Christmas

Christmas is a fixed festival. It always falls on the same date each year, as it does not matter on which day of the week Christmas is celebrated.

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No-one is certain of the date on which Jesus was born. The early Christians did not celebrate Christmas, and it wasn’t until the fourth century that the date of 25 December was decided on.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christmas Day is celebrated on 7 January.

For Christians, Christmas is all about God sending His son into the world as part of His plan to bring salvation to people everywhere. Christians also think about the ‘incarnation’ - literally meaning ‘in the flesh’ - when God became man in the form of the baby Jesus. The incarnation reminds Christians that Jesus is a human being, the son of Mary and Joseph, and that he is also divine.

There are many customs and traditions that are associated with Christmas. Some are related to events in the Bible (such as the nativity play) while others have been invented by Christians to make their celebration of Christmas more meaningful and enjoyable (for example, Christmas cards and carol singing). Some customs have their origin in pagan traditions. These include kissing under the mistletoe – a plant that was a symbol of fertility in pagan times.

How do Christians celebrate Christmas?

There are a variety of ways that Christian churches choose to mark the occasion. Here are some examples:

The Christingle Service

The word ‘Christingle’ means ‘Christ Light’ and it originated in the Moravian Church. Worshippers (often children) are given a Christingle to hold and there may be a candlelit procession around the church. This is the symbolism of the christingle:

  • orange = the world
  • candle = Jesus, the light of the world
  • red band = blood of Christ, shed for the world
  • cocktail sticks = four seasons
  • nuts and fruit = the good things the earth provides
A traditional christingle

The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols

This traditional service originated in King’s College Cambridge and is now used in churches of many denominations. Usually it starts with the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, then there is the bidding prayer in which people are bid to come and celebrate the birth of Christ. There then follows nine readings from the Old and New Testaments. These tell first of God’s covenant with the Israelites, then the promise of the Messiah. The stories of Jesus’ birth from Matthew and Luke are read and the final reading is always the beginning of John’s Gospel. The readings are interspersed with carols, sung either by the choir or congregation.

Midnight Mass

Many Roman Catholic and Anglican Christians attend this service on Christmas Eve so that they can begin Christmas Day in the proper frame of mind.

Family service

Some denominations hold a special service on Christmas morning. Young children may be encouraged to bring their toys. Christmas carols are sung and there are Bible readings based around the Christmas story.

Epiphany

The twelfth day of Christmas, 6 January, is Epiphany. This marks the end of the Christmas season. The word ‘epiphany’ comes from the Greek language and means ‘to show forth’. Traditionally, this is the date of the visit of the Magi when Jesus was ‘to show forth’ as God’s Son to non-Jews. Christians believe that this is significant as it is a sign that Jesus’ birth would be important for all people and not just the Jews. This idea is known as universalism.