Let us take you on a magical tour. Imagine a place covered in snow, the houses decorated with multi-coloured twinkling lights, Christmas trees, Christmas wreaths, mistletoes, and holly. The stores are abuzz with people rushing to buy Christmas gifts. The air is filled with the smell of hot chocolate, Christmas cookies, gingerbread, and candy canes. The church bells are ringing and the carolers are singing Christmas carols.
Wow! Beautiful, isn’t it?
This is not an imaginary place. Christmas time indeed looks and feels the same. It is the time that people all over the world eagerly await. It is a time for new hopes and dreams.
In India too, this is an equally awaited festival like Diwali
, Ganesh Chaturthi
It is not just celebrated by Christians alone, people across religions decorate their homes and celebrate Christmas and soak in the Christmas merry.
So, what exactly is Christmas?
Let us understand why we celebrate Christmas and when Christmas is celebrated across the world.
What is Christmas?
The word Christmas is derived from the words “Christ” and “Mass” and denotes the Mass of Christ. Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus with a mass service which is held at midnight. Hence the name Christ mass shortened to Christmas.
When is Christmas Celebrated?
Most of us believe Christmas is celebrated on December 25, but did you know that it actually lasts much longer than that and not just that, in some countries it is celebrated on a different date!
The Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox churches follow a different calendar. Hence these churches in Russia, Serbia, Jerusalem, Ukraine and others celebrate Christmas on January 7th based on the Julian calendar. The Coptic Orthodox Church as well as the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church also celebrate Christmas on January 7th.
The Greek Orthodox Church, however, observes Christmas on December 25th. The Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates Christmas on January 6th commemorating Epiphany.
Advent – The time to prepare for Christmas
The time leading up to Christmas is known as Advent. This is the time when we get ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus and reflect on the joy of the season.
Advent traditionally is a period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas. Advent lasts 40 days in many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, beginning on November 15th. For those Orthodox Churches celebrating Christmas on January 7th, Advent begins on November 28th. During the Advent, people observe fast by abstaining from certain foods based on their religious belief and their local observances.
The 12 days of Christmas
The Twelve Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and end on January 5th, also known as Twelfth Night. They were established in 567 at the Council of Tours to unite the two dates on which Christmas is celebrated in different parts of the Christian church.
Each of the 12 Days has a separate celebration or a saint’s day that is customarily observed:
- Day 1 (December 25): Christmas Day, a time to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ.
- Day 2 (Boxing Day, December 26): St. Stephen’s Day. He was the first martyr for Christianity. The Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas” is performed on this day.
- Day 3 (December 27): St. John the Apostle is commemorated on this day.
- Day 4 (December 28): The Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates the infant boys who were slaughtered by King Herod while he sought out to kill Baby Jesus.
- Day 5 (December 29): St. Thomas Becket was assassinated on December 29, 1170, while he was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century for questioning the King’s control over the Church.
- Day 6 (December 30): St. Egwin of Worcester is commemorated on this day.
- Day 7 (December 31): New Year’s Eve. Pope Sylvester I is typically honoured on this day.
- Day 8 (January 1): Mary, the mother of Jesus, is commemorated on this day.
- Day 9 (January 2): Notable fourth-century Christians St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen is commemorated on this day.
- Day 10 (January 3): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This recalls the ritual ‘naming’ of Jesus in the Jewish Temple.
- Day 11 (January 4): St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a saint who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries and was the first American saint is honoured on this day.
- Day 12 (January 5): St. John Neumann, the first American bishop is honoured on this day.
Midnight Mass and Christmas Bells
For a long time, people have historically connected church bells with Christmas. Any ceremony held after sunset is considered the first service of the day in the Anglican and Catholic churches. Consequently, the first service of Christmas day is usually held on Christmas Eve after dusk. Church bells are frequently rung to announce the beginning of the service.
The only occasions when Mass can be said at midnight in the Catholic Church are Christmas and Easter. At both midnight Masses, it is customary for the priest to recite the “Gloria” while the church and altar bells are frequently rung.
