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Christmas - December 25, 2013
Christmas or Christmas Day is a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. It has many aspects, both religious and secular, including the exchange of gifts, the Santa Claus myth, decoration and display of the Christmas tree, religious ceremonies , and others. Some Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate on December 25 by the Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 on the Gregorian calendar. These dates are merely traditional; the precise chronology of Jesus' birth and death is still debated. Also, some Muslims celebrate Christmas because Islam regards Jesus as a prophet, messenger and one of the top five human servants of God (Allah).
The popularity of Christmas can be traced in part to its status as a winter festival. Many cultures have historically celebrated their most important holiday in winter because there is less agricultural work to do at this time. Examples of winter festivals that have influenced Christmas include the pre-Christian festivals of Yule and Saturnalia. Many of the traditions associated with the holiday have origins in these pagan winter celebrations.
Various local and regional Christmas traditions are still practiced, despite the widespread influence of American and British Christmas motifs disseminated by film, popular literature, television, and other media.
The word ''Christmas'' is derived from Middle English ''Christemasse''. 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 (chi), an abbreviation for Christ.
Pre-Christian Origins of holiday
Christmas has its origins in the Roman celebration known as the Saturnalia. The celebrations included the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia). This holiday was observed over a series of days beginning on December 17th (the birthday of Saturn), and ending on December 25th (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.
After the death of Emporer Constantine, three of his sons inherited the Roman Empire. One of them, Constantius, decreed that all non-Christian temples in the empire be immediately closed. He warned that anyone who still offered sacrifices of worship to the gods and goddesses in these temples were to be put to death. Those who were non-Christians or followers of Mithras were eventually forced to convert under these laws. In spite of their conversion, they adapted many elements of their old religions into Christianity. Among these, was the celebration of the birth of Mithras on December 25th, which was now observed as the birthday of Jesus.
Christian Origins of holiday
Around 220 AD, the theologian Tertullian declared that Jesus died on March 25, 29, but was resurrected three days later. Although this is not a plausible date for the crucifixion, it does suggest that March 25, nine months before December 25th, had significance for the church even before it was used as a basis to calculate Christmas. Modern scholars favor a crucifixion date of April 3, 33, which was also the date of a partial lunar eclipse (These are Julian calendar dates. Subtract two days for a Gregorian date.).
By 240 AD, a list of significant events was being assigned to March 25, partly because it was believed to be the date of the vernal equinox. These events include creation, the fall of Adam, and, most relevantly, the Incarnation. The view that the Incarnation occurred on the same date as crucifixion is consistent with a Jewish belief that prophets died at an "integral age," either an anniversary of their birth or of their conception.
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.
As Constantine ended the Christian persecution and began the persecution of non-Christians, Christians began to debate the nature of Christ. The Alexandrian school argued that he was the divine word made flesh, while the Antioch school held that he was born human and infused with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism. A feast celebrating Christ's birth gave the church an opportunity to promote the intermediate view that Christ was divine from the time of his incarnation. Mary, a minor figure for early Christians, gained prominence as the theotokos, or god-bearer. 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.
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. 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 (as opposed to communal celebration and hedonistic excess).
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.
Economics of Christmas
Christmas is typically the largest annual economic stimulus for many nations. Sales increase dramatically in almost all retail areas and shops introduce new products as people purchase gifts, decorations, and supplies. In the U.S., the Christmas shopping season generally begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, though many stores start selling Christmas items in October/November (and in the UK, even September/October).
More businesses and stores close on Christmas Day than any other day of the year. In the United Kingdom, the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004 prevents all large shops from trading on Christmas Day.
Most economists agree, however, that Christmas produces a deadweight loss under orthodox microeconomic theory, due to the surge in gift-giving. This loss is calculated as the difference between what the gift giver spent on the item and what the gift receiver would have paid for the item. It is estimated that in 2001 Christmas resulted in a $4 billion deadweight loss in the U.S. alone. Because of complicating factors, this analysis is sometimes used to discuss possible flaws in current microeconomic theory.
