Although nowadays Christmas is celebrated by people all around the world, it is traditionally a Christian holiday which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe was the Son of God. Christmas day takes place on 25th December, but why is this the date that we most commonly celebrate?
1. The name
The origin of Christmas is reflected in the name, which comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service, also called Communion or Eucharist, is a church ceremony in which Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The service was named ‘Christ-Mass’ and was the only service allowed to take place after sunset, so it was held at Midnight between Christmas Eve and Day. The name then became shortened to Christmas.
2. The date
Christmas is first recorded as being celebrated on December 25th in the year 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. However it was not an official Roman state holiday at the time. Christmas Day is 25th December because this is considered to be the birth date of Jesus. However, his birth date is in fact unknown, and the Bible does not give one, so why do we celebrate it on the 25th December? There are many different theories as to why this is.
3. Multiple theories
An early Christian tradition states that the Annunciation (the day Mary was told that she would have a very special baby) was on March 25th, and it is still celebrated on that date nowadays. Nine months on from 25th March is 25th December, which would explain Christmas day being then. Additionally, early Christians thought the world had been made on March 25th, and also that Jesus died and was conceived on the same day of the year, March 25th.
Winter Solstice, the day with the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting, happens on December 21st or 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere. For Pagans this marked a change in the seasons and was a time to celebrate, with food, drink, music and rituals. There are arguments that in some places Christians believed celebrating Christmas to coincide with this would help persuade Pagans to also celebrate it and follow Christianity.
Another theory is that the Jewish festival of Lights, Hanukkah, starts on the eve of the Kislev 25 (the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs about the same time as December). This celebrates when Jewish people were able to return to worship in their Temple in Jerusalem, following many years of not being allowed to practice their religion. Jesus was a Jew so this could have also influenced the early Church in choosing December the 25th for the date of Christmas.
4. Alternative dates
Many Orthodox and Coptic Churches still use the Julian Calendar (Roman), as opposed to the Gregorian Calendar which most of us use today, and so celebrate Christmas on the 7th January which is December 25th on the Julian calendar. The Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates it on the 6th January, and in some parts of the UK, January 6th is still called ‘Old Christmas’.
5. A combination
Traditions are often altered and changed with time, and the Christmas holiday is no exception. For example, there are links between the Winter Solstice tradition and Christmas because Christians took on some of the customs and gave them Christian meanings, such as collecting Holly, Mistletoe and also singing Christmas Carols. The Christmas we have today is a result of years and years of gradual change, and a combination of various peoples and beliefs.