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Christmas (or Christmas Day) is an annual Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. It is traditionally celebrated on December 25th by most Christian; in the Eastern Orthodox Church it celebrated on January 7. It is a time when peace and goodwill are especially called for, and a time when Christians remember that God came down as a frail human, to save us from our sin. Christmas has many aspects, both religious and secular, including the exchange of gifts, Santa Claus (or Father Christmas), decoration and display of the Christmas tree, and church services remembering Jesus.
The word Christmas is derived from Middle English Christemasse and from Old English Cristes mæsse. It is a contraction meaning "Christ's mass".
The name of the holiday is sometimes shortened to Xmas because Roman letter "X" resembles the Greek letter Χ (chi), an abbreviation for Christ (Χριστός).
There are numerous predictions about Jesus' birth in the Old Testament, particularly in the Book of Isaiah. The story of his birth is told in gospel accounts of Matthew (chapter 2) and Luke (chapter 2).
Pre-Christian origins of holiday
Christmas has its origins in several pagan holidays. The celebration known as Saturnalia included the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia). This holiday was observed over a series of days beginning on December 17 (the birthday of Saturn) and ending on December 25 (the birthday of Sol Invictus, the "unconquered sun"). The combined festivals resulted in an extended winter holiday season. Business was postponed and even slaves feasted. There was drinking, gambling, and singing, and nudity was relatively common. It was the "best of days," according to the poet Catullus.
During the time in which Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman Empire, another similar religion known as Mithraism was also gaining widespread acceptance. The followers of Mithraism worshipped Mithras, a god of Persian origin, who was identified with Sol Invictus. The followers of Mithraism, consequently, adopted the birthday of Sol Invictus as the birthday of Mithras. In 274 AD, due to the popularity of Mithraism, Emperor Aurelian designated December 25 as the festival of Sol Invictus.
Christian origins of holiday
The idea that December 25 is Jesus' birthday was popularized by Sextus Julius Africanus in Chronographiai (221 AD), an early reference book for Christians. This identification did not at first inspire feasting or celebration. In 245 AD, the theologian Origen denounced the idea of celebrating the birthday of Jesus "as if he were a king pharaoh." Only sinners, not saints, celebrate their birthdays, Origen contended.
There were Christmas celebrations in Rome as early as 336 AD. December 25 was added to the calendar as a feast day in 350 AD.
The forty days before Christmas became the "forty days of St. Martin," now Advent.
Christmas Day itself was a relatively minor holiday, although its prominence gradually increased after Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day in 800 AD.
Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, and its pagan celebrations had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul (Yule), originally the name of a twelve-day pre-Christian winter festival. Logs were lit to honor Thor, the god of thunder, hence the "Yule log." In Germany, the equivalent holiday is called Mitwinternacht (mid-winter night). There are also twelve Rauhnächte (harsh or wild nights).
By the High Middle Ages, Christmas had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates "celebrated Christmas." King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. The "Yule boar" was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts. Caroling also became popular, and was originally a group of dancers who sang. The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers that provided the chorus. Various writers of the time condemned caroling as lewd, largely due to overtones reminiscent of the traditions of Saturnalia and Yule). In England, gifts were exchanged on New Year's Day, and there was special Christmas ale.
The Reformation and the 1800s
During the Reformation, Protestants condemned Christmas celebration as "trappings of popery" and the "rags of the Beast". The Catholic Church responded by promoting the festival in a more religiously oriented form. When a Puritan parliament triumphed over the King, Charles I of England (1644), Christmas was officially banned (1647). Pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities. For several weeks, Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Restoration (1660) ended the ban, but Christmas celebration was still disapproved of by the Anglican clergy.
By the 1820s, sectarian tension had eased and British writers began to worry that Christmas was dying out. They imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts were made to revive the holiday. The book A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion.
The Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas and celebration was outlawed in Boston (1659-81). Meanwhile, Virginia and New York celebrated freely. Christmas fell out of favor in the U.S. after the American Revolution, when it was considered an "English custom". Interest was revived by several short stories by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819) and by "Old Christmas" (1850) which depict harmonous warm-hearted holiday traditions Irving claimed to have observed in England. Although some argue that Irving invented the traditions he describes, they were imitated by his American readers. German immigrants and the homecomings of the Civil War helped promote the holiday. Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the U.S. in 1870.
Irving writes of Saint Nicholas "riding over the tops of the trees, in that selfsame waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." The connection between Santa Claus and Christmas was popularized by the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (1822) by Clement Clarke Moore, which depicts Santa driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and distributing gifts to children. His image was created by German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who drew a new image annually beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the form we now recognize. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s.
In the midst of World War I, there was a Christmas truce between German and British troops in France (1914). Soldiers on both sides spontaneously began to sing Christmas carols and stopped fighting. The truce began on Christmas Day and continued for some time afterward. There was even a soccer game between the trench lines in which Germany's 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment is said to have bested Britain's Seaforth Highlanders 3-2.
In modern times, the United States has experienced some controversy over the nature of Christmas, and whether it is a religious or a secular holiday. Because the US government recognizes Christmas as an official holiday, some have thought that this violates separation of church and state. This has been brought to trial several times, including Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) and Ganulin v. United States (1999). On December 6, 1999, the verdict for Ganulin v. United States (1999). declared that "the establishment of Christmas Day as a legal public holiday does not violate the Establishment Clause because it has a valid secular purpose." This decision was appealed, and upheld by the Supreme Court on December 19, 2000.
More recently, some Christians have protested against what is seen as a secularization of Christmas, leading some to believe that the holiday is under attack from a general secular trend or from persons and/or organizations with a deliberate or unconscious anti-Christian agenda.
Christmas carols are hymns about Christmas and the birth of Christ
Chirstmas church services
Many churches hold a midnight church service on Christmas eve.
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