In North America, film studios release many high-budget movies in the holiday season, including Christmas films, fantasy movies or high-tone dramas with rich production values.
The Nativity refers to the birth of Jesus. According to tradition, Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem in a stable, surrounded by farm animals and shepherds, and Jesus was born into a manger from the Blessed Virgin Mary assisted by her husband Joseph.
Remembering or re-creating the Nativity is one of the central ways that Christians celebrate Christmas. For example, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices the Nativity Fast in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, while the Roman Catholic Church celebrates Advent. In some Christian churches, children often perform plays re-creating the events of the Nativity, or sing some of the numerous Christmas carols that reference the event. Many Christians also display a small re-creation of the Nativity known as a Nativity scene in their homes, using small figurines to portray the key characters of the event. Live Nativity scenes are also re-enacted using Human actors and live animals to portray the event with more realism.
While Nativity scenes traditionally include the Three Wise Men (Balthassar, Melchior, and Caspar), and they are often referred to in songs and scripture, there is little or no historical evidence to support the tradition.
In the U.S., decorations 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 Supreme Court of the US Supreme Court ruled that a city-owned Christmas display, even one with a Nativity scene, does not violate the First Amendment.
Santa Claus and other bringers of gifts
In Western culture, the holiday is characterized by the exchange of gifts among friends and family members, some of the gifts being attributed to Santa Claus (also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Basil and Father Frost).
Father Christmas predates the Santa Claus character, and was first recorded in the 15th century, Christmas trees may be decorated with lights and ornaments. Since the 19th century, the poinsettia has been associated with Christmas. Other popular holiday plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus.
Along with a Christmas Tree, the interior of a home may be decorated with garlands and evergreen foliage, particularly holly and mistletoe. In Australia, North and South America, and to a lesser extent Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures.
Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well. Christmas banners may be hung from street lights and Christmas trees placed in the town square.
Although Christmas decorations, such as a tree, are considered secular in many parts of the world, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia bans such displays as symbols of Christianity.
In the Western world, rolls of brightly colored paper with secular or religious Christmas motifs are manufactured for the purpose of wrapping gifts.
Regional customs and celebrations
Christmas celebrations include a great number and variety of customs with either secular, religious, or national aspects which vary from country to country:
After the Russian Revolution, Christmas celebration was banned in that country from 1917 until 1992.
Several Christian denominations, notably the Jehovah's Witnesses, Puritans, and some fundamentalists, view Christmas as a pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible.
In the southern hemisphere, Christmas is during the summer. This clashes with the traditional winter iconography, resulting in oddities such as a red fur-coated Santa Claus surfing in for a turkey barbecue on Australia's Bondi Beach.
Japan has adopted Santa Claus for its secular Christmas celebration, but New Year's Day is a far more important holiday.
In India, Christmas is often called ''bada din'' ("the big day"), and celebration revolves around Santa Claus and shopping.
In South Korea, Christmas is celebrated as an official holiday.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Day remains the principal day for gift giving while Christmas Day is a more religious holiday.
In much of Germany, children put shoes out on window sills on the night of December 5, and find them filled with candy and small gifts the next morning. The main day for gift giving in Germany is December 24, when gifts are brought by Santa Claus or are placed under the Christmas tree.
In Poland, Santa Claus (Polish: Swiety Mikolaj) gives gifts on two occasions: on the night of December 5 (so that children find them on the morning of December 6, and on Christmas Eve (so that children find gifts that same day).
In Hungary, Santa Claus or for non-religious people Father Winter is often accompanied by a black creature called Krampusz.
In Spain, gifts are brought by the Magi on Epiphany (January 6), although the tradition of leaving gifts under the Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve (December 24) for the children to find and open the following morning has been widely adopted as well.
In Russia, ''Grandfather Frost'' brings presents on New Year's Eve, and these are opened on the same night.