Christmas midnight mass is held as it is believed that Jesus was born at midnight. On Christmas Eve, many churches hold midnight services, albeit not all churches will include a mass or communion in the service.
The Tradition of Christmas Carols
The earliest carols were sung hundreds of years ago, but they were not Christmas carols. These songs were sung during the Winter Solstice festivities and were pre-Christian or pagan. Only the custom of singing carols at Christmas has persisted from the days when they were sung during all four seasons.
A Roman bishop recommended that the song “Angel’s Hymn” be sung at a Christmas ceremony in Rome in the year 129. Soon after, a large number of composers from all throughout Europe began to create “Christmas songs.” Due to the fact that they were all composed and sung in Latin, not many people enjoyed them.
The first carol was composed in 1410. The song told the story of Mary and Jesus encountering many characters in Bethlehem. The majority of carols from this era are made up of tales that are only hazily based on the Christmas tale of the holy family. They weren’t thought of as religious music, but as enjoyable songs.
Both carol services and the practice of singing carols in the streets were common during the Victorian era. In the Victorian era, a lot of brand-new carols were penned, including “Good King Wenceslas.” Even now, people still enjoy Carols by Candlelight and Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
Originally Nativity Plays were held to describe the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The original Nativity Play was presented by monks in Italy in a cave. St. Francis of Assisi and his disciples performed the first play in 1223 to remind the local populace that Jesus was born for them by being born into a poor family like theirs and not to a rich family.
In the play St. Francis used wooden figures to portray each character while narrating the story himself. To remind people of the story, cribs are now used in churches all over the world and even in some houses. Symbols are sometimes used to describe religious artwork and statues. Images of Mary and the infant Jesus can be found in the homes of some Catholics and Orthodox believers.
The Christmas Star – The Star of Bethlehem
The Christmas Star also known as the Star of Bethlehem has been described in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 2, when three wise men from the East known as Magi were guided by the star in their journey to Jerusalem.
They followed the star to Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, where they worshipped him and presented him with gifts. The star is seen as a miraculous sign and is also referred to as the Star Prophecy. Astronomers have attempted to connect the star to a number of rare celestial occurrences, including comets, supernovas, and the alignment of Jupiter with Saturn or Venus.
Santa Claus – The Mystical bearer of Gifts
Santa Claus, also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, or simply Santa, is a mythical figure that first appeared in Western Christian culture. It is said that on Christmas Eve, late into the night, Santa gets gifts of toys and candy for children or they may receive coal or nothing at all, depending on how good or bad they have been. According to the mythical story, Santa does this with the help of flying reindeer who pull his sleigh through the air and Christmas elves who create the presents in his workshop, which is frequently believed to be at the North Pole.
Santa Claus is typically portrayed as a large, cheerful, white-bearded man with spectacles, dressed in a red coat and pants with white fur collar and cuffs, a red hat with white fur, and black leather belt and boots. He is also typically illustrated as carrying a bag filled with gifts for children. He often appears to laugh in ways that sound like “ho ho ho.” The great impact of the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” led to the widespread adoption of this image during the 19th century. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist and caricaturist, also contributed to the design of Santa Claus. This image became widely popular through song, radio, television, children’s books, family Christmas customs, movies, and advertising.
The Tradition of Christmas Trees
Pre-Christian/pagan and Christian winter celebrations have long been observed with the usage of evergreen trees. At the Saturnalia festival, the Romans placed fir trees to adorn their temples, while the Greeks used them to adorn their homes for the winter solstice.
Christmas trees first appeared in primitive German mystery dramas as “Paradise Trees.” These apple-decorated wooden frames depicted the Garden of Eden. The early church calendars depicted December 24 as Adam and Eve’s Day.
Some early Christmas Trees were cherry or hawthorn plants in pots and hung from the ceiling. Others were made out of wooden pyramids of wood and decorated with paper, apples and candles. The ‘Paradise Tree’ was popular in what’s now Germany until the 1500s.
