Christmas: 2 billion Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth

“Fear not for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior; which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
Luke 2:11-12

Interior of ornate cathedral softly lit, crowd before towering Christmas tree and star and altar

Christmas service in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Andi Graf, courtesy of Pixabay

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 25: Today is celebrated as Christmas by the vast majority of the world’s 2 billion Christians—including many Orthodox Christians in the U.S. who refer to the holiday as the Nativity. However, some Christians around the world still mark Christmas according to earlier versions of global calendars, pushing many Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian churches to a January 7 celebration. Latest of all, each year, there’s even an ancient Armenian Christmas liturgy in the town of Bethlehem as late as January 18 and 19.

While the birth year of Jesus is only speculated, December 25 is embraced by a multitude of Christians worldwide as the day Mary and Joseph knelt beside their newborn son in a manger. On Christmas Day in most of the Church, the season of Advent closes for Western Christians; the Nativity Fast ends for Eastern Christians; and the 12 days of Christmastide begin. In many countries, Christmas Day is a public holiday.

ORTHODOX CUSTOMS

About half of Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas with Western Christians on December 25. That list includes the Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Albania, Cyprus and Finland—as well as the Orthodox Church in America.

Celebrating in January—for a variety of traditional reasons—are Orthodox churches in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia. Mainly this variance involves the older Julian calendar, which pushes Christmas to January 7, but further wrinkles in the tradition affect some Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians. The very last Eastern Christmas will be celebrated by the Armenians living in Jerusalem, who travel to Bethlehem for an hours-long, centuries-old liturgy in the Church of the Nativity.

CHRISTMAS HISTORY

The Chronography of 354 AD is the oldest surviving reference to a Roman celebration for the birth of Jesus on December