Christian (Orthodox): Christmas and Nativity

Nativity scenes are on display in millions of homes. Photo by Jeff Weese, courtesy Wikipedia.TUESDAY, DECEMBER 25: Ring the bells and sing for joy—it’s Christmas! The Old English Christ’s Mass elevates the birth of Jesus Christ for 2 billion Christians, hailing from snow-covered mountains to sandy beaches, crowded cities to rural fields—and everywhere in between.

Central to the liturgical year, Christmas closes Advent and begins the Twelve Days of Christmastide. Though the exact year of Jesus’ birth can’t be placed, Christian families re-read two Gospels that describe a lowly manger, visiting shepherds, magi and, of course, that mysterious guiding star (now believed to have been a rare alignment of planets: the Huffington Post recently published a story). While previously a time of year when winter Solstice was celebrated in the Roman empire (see our earlier story on that)—Christians transformed this darkest period of the year and say Jesus’ coming fulfills ancient prophesy that a “Sun of righteousness” would come, and that his (red) blood and (green) eternal life provide hope to the whole world. (Wikipedia has details; or check out Even St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican boasts an impressive mosaic of Christo Sole, Christ the Sun, in its pre-4th-century necropolis.

Earliest evidence of a Christmas celebration centered around Jesus dates to 354 CE, when events took place in Rome (note that the birth of Christ was already being observed at this time by Eastern Christians, on Epiphany). The first Christmas hymns emerged in 4th century Rome, but the Epiphany holiday continued to dominate Christmas through the Middle Ages. During the medieval period, Christmas grew in popularity over Epiphany. During this time, the 40 days prior to Christmas became known as the “forty days of St. Martin”—a tradition that evolved into Advent.


Even primarily non-Christian countries, such as Japan, have now adopted Christmas as a secular holiday for gift-giving, caroling, feasting and evergreens. In the United States, where Christians comprise the majority religious group, Christmas Eve is now ranked by most churches as the single biggest attendance of the year. And, ReadTheSpirit online magazine has been very helpful in publishing three stories about preparing your church for the holidays. The series even includes quick tips on updating your website for the holidays!


What does Christmas look like where you live? CNN cast an international invitation for photos and descriptions of holiday cheer—and more than 400 submissions described traditions from the mountaintops of Germany to the sandy beaches of Pacific islands. The highlights:

• Cincinnati, Ohio, hosts “Santa-Con,” an annual call for Santa Clauses to dress up and walk the streets, handing out candy.

• The Philippines hosts what is believed to be the longest Christmas season—with decorations adorning streets and homes from September through the end of January. In rural areas of the Philippines, bamboo and paper lanterns light the way for churchgoers.

• The German Christmas market in Hanau, the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, bustles beneath enormous statues of the Grimm brothers.

Many of Europe’s world-famous Christmas markets offer much more than statues: Each delivers a unique peek at traditionally handmade items and local foods. As reported by CNN, Berlin offers ice rinks, ferris wheels and toboggan runs at its more than 60 markets; in Nuremberg, spiced gingerbread and locally produced wooden toys lure visitors; and in Austria’s capital, chilly shoppers can warm up with roasted chestnuts and hot drinks served in sturdy, collectible mugs.


Whether your halls are decked to the hilt or boasting a sparse sprig of holly, have no fear—there’s still time to bring cheer to your home! We’ve searched the web and spotted these online gems that are worth a click and a look …

Martha Stewart offers a selection of handmade gift ideas, ornament inspirations and more. Those looking for a European twist on their holidays can access recipes, gift guides and craft ideas at The Guardian. Don’t leave out the kids—their crafts and printables are at Kaboose. After the stockings and wreaths are hung, it’s time to focus on the Christmas meal—an all-important aspect to Christmas in many cultures. In areas of Italy, 12 kinds of fish are served on Christmas Eve (get Italian Christmas recipes here), while in England, fare often includes goose, gravy, potatoes, bread and cider. Whether Midnight Mass interrupts your menu or not, don’t forget dessert—American cookies, traditional pudding, fruit cakes and mince pies. (Taste of Home and AllRecipes offer everything from appetizer to dessert recipes.)

Cooking for guests with special requests? Find a gluten-free menu and a vegetarian menu from Huffington Post. In Malta, a chocolate and chestnut beverage is served after the 12 a.m. Christmas services. Chocolate lovers can find more festive food ideas at


A Christmas card circa 1911 depicts churchgoers.According to a recent study commissioned by The Bible Society and reported on by The Telegraph, a team of mystery shoppers from Nielsen auditors scoured European card shops, convenience stores and high-end retailers, in search of one thing: Christ in Christmas cards. The results were startling: of nearly 6,000 cards sampled, only 34 featured Nativity scenes. Extending the umbrella, researchers began taking other religious images into account—such as church pews and choirs—and including both individual and boxed sets of cards. In the end, just 2 percent of cards were found to have religious content. Conversely, a select few retailers reported an increase in demand for religious cards.

Meanwhile, in Washington, CNN reported a growing rift among American atheists in regards to the Christmas season. A New York billboard—sponsored by the American Atheists and costing $25,000 during its run through January—boldly asks passersby to dispel Christ from the winter holiday. Other Atheist groups utilize the cheer of the season to work with religious groups and learn their similarities and differences. A recent event was held in Boston—jointly sponsored by the Humanist Community at Harvard, atheists and several diverse religious groups—packaged meals for poor children in the city.


Now, for some extra fun: Aare you looking to strike up a conversation with a stranger—or that family member you only see once a year? Try tossing out a few of these interesting tidbits during your next gathering:

Sancte Claus was retroactively named the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam (the Dutch name for New York City) in 1809

• President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in the United States in 1870. Five years later, the first American Christmas card was produced

• Charles Dickens sought to recreate Christmas as a family-centered holiday of generosity and secularity. Unlike modern-day Europe and U.S., workers in Dickens’ day did not get “days off” in their work schedules. In addition to campaigning for a full-day December 25 holiday in A Christmas Carol, Dickens was one of the leading British activists for Sunday-holiday laws in the UK that would give workers a weekly sabbath off work. So, there was a major political campaign behind Dickens’ fanciful tales.

• Martin Luther arguably began the modern Christmas tree tradition; others hold that it began in 18th century Germany


Gregorian and Julian calendars differ by 13 days this year, causing Christmas and Epiphany to fall on January 7 and 19, respectively, by those Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian Calendar. Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas Day for anyone, though—at least not according to the Church! On the contrary, Christmas Day begins the Twelve Days of Christmas, which continue through January 6. Most Christian denominations preach this worldwide tradition, even though many parishioners are quick to take down decorations and move into the new year. One place to read more on this is Catholic Culture. In some places, it is tradition to give gifts during each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

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