From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Christmas is an annual holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. Christmas festivities often combine the commemoration of Jesus' birth with various customs, many of which have been influenced by earlier winter festivals. Traditions include the display of Nativity scenes, Holly and Christmas trees, the exchange of gifts and cards, and the arrival of Father Christmas (Santa Claus) on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Popular Christmas themes include the promotion of goodwill, compassion and peace.
In most places around the world, Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25. It is preceded by Christmas Eve on December 24, and in some countries is followed by Boxing Day on December 26. The Armenian Apostolic Church observes Christmas on January 6, while certain old rite or old style Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on January 7, the date on the Gregorian calendar which corresponds to 25 December on the Julian Calendar. The date as a birthdate for Jesus is merely traditional, and is not widely considered to be his actual date of birth.
The word "Christmas" is a contraction meaning "Christ's mass." It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes męsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. Dutch has a similar word, Kerstmis often shortened to Kerst. The words for the holiday in Spanish (navidad), Portuguese (natal), Polish (Boże Narodzenie), French (noėl), Italian (natale), and Catalan (nadal) refer more explicitly to the Nativity. In contrast, the German name Weihnachten means simply "hallowed night." After the conversion of Anglo-Saxon Britain in the very early 7th century, Christmas was referred to as geol, the name of the pre-Christian solstice festival from which the current English word 'Yule' is derived. In early Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter Χ (chi), is the first letter of Christ (Χριστός). Since the mid-sixteenth century Χ, or the similar Roman letter X, was used as an abbreviation for Christ.
The Nativity refers to the birth of Jesus. The story of Christmas is based on the biblical accounts given in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. According to these accounts, Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, assisted by her husband Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. The infant Jesus was laid in a manger, and Shepherds from the fields surrounding Bethlehem were told of the birth by an angel, and were the first to see the child. Christians believe that the birth of Jesus fulfilled many prophecies made hundreds of years before his birth.
Remembering or re-creating the Nativity is a central way that Christians celebrate Christmas. The Eastern Orthodox Church practices the Nativity Fast in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, while much of the Western Church celebrates Advent. In some Christian churches, children perform plays re-telling the events of the Nativity, or sing carols that reference the event. Some Christians also display a small re-creation of the Nativity, known as a Nativity scene, in their homes, using figurines to portray the key characters of the event. Live Nativity scenes are also performed, using actors and live animals to portray the event with more realism.
Nativity scenes traditionally include the Three Wise Men, Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, although their names and number are not referred to in the Biblical narrative, who are said to have followed a star, known as the Star of Bethlehem, found Jesus, and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In the U.S., Christmas decorations at public buildings once commonly included Nativity scenes. This practice has led to many lawsuits, as some say it amounts to the government endorsing a religion. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a city-owned Christmas display, even one with a Nativity scene, does not violate the First Amendment.