A central Christian holiday, which, by definition, commemorates the birth of Jesus, set on December 25.
Coptic Christmas celebration in Egypt.
Armenian Orthodox Christmas mass and procession inside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem January 18, 2011. Church services and ceremonies are conducted in the Cathedral of Nativity all night long and until the next day. Photo: Beautiful Faces of Palestine.
The name Christmas, which comes from the Old English term Cristes Maesse, is first recorded in 1038. Different names are used in other languages. The name in Arabic, hence the common name in the Middle East and North Africa is Idu l-Milad, or Eid al-Milad.
Although Easter is defined as the most important Christian holiday, Christmas is still the most celebrated and popular.
The Biblical background for Christmas is found in Luke 1:26-56 and Matthew 1:18-2:12, where the incidents prior to the birth, and the birth of Jesus itself are described. Central passages here deal with Jesus' mother, Mary, and state that she is unmarried and, in Luke that she is a virgin.
For the period of almost 30 years between the stories of Jesus' birth and his few years of public ministry (see Jesus-Judaism), there is almost no reference in the Gospels. The fact that the birth narratives play such a unique role within Jesus' early life may have provided a strong inluence on the sentiments inspiring popular Christmas celebrations.
Eastern Orthodox churches (see article on the term "orthodox") celebrate Christmas on January 6, in remembrance of the birth, the baptism of Jesus, and the arrival of the 3 Wise Men in Bethlehem.
With many Orthodox Christian groups, the real Christmas celebration takes place on January 6. The Coptic church, the Armenian church and some of the other Middle Eastern churches celebrate Christmas and the Epiphany on January 7.
In reality, there is nothing in the Biblical texts calling for a celebration of Jesus' birth, and, of course, no precriptions, therefore, for the way in which it should be celebrated
In the Catholic church, the celebrations of Christmas start on December 24, when there is an evening service. In many churches, a candlelight service is held at midnight.
In Bethlehem, Palestine, the Christmas celebrations are visited by thousands of Christians from all over the world. They take place in the Church of the Nativity. A horseman with a large cross leads the believers into the church. Then they descend down to the Grotto of the Nativity, where they try to recreate the birth scene of Jesus, placing an old image of Jesus on the place believed to be his actual birth place.
Prior to the 18th century it appears that new elements to the Christmas celebration were adopted from other non-Christian religions and traditions. About after that time, new elements were the product of creativity within the churches themselves.
Prior to the establishment of Christmas, a great festival in Rome, the Saturnalia, celebrated the winter solstice, typically between December 21 and December 25.
Another very important and popular cult was that of Mithras, whose birthday was on December 25. It is commonly accepted, even by conservative Christians, as the origin for the dating and the importance of the Christian festival. All of this is explained with that the early Church tried to incorporate non-Christian traditions in order to attract new adherents.
A third important, which may have provided suggestions for the Christmas celebration, was the midwinter cult of a cradled Dionysus held at Delphi (Greece).
A fourth important influence may have been the extremely popular myth of Isis, Horus and Osiris, originating in Ancient Egyptian religion. The unity between mother and son, and the problematic position of the father, have many similarities to the Christian understanding of elements involved in Jesus' birth narratives.
Of the 4 influences above, all major historians and theologians would agree that the Mithras cult has had direct influence on some aspects of Christmas. Concerning the 3 other ones, scholars disagree.
Later additions like Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the giving of gifts and the emphasis on lights (which may have arisen to demonstrate the Christian principle of Jesus being the light of the world) have no original or authentic ties to the birth narratives of Jesus.
Around 200: Clement of Alexandria writes that some Egyptian theologians have set the date of Jesus' birth on May 20 in the 28th year of Augustus' reign, i.e. year 1 CE.
243: An unknown Christian writer sets the date of Jesus' birth on March 28.
Early 4th century: Roman theologians annexes the birth cult of Mithras, setting Jesus birthday on the same date as Mithras' birthday.
336: First celebration of Christmas. It is called Feast of the Nativity.
5th century: The Catholic church introduces the midnight mass.