In Scotland, presents were traditionally given on Hogmanay, which is New Year's Eve. However, since the establishment of Christmas Day as a legal holiday in 1967, many Scots have adopted the tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas morning.
The Declaration of Christmas Peace has been a tradition in Finland from the Middle Ages every year, except in 1939 (due to World War II). The declaration takes place in the Old Great Square of Turku, Finland's official Christmas City and former capital. It is broadcast on Finnish radio and television.
Social aspects and entertainment
In many countries businesses, schools, and communities have Christmas parties and dances in the weeks before Christmas. Christmas pageants may include a retelling of the story of the birth of Christ. Groups may visit neighborhood homes to sing Christmas carols. Others do volunteer work or hold fundraising drives for charities.
On Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, a special meal of Christmas dishes is usually served. In some regions, particularly in Eastern Europe, these family feasts are preceded by a period of fasting. Candy and treats are also part of Christmas celebration in many countries.
Another tradition is for people to send Christmas cards to their friends and family members. Cards are also produced with messages such as "season's greetings" or "happy holidays", so as to including senders and recipients who may not celebrate Christmas .
Christmas in the arts and media
Many fictional Christmas stories capture the spirit of Christmas in a modern-day fairy tale, often with heart-touching stories of a Christmas miracle. Several have become part of the Christmas tradition in their countries of origin.
Among the most popular are Tchaikovsky's ballet ''The Nutcracker'' and Charles Dickens' novel ''A Christmas Carol''. ''The Nutcracker'' tells of a nutcracker that comes to life in a young German girl's dream. Charles Dickens' ''A Christmas Carol'' is the tale of curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge rejects compassion, philanthropy, and Christmas until he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who show him the consequences of his ways.
Some Scandinavian Christmas stories are less cheery than Dickens'. In H. C. Andersen's ''The Little Match Girl,'' a destitute little girl walks barefoot through snow-covered streets on Christmas Eve, trying in vain to sell her matches, and peeking in at the celebrations in the homes of the more fortunate.
In 1881, the Swedish magazine ''Ny Illustrerad Tidning'' published Viktor Rydberg's poem ''Tomten'' featuring the first painting by Jenny Nystrom of the traditional Swedish mythical character ''tomte,'' which she turned into the friendly white-bearded figure and associated with Christmas.
Many Christmas stories have been popularized as movies and TV specials. Since the 1980s, many video editions are sold and resold every year during the holiday season. A notable example is the film ''It's a Wonderful Life'', which turns the theme of ''A Christmas Carol'' on its head. Its hero, George Bailey, is a businessman who sacrificed his dreams to help his community. On Christmas Eve, a guardian angel finds him in despair and prevents him from committing suicide by magically showing him how much he meant to the world around him. Perhaps the most famous animated production is ''A Charlie Brown Christmas'' wherein Charlie Brown tries to address his feelings of dissatisfaction with the holidays by trying to find a deeper meaning in them. This special is noted for one of the characters retelling of the first Christmas. The humorous ''A Christmas Story'' (1983) in which the main character dreams of owning a Red Ryder BB Gun, has become a holiday classic and is even repeated for 24 hours straight starting on Christmas Eve night and going on through Christmas Day on US cable channel Turner Network Television or TBS.
A few true stories have also become enduring Christmas tales themselves. The story behind the Christmas carol ''Silent Night'' and the story ''Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus'' is among the most well-known of these.
Radio and television programs aggressively pursue entertainment and ratings through their cultivation of Christmas themes. Radio stations broadcast Christmas carols and Christmas songs, including European classical music such as the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's ''Messiah''. Among other classical pieces inspired by Christmas are the ''Nutcracker Suite'', adapted from Tchaikovsky's ballet score, and Johann Sebastian Bach's ''Christmas Oratorio'' (BWV 248). Television networks add Christmas themes to their standard programming, run traditional holiday movies, and produce a variety of Christmas specials.
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