Christmas: What do I need to know?

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1. Merry Christmas

Christmas is celebrated by more people around the globe than any other religious festival. But this wasn't always the case. For much of their religion's early history, even Christians didn't mark the birth of Jesus. They were more interested in the circumstances of his death.

We often think of Christmas as a time of tradition: a chance to re-live rituals we enjoyed as a child. Yet Christmas has changed beyond recognition over the years. It has absorbed pagan practices, evolved as the Church has changed and even survived attempts to cancel it. Explore the surprising history of the festival we know today.

2. CLICKABLE: the original Christmas story

There's no definitive telling of the Christmas story as we know it in the Bible. Select the hand icon and discover how the nativity story has emerged from different accounts of Jesus' birth.

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The birth of Jesus, known as the nativity, is detailed in two of the four gospels of the New Testament – Matthew and Luke. But these Gospels give different accounts of Jesus’ birth. (Image: The Nativity with the Adoration of the Magi and Shepherds, an Andean Landscape Beyond (oil and gold paint on canvas), Peruvian School (18th Century) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images)

3. Ghosts of Christmas past

4. Christmas in numbers

Christmas in numbers

*2015 figure; length of advent varies year to year

Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales (best estimate), Church of England (2013), Census data (2011), Pew Research Center (2010), Greeting Card Association Market Report (2015)

5. Christian and pagan

Can you guess which of these familiar Christmas traditions actually have pagan origins?

Holly and ivy

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Holly and ivy

PAGAN

Decorating the home with evergreens is an ancient winter festival tradition, though it has been adopted by Christians to represent Christ's eternal life.

Santa Claus

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Santa Claus

BOTH

Derived from Sinterklass, a mythical Dutch figure based on Saint Nicholas. Father Christmas may also have absorbed elements of the pagan god Odin.

Star

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Star

CHRISTIAN

Often seen on the top of a Christmas tree, stars represent the star of Bethlehem which are said to have led the wise men to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

Lights

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Lights

PAGAN

Ancient pagans lit bonfires and candles during winter festivities to celebrate the return of the light at solstice. Christians adopted the practice.