Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual Christian Holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. It is celebrated on December 25, but this date is not known to be Jesus' actual birthday, and may have initially been chosen to correspond with either the day exactly nine months after some early Christians believed Jesus had been conceived, a historical Roman festival, or the date of the northern hemisphere's winter solstice. Christmas is central to the Christmas and holiday season, and in Christianity marks the beginning of the larger season of Christmastide, which lasts twelve days.
Although a Christian holiday, Christmas is also widely celebrated by many non-Christians, and some of its popular celebratory customs have pre-Christian or secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift-giving, music an exchange of greeting cards, church celebrations, a special meal, and the display of various decorations; including Christian trees, lights, garlands, mistletoe, nativity scenes, and holly. In addition, Father Christmas (known as Santa Claus some areas, including North America, Australia and Ireland) is a popular folklore figure in many countries, associated with the bringing of gifts for children.
Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity among both Christians and non-Christians, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. The economic impact of Christmas is a factor that has grown steadily over the past few centuries in many regions of the world.
Mosaic of Jesus as Christo Sole (Christ the Sun) in Mausoleum M in the pre-fourth-century necropolis under St-Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
For many centuries, Christian writers accepted that Christmas was the actual date on which Jesus was born. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the date of creation was considered to be on March 25th. The early Christian writer Sextus Julius Africanus (220 A.D.) thought this dating plausible and suggested that Christ became incarnate on that date. According to Julius, since the Word of God became incarnate from the moment of his conception, this meant that, after nine months in the Virgin Mary’s womb, Jesus was born on December 25th. However, in the early eighteenth century, some scholars began proposing alternative explanations. Isaac Newton argued that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, which in ancient times was marked on December 25. In 1743, German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski argued Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and was therefore a "paganization" that debased the true church. In 1889, Louis Duchesne suggested that the date of Christmas was calculated as nine months after the Annunciation on March 25, the traditional date of the conception of Jesus. However, today, whether or not the birth date of Jesus is on the 25th of December is not considered to be an important issue in mainstream Christian Denominations; rather, they would say that God coming into the world, in the form of man, to atone for the sins of humanity is the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas. The first Christmas in the U.S. was celebrated in Tallahassee, Florida.
The word Christmas originated as a compound meaning Christ’s Mass. It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mAŽsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. "Cristes" is from Greek Christos and "mAŽsse" is from Latin missa (the holy mass). In Greek, the letter Iž (chi), is the first letter of Christ, and it, or the similar Roman letter X, has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since the mid-16th century. Hence, Xmas is sometimes used as an abbreviation for Christmas.
One of the first known Nativity celebrations occurred in 336, at the church of Rome. An early reference to the date of the nativity as December 25 is found in the Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome in 354. In the year 350, Pope Julius I officially designated December 25 to celebrate Christ's birth. In the East, early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany (January 6), although this festival emphasized celebration of the baptism of Jesus.
Christmas was promoted in the Christian East as part of the revival of Catholicism following the death of the pro-Arian Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The feast was introduced to Constantinople in 379, and to Antioch in about 380. The feast disappeared after Gregory of Nazianzus resigned as bishop in 381, although it was reintroduced by John Chrysostom in about 400.
The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas, (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in the west focused on the visit of the magi. But the Medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the "forty days of St. Martin" (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours), now known as Advent. In Italy, former Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent. Around the 12th century, these traditions transferred again to the Twelves Days of Christmas (December 25 - January 5); a time that appears in the liturgical calendars as Christmastide or Twelve Holy Days.
The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.
By the High Middle Ages, the holiday 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, indicating that the unruly traditions of Saturnalia and Yule may have continued in this form. "Misrule" - drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling - was also an important aspect of the festival. In England, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day, and there was special Christmas ale.
Christmas during the Middle Ages was a public festival that incorporated ivy, holly, and other evergreens. Christmas gift-giving during the Middle Ages was usually between people with legal relationships, such as tenant and landlord. The annual indulgence in eating, dancing, singing, sporting, card playing escalated in England, and by the 17th century the Christmas season featured lavish dinners, elaborate masques and pageants. In 1607, King James I insisted that a play be acted on Christmas night and that the court indulge in games.
Adorazione del Bambino(Adoration of the Child) (1439-43), a mural by Florentine painter Fra Angelico.