The Paradise Tree included additional ornaments including communion wafers, cherries, stars, bells, and angels. In some areas of Germany, Slavic nations, and parts of Poland, trees were suspended from the ceiling. They may have been hung from the rafters to save space or just because they looked good.
There are many stories about how the tradition of Christmas trees began. One such story is this. Martin Luther, a German preacher who lived in the 16th century, may have introduced the Christmas tree as we know it to homes for the first time. One night before Christmas, he is said to have been travelling through the forest when he glanced up and noticed stars gleaming through the tree branches. Because it was so lovely, he returned home and told his kids that it made him think of Jesus, who left the heavens to come to earth for Christmas. He then took a tree into his home and dressed it in star-shaped candles.
According to a different legend, St. Boniface of Crediton left England in the eighth century and journeyed to Germany to preach to and convert the pre-Christian and pagan German tribes to Christianity. It is stated that he came upon a group of pre-Christian/pagans who were going to sacrifice a young child while worshipping an oak tree to honour Thor. St. Boniface axed down oak trees out of rage and to put an end to the sacrifice. To his surprise, a young fir tree miraculously appeared from the oak tree’s roots.
St. Boniface considered this as a sign of Christian faith. With the help of his companions, decorated the tree with candles and St. Boniface was able to deliver his sermons to the pagan and pre-Christian population at night. While the tree tales appear to have begun several centuries later and are not recorded in the earliest sources about St. Boniface, St. Boniface was undoubtedly active in the spread of Christianity in several areas of Germany.
Another legend concerning the origin of the Christmas tree comes from Germany and reads as follows:
Once on a frigid Christmas Eve night, a forester and his family were in their house huddled around the fire to keep warm. There was an unexpected knock at the door. When the forester answered the door, he discovered a miserable little child standing on the doorstep, forlorn and alone. The family welcomed him into their home and cleaned, fed, and put the child to bed in the youngest son’s room.
The family was awakened by an angelic chorus on Christmas morning, and the miserable little boy had changed into Jesus, the Christ Child. The Christ Child entered the cottage’s front garden, broke off a branch from a Fir tree, and presented it to the family as a token of appreciation for taking care of him. In order to commemorate that evening, people have been bringing Christmas trees into their houses ever since! Interesting isn’t it!
Christmas Celebration in India
Now that we have learned quite a few of the Christmas traditions which are practiced globally, we now look into our Christmas celebrations here in India.
Christmas is a big deal in India even though less than 5% of the country’s people identify as Christians. Due to the participation of people from various religions, it has become quite commercialised. Many areas of the nation will have a classic Christmas spirit.
Celebrations in India are of course with mouth-watering and wonderful cuisine, indeed. In India, food is the main part of Christmas! Large Christmas buffets with all the classics—roast meat (including turkey), roast veggies, and decadent desserts—are served in international luxury hotels. The majority of hotels in India will host a special Christmas dinner of some sort, albeit it might have a more Indian flair.
India’s predominantly Catholic regions are decked up in Christmas decorations. Christmas services are also held at churches, including Midnight Mass.
Because of its substantial Roman Catholic population, Goa is one of the states in India that transforms the Christmas celebration into an amazing event. Because of the influence of Portugal, this state honours a wide range of western customs. The inhabitants enliven the area by decking out the churches, market squares, and homes with beautifully decorated Christmas trees, hanging lanterns in the shape of stars, and singing carols as they go.
Goan locals send native sweets to their loved ones as a way to show them how much they care. Second only to the decadent fruit cake in terms of popularity are the ‘Neurons’ which resemble little pastries and are filled with dried fruits and coconut. Another well-known treat is Dodol, which resembles toffee and has the ideal ratio of cashew and coconut.
On Christmas Eve, families throw a party where guests enjoy traditional holiday fare like roast turkey or chicken and libations. Then they go to church for midnight mass, where the church bell rings to signal the beginning of Christmas Day.
Now that you have learned about Christmas traditions and the origin of Christmas and how it is celebrated the world over, we wish you a Merry Christmas.