the early-to-mid fourth century the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25,[20] a date that was later adopted in the East.[21][22]Today, 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, some Eastern Christian Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar, the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany. This is not a disagreement over the date of Christmas as such, but rather a preference of which calendar should be used to determine the day that is December 25.

Although it is not known why December 25 became a date of celebration, there are several factors that may have influenced the choice. December 25 was the date the Romans marked as the winter solstice,[23] the shortest and darkest day of the year, and the first day in which the days would begin to elongate and the Sun would have a longer presence in the sky. Jesus was identified with the Sun based on an Old Testament verse,[24] and the date is exactly nine months following Annunciation, when the conception of Jesus is celebrated, which is one theory on what may have influenced the timing of the Christmas holiday.[25][26] Also, Ancient Romans had a series of pagan festivals near the end of the year, and Christmas may have been scheduled at this time to appropriate, or compete with, one or more of these festivals.[27][28][29] Some scholars disagree with this latter interpretation and state that the Roman Emperor Aurelian placed a pagan celebration on December 25 in order to compete with the growing rate of the Christian Church, which had already been celebrating Christmas on that date.[30]

The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins.[31] Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreathChristmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, viewing a Nativity play, an exchange of Christmas cardschurch services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas treesChristmas lightsnativity scenesgarlandswreathsmistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa ClausFather ChristmasSaint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.[32] 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. The economic impact of Christmas has grown steadily over the past few centuries in many regions of the world.

 

 

Nativity tree2011.jpg
depiction of the Nativity of Jesus with a Christmas tree backdrop
Also called Noël, NativityXmasYule
Observed by Christians, many non-Christians[1][2]
Type Christian, cultural
Significance Commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus
Celebrations Gift-giving, family and other social gatherings, symbolic decoration, feasting etc.
Observances Church services
Date
Frequency Annual
Related to ChristmastideChristmas EveAdventAnnunciationEpiphanyBaptism of the LordNativity FastNativity of ChristYuleSt. Stephen's DayBoxing Day

 

Etymology

"Christmas" is a shortened form of "Christ's mass". It is derived from the Middle English Cristemasse, which is from Old English Crīstesmæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038[8] followed by the word Cristes-messe in 1131.[33] Crīst (genitive Crīstes) is from Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), a translation of Hebrew Māšîaḥ (מָשִׁיחַ), "Messiah", meaning "anointed";[34][35] and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist. The form Christenmas was also historically used, but is now considered archaic and dialectal;[36] it derives from Middle English Cristenmasse, literally "Christian mass".[37] Xmas is an abbreviation of Christmas found particularly in print, based on the initial letter chi (Χ) in Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), "Christ", though numerous style guides discourage its use;[38] it has precedent in Middle English Χρ̄es masse (where "Χρ̄" is an abbreviation for Χριστός).[37]

Other names

In addition to "Christmas", the holiday has been known by various other names throughout its history. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the feast as "midwinter",[39][40] or, more rarely, as Nātiuiteð (from Latin nātīvitās below).[39][41] "Nativity", meaning "birth", is from Latin nātīvitās.[42] In Old English, Gēola (Yule) referred to the period corresponding to December and January, which was eventually equated with Christian Christmas.[43] "Noel" (or "Nowel") 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)".[44]

Nativity

 
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Gospel according to Saint Luke Chapter 2, v 1–20
 
Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst depicts the nativity of Jesus

The canonical gospels of Luke and Matthew both describe Jesus as being born in Bethlehem in Judea, to a virgin mother. In the Gospel of Luke account, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus is born there and laid in a manger.[45] It says that angels proclaimed him a savior for all people, and shepherds came to adore him. In the Matthew account, magi follow a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, born the king of the JewsKing Herod orders the massacre of all the boys less than two years old in Bethlehem, but the family flees to Egypt and later settles in Nazareth.

 
Eastern Orthodox icon of the birth of Christ by Saint Andrei Rublev, 15th century

History

 
Nativity of Christ – medieval illustration from the Hortus deliciarumof Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

The Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are prominent in the gospels and early Christian writers suggested various dates for the anniversary. The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome in 336.[46][47] Christmas played a role in the Arian controversy of the fourth century. In the early Middle Ages, it was overshadowed by Epiphany. The feast regained prominence after 800, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day. Associating it with drunkenness and other misbehavior, the Puritans banned Christmas in the 17th century.[48] It was restored as a legal holiday in 1660, but remained disreputable. In the early 19th century, Christmas was revived with the start of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church.[49] Charles Dickens and other writers reinvented the holiday by emphasizing Christmas as a time for family, religion, gift-giving, and social reconciliation as opposed to the revelry that had been common historically.[49]

 
Outdoor Christmas decoration

Choice of December 25 date

In the 3rd century, the date of birth of Jesus was the subject of both great interest and great uncertainly. 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].[50]

In other writing of this time, May 20, April 18 or 19, March 25, January 2, November 17, and November 20 are all suggested.[8][51] 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; it was about nine months after March 25, the date of the vernal equinox and a date linked to the conception of Jesus.

Solstice date

December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar.[52][23] Jesus chose to be born on the shortest day of the year for symbolic reasons, according to an early Christmas sermon by Augustine: "Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase."[53]

Linking Jesus to the Sun was supported by various Biblical passages. Jesus was considered to be the "Sun of righteousness" prophesied by Malachi: "Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise, and healing is in his wings."[54] John describes Jesus as "the light of the world."[55]

Such solar symbolism could support more than one date of birth. An anonymous work known as De Pascha Computus (243) linked the idea that creation began at the spring equinox, on March 25, with the conception or birth (the word nascor can mean either) of Jesus on March 28, the day of the creation of the sun in the Genesis account. One translation reads: "O the splendid and divine providence of the Lord, that on that day, the very day, on which the sun was made, the 28 March, a Wednesday, Christ should be born.[8][56]

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton argued that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the solstice.[24]

According to Steven Hijmans of the University of Alberta, "It is cosmic symbolism ... which inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the southern solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the northern solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception."[57]

Calculation hypothesis

The Calculation hypothesis suggests that an earlier holiday held on March 25 became associated with the Incarnation.[58]Modern scholars refer to this feast as the Quartodecimal. Christmas was then calculated as nine months later. The Calculation hypothesis was proposed by French writer Louis Duchesne in 1889.[59][25]

In modern times, March 25 is celebrated as Annunciation. This holiday was created in the seventh century and was assigned to a date that is nine months before Christmas, in addition to being the traditional date of the equinox. It is unrelated to the Quartodecimal, which had been forgotten by this time.[60]

Early Christians celebrated the life of Jesus on a date considered equivalent to 14 Nisan (Passover) on the local calendar. Because Passover was held on the 14th of the month, this feast is referred to as the Quartodecimal. All the major events of Christ's life, especially the passion, were celebrated on this date. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions Passover, presumably celebrated according to the local calendar in Corinth.[61] Tertullian (d. 220), who lived in Latin-speaking North Africa, gives the date of passion celebration as March 25.[62] The date of the passion was moved to Good Friday in 165 when Pope Soter created Easter by reassigning the Resurrection to a Sunday. According to the Calculation hypothesis, celebration of the quartodecimal continued in some areas and the feast became associated with Incarnation.

The Calculation hypothesis is considered academically to be "a thoroughly viable hypothesis", though not certain.[63] It was a traditional Jewish belief that great men lived a whole number of years, without fractions, so that Jesus was considered to have been conceived on March 25, as he died on March 25, which was calculated to have coincided with 14 Nisan.[64]

A passage in Commentary on the Prophet Daniel (204) by Hippolytus of Rome identifies December 25 as the date of the nativity. This passage is generally considered a late interpellation. The manuscript includes another passage, one that is more likely to be authentic, that gives the passion as March 25.[65]

In 221, Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160 – c. 240) gave March 25 as the day of creation and of the conception of Jesus in his universal history. This conclusion was based on solar symbolism, with March 25 the date of the equinox. As this implies a birth in December, it is sometimes claimed to be the earliest identification of December 25 as the nativity. However, Africanus was not such an influential writer that it is likely he determined the date of Christmas.[66]

The tractate De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis Domini nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae, falsely attributed to John Chrysostom, also argued that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year and calculated this as March 25.[67][68] This anonymous tract also states: "But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December ... the eight before the calends of January [25 December] ..., But they call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord...? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice."[8]

History of religions hypothesis

The rival "History of Religions" hypothesis suggests that the Church selected December 25 date to appropriate festivities held by the Romans in honor of the Sun god Sol Invictus.[58] This feast was established by Aurelian in 274.

An explicit expression of this theory appears in an annotation of uncertain date added to a manuscript of a work by 12th-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi. The scribe who added it wrote: "It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day." [69]

In 1743, German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski argued Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invictiand was therefore a "paganization" that debased the true church.[27] It has been argued that, on the contrary, the Emperor Aurelian, who in 274 instituted the holiday of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, did so partly as an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already important for Christians in Rome.[26]

Hermann Usener[70] and others[33] proposed that the Christians chose this day because it was the Roman feast celebrating the birthday of Sol Invictus. Modern scholar S. E. Hijmans, however, states that "While they were aware that pagans called this day the 'birthday' of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas."[57] Moreover, Thomas J. Talley holds that the Roman Emperor Aurelian placed a Sol Invictus on December 25 in order to compete with the growing rate of the Christian Church, which had already been celebrating Christmas on that date first.[30]

In the judgement of the Church of England Liturgical Commission, the History of Religions hypothesis has been challenged[71] by a view based on an old tradition, according to which the date of Christmas was fixed at nine months after March 25, the date of the vernal equinox, on which the Annunciation was celebrated.[67]

With regard to a December religious feast of the sun as a god (Sol), as distinct from a solstice feast of the (re)birth of the astronomical sun, one scholar has commented that, "while the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas".[72] "Thomas Talley has shown that, although the Emperor Aurelian's dedication of a temple to the sun god in the Campus Martius (C.E. 274) probably took place on the 'Birthday of the Invincible Sun' on December 25, the cult of the sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect."[73] The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought remarks on the uncertainty about the order of precedence between the religious celebrations of the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun and of the birthday of Jesus, stating that the hypothesis that December 25 was chosen for celebrating the birth of Jesus on the basis of the belief that his conception occurred on March 25 "potentially establishes 25 December as a Christian festival before Aurelian's decree, which, when promulgated, might have provided for the Christian feast both opportunity and challenge".[74]

Introduction of feast

As Christmas was unknown to the early Christian writers, it must have been introduced sometime after 300. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts, and Origen writes that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday. Arnobius can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.[8] The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome in 336.[46][47] The feast was introduced to the Eastern Roman Empire after the death of Emperor Valens, who favored the Arianheresy, in 378.

In 245, Origen of Alexandria, writing about