Christmas – its History and Celebrations

By: Arindam Bose


Traditionally observed on December 25, Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. Although some churches observe it on different dates, the fact is that the precise chronology of Jesus' birth and death is yet to be determined. Christmas has many sides to it, some religious and some secular, including the exchange of gifts, the Santa Claus myth, decoration and display of the Christmas tree, and religious ceremonies.


We can trace the origin of Christmas to several pagan holidays. It was since AD 354 that the christians in the West started celebrating the birthday of Jesus Christ on December 25, replacing an earlier date of January 6. By that time, the christians had appropriated several pagan festivals and traditions of the season that were practiced in many parts of the Middle East and Europe, as a means of stamping them out. Among those festivals were Saturnalia of the Romans, the birth celebrations of sun - God Attis in Phrygia (December 25) and Persian sun - God Mithras (December 17-24).

The Nativity

The Nativity refers to the birth of Jesus Christ. The christians celebrate Christmas by remembering or re-creating the Nativity. While the Eastern Orthodox Church practices the Nativity Fast in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, the Western Church mostly prefers celebrating Advent. Children often enact the events of the Nativity, or sing some of the numerous Christmas carols that reference the event. Some christians display a small re-creation of the Nativity in their homes, using small figurines to portray the key characters.

Santa Claus

In Western culture, a main feature of Christmas is the exchange of gifts among friends and family members, some of them being attributed to Santa Claus. Santa Claus is also known by other names, such as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Saint Basil and Father Frost. Santa Claus is based on the tale about Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who gave gifts on the eve of his feast day of December 6. He became associated with Christmas in 19th century America and was renamed Santa Claus or Saint Nick. In Britain and France too, Father Christmas and Pere Noel respectively were made to adopt the Santa image.

Christmas tree

The Christmas tree owes its origin to the ancient pagan idea, later appropriated by the christians, that the evergreen tree represents a celebration of the renewal of life. Christmas trees first became popular in Germany in the late 18th century. Christmas trees may be decorated with lights and ornaments. The poinsettia then became associated with Christmas, while other popular holiday plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus. In some parts of the world, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures. Town authorities also hang Christmas banners from street lights and place Christmas trees in the town square.

Feasts and cards

A special meal of Christmas dishes is usually served on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve. Another extremely popular tradition is to send Christmas cards to friends and family members. Cards can also be produced with messages such as "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays", to include senders and recipients who may not celebrate Christmas.

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