Christmas Is…

A feast day, central to the calendar of the Christian church. It commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, presumed Savior of mankind, and Son of God.

As noted in our previous instalment, the exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown.

The original date of the celebration in Eastern Christianity was January 6. In the early to mid 4th century AD, the Western Christian church established its Christmas on December 25 – a date later adopted in the East.

The word ‘Christmas’ is derived from the Middle English ‘Christemasse’, and the Old English “Cristes maesse’, a phrase first recorded in 1038 AD. It means “Christ’s Mass”, where a mass is a formal religious service in the tradition of the Christian church.

The feast has been known by other names. ‘Nativity’ – meaning “birth” – was one, in reference to the birth of Jesus. Midwinter or Midwinter’s mass-day / night was used, during the Middle Ages. After the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, the Old English term ‘Yule’ was taken to refer either to December 25 specifically, or to the Twelve Days of Christmas, in general. ‘Noel’ is from the Old French ‘noel’ or ‘nael’, meaning “Christmas season’ – and entered the English usage late in the 14th century.

Celebrated, Worldwide…

Christmas is a civil holiday in many countries, and is celebrated by an increasing number of non-Christians. In some cases (eg. Hong Kong) periods of former colonial rule introduced the custom. In others (such as South Korea and Japan) Christian minority communities or the influence of other cultures has resulted in its observance.

The Julian calendar is used in many Eastern Orthodox churches, including those in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem. December 25 on the Julian calendar corresponds to the international Gregorian calendar’s January 7. Oriental Orthodox churches also use a calendar similar to the Julian one.

The People’s Republic of China (except for Hong Kong and Macao), Japan (even though the feast is widely observed), Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Thailand, Nepal, Iran, Turkey, and North Korea are notable countries in which Christmas is not a formal public holiday.

With Ornaments, Symbols, and Gifts…

In some Christian communities, children re-enact the events of Jesus’ birth, in Nativity plays, which often include music. Some Christians also display in their homes a small model of the Nativity known as a Nativity scene, or creche. This has figurines representing the key characters of the event: the baby Jesus, his parents Joseph and Mary, angels of God, local shepherds who witnessed the birth, Three Wise Men who came from the East to salute the newborn king, and the animals and manger of the cave where the birth took place (traditionally held as being under the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem).

Even in pre-Christian times, people in the Roman Empire brought branches of evergreen plants indoors, in the winter. Decorating with greenery was also an established part of the Jewish tradition.

Christians were quick to incorporate such practices into their own developing customs. In 15th-century London, it was common for every house and every parish church to be adorned with whatever green foliage was in season. The heart-shaped leaves of the ivy plant were said to symbolize the coming to Earth of Jesus, while the holly was seen as a protection against witches and pagans.

The traditional colors of Christmas are green and red. The red symbolizes the blood of Jesus, which was to be shed when he was crucified, in later life. Green symbolizes eternal life, as embodied in particular by the evergreen tree, which does not lose its leaves in the winter.

White, silver, and gold are also popular Christmas colors, and may be incorporated into other traditional decorations such as bells, candles, candy canes, stockings, wreaths, and angels. Candles in each window of a house are meant to illustrate the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World.

Christmas lights and banners may be hung along streets, and Christmas trees placed in prominent locations. Music may be played from speakers – including the communal folk songs known as Christmas carols.

Exchanging gifts is a core activity of the modern Christmas celebration. Gift-giving was common in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which took place in late December, and may have influenced the Christmas custom.

The Magi, or Wise Men, who came from the East to attend Jesus’ birth are said to have brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – a fact that swayed the Christian church to accept the gift-giving tradition in the years after the Middle Ages.

A number of mythical and Christian figures are associated with Christmas and the gift-giving tradition. These include Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Father Frost, and Kris Kringle.

Christmas cards are illustrated messages of greeting exchanged between friends and family members, throughout the Christmas period. They feature artwork relevant to the season, and may include variants on the traditional salutation: “Wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.”

Food, and Drink…

A special Christmas meal is an integral part of the holiday celebration.

In England (and countries influenced by British tradition), this typically includes a roasted turkey or goose, ham or pork, gravy, potatoes, and vegetables. Special desserts like Christmas pudding (a compressed mass of plums, raisins, other fruits, and nuts), mince pies, and fruit cake are served. Cider and mulled wine (warmed red wine, with spices in it) are traditionally drunk – as are most of the revellers. But, I digress.

Some regions, such as the Italian island of Sicily, have special meals for Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) – when 12 kinds of fish are served.

In Poland, other parts of Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia, fish is often used for the traditional main course on Christmas Day. In Germany, France, and Austria, goose and pork are favored.

In Malta, Imbuljuta tal-Qastan – a beverage made from chocolate and chestnuts – is served after Midnight Mass, and throughout the Christmas season. Sweets and chocolate are part and parcel of the Christmas experience and include such treats as the German stollen, marzipan cakes, and Jamaican rum fruit cake. Slovakia boasts a traditional Christmas bread called potica, Italy its panettone, and France its buche de Noel.

And A Spirit Of…


King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 AD, at which 28 oxen and 300 sheep were eaten.

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poen titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas” – popularly known by its first line: “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The poem helped popularize the tradition of exchanging gifts – and to establish the economic importance of Christmas shopping.

The money train had started to roll.

Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel “A Christmas Carol” served to boost it along the tracks. The book’s tale of a curmudgeonly old miser Ebenezer Scrooge who – through his encounter with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future learned to embrace the spirit of generosity and giving – promoted Dickens’ secular vision of the holiday as a family-oriented festival of generosity. The book has influenced many aspects of Christmas that we celebrate today, in Western culture – including the phrase “Merry Christmas!”

Also, “Bah! Humbug!” A phrase dismissive of the whole festive spirit thing. Which I won’t use, myself.

Rather, I’ll take my leave of you, here. And let you get back to your own pre-holiday business.

Till next time.