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December 25th (January 6th for Orthodox Christians)

The nativity in stained glass.

Christmas is a Christian holy day that marks the birth of Jesus, the son of God. However it is not only a Christian festival. Christmas has roots in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festivals of the ancient Greeks, the beliefs of the Druids and the folk customs of Europe.

Midwinter celebrations
Christmas comes just after the middle of winter. The sun is strengthening and the days are beginning to grow longer. For people throughout history this has been a time of feasting and celebration.

Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives and because of this they had a great reverence for, and even worshipped the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule (another name for Christmas) is thought to have come. At Winter Solstice the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.

The ancient Greeks also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, processions and giving presents.

Candles and fires have been lit at mid-winter celebrations for thousands of years

Before Christianity came to the British Isles the Winter Solstice was held on the shortest day of the year (21st December). The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.

Judaism was the main religion of Israel at the time of Jesus' birth. The Jewish mid-winter festival of Hanukkah marks an important part of Jewish history. It is eight days long and on each day a candle is lit. It is a time of remembrance, celebration of light and time to give gifts and have fun.

Jesus' birth

Nativity scenes are popular images in the stained glass windows of churches.
The nativity is the birth of Jesus as described in the New Testament of the Bible.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke give different accounts of the birth of Jesus. It is from them that the nativity story is pieced together.

Both accounts tell us that Jesus was born to a woman called Mary who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter. The Gospels state that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant.

In Luke's account Mary was visited by an angel who brought the message that she would give birth to God's son. According to Matthew, Joseph was visited by an angel who persuaded him to marry Mary rather than send her away or to expose her pregnancy.

According to tradition Jesus was born in Bethlehem, (near Jerusalem in Judea) in a stable. Matthew tells us about three wise men who followed a star that led them to Jesus' birthplace and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Luke tells us of Shepherds who were led to Bethlehem by an angel.

The first Christmas
The Gospels do not mention the date of Jesus' birth. It was not until the 4th Century CE that Pope Julius I set December 25th as the date for Christmas. This was an attempt to Christianise the Pagan celebrations that already took place at this time of year. By 529, December 25th had become a civil holiday and by 567 the twelve days from December 25th to Epiphany were public holiday.

Christmas has always been a strange combination of Christian, Pagan and folk traditions. As far back as 389CE St. Gregory Nazianzen (one of the Four Fathers of the Greek Church) warned against 'feasting in excess, dancing and crowning the doors'. The Church was already finding it hard to bury the Pagan remnants of the mid-winter festival.

During the medieval period (c.400CE - c.1400CE) Christmas was a time for feasting and merrymaking. It was predominantly a secular festival but contained some religious elements.

Many Pagan traditions had been brought to Britain by the invading Roman soldiers. These included covering houses in greenery and bawdy partying that had its roots in the unruly festival of Saturnalia.

The Church attempted to curb the Pagan practices and popular customs were given Christian meaning. Holly became a symbol for Jesus' crown of thorns. And during the late medieval period the tradition of singing carols - carols had started as Pagan songs for celebrations such as mid-summer and harvest - was taken up by the Church.

The medieval Christmas lasted 12 days from Christmas Eve on the 24th December, until Epiphany (Twelfth Night) on the 6th January. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means 'to show', meaning the time when Jesus was revealed to the world. Even up until the 1800s Epiphany was at least as big a celebration as Christmas day.

17th Century ban on Christmas
From the middle of the 17th Century until the early 18th Century the Christian Puritans suppressed Christmas celebrations in Europe and America.

The Puritan movement began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England (1558-1603). They believed in strict moral codes, plenty of prayer and close following of New Testament scripture.

As the date of Christ's birth is not in the Gospels the Puritans thought that Christmas was too strongly linked to the Pagan Roman festival and were opposed to all celebration of it, particularly the boozy, topsy-turvy celebrations inherited from Saturnalia. In 1644 all Christmas activities were banned in England. This included decorating houses with evergreens and eating mince pies.

The crib and the nativity play
Modern day crib outside a church
The telling of the Christmas story has been an important part of the Christianisation of Christmas. One way that the Christmas story has been told is through the crib, a model of the manger that Jesus was born in.

The tradition of crib-making dates back to at least 400 when Pope Sixtus III had one built in Rome. In many parts of Europe in the Eighteenth Century crib making was an important craft from. This was not the case in England to much later, suggesting that British Christmases were less Christian than those in other parts of Europe (The Making Of The Modern Christmas).

The tradition of Nativity plays began in Churches where they were used to illustrate the Christmas story as told in the Bible.

Victorian Christmas
After a lull in Christmas celebrations the festival returned with a bang in the Victorian Era (1837 - 1901). The Victorian Christmas was based on nostalgia for Christmases past. Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) inspired ideals of what Christmas should be, capturing the imagination of the British and American middle classes. This group had money to spend and made Christmas a special time for the family.

Copyright - Cambridge and County Fold Museum
Detail from a Victorian Christmas card

It was the Victorians who gave us the kind of Christmas we know today, reviving the tradition of carol singing, borrowing the practice of card giving from Valentines' day and popularising the Christmas tree.

Although the Victorians attempted to revive the Christmas of medieval Britain, many of the new traditions were Anglo-American inventions. From the 1950s carol singing was revived by ministers, particularly in America, who incorporated them into Christmas celebrations in the church. Christmas cards were first sent by the British but the Americans, many of whom were on the move and far from families, picked up the practice because of a cheap postal service and because it was a good way of keeping in contact with the folks at home. Christmas trees were a German tradition, brought to Britain and popularised by the royal family.

Christmas in church
Christmas service at a church
Advent is the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and begins on Sunday nearest to 30th November. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus meaning coming. It is a penitential season but is no longer kept with the strictness of Lent and Christians are no longer required to fast.

Advent wreaths are popular especially in churches. They are made with fir branches and four candles. A candle is lit each Sunday during Advent.

Christmas Day is the Christian festival most celebrated by non-churchgoers, and churches are often completely full for the service late on Christmas Eve.

Christmas today
Today, only around 60 percent of people in the UK are Christian but Christmas remains the biggest holiday in the calendar. It is a largely secular holiday, with the main element the exchange of gifts of Christmas day.

An important part of today's Christmas is the myth of Santa Claus. His origins are in Christian and European tradition. But the image of Santa that we have today is the one popularised by American card-makers in the Victorian era.

In previous centuries the Church worried about Pagan influence on the Christian festival, but today ethical considerations are focused on the over-commercialism of the holiday with each person in the UK spending on average 400 on Christmas related purchases.

Chocolate Santas

Protests against consumerism have been made by Christians and non-Christians such as 'Buy Nothing Christmas', encouraging people to spend time with their families instead of spending money on them.

With carol concerts, Christmas trees, office parties, midnight mass, and television programmes, today's festival has elements of the Pagan, Christian and folk traditions.

Christmas remains a time to forget about the long dark days and celebrate with friends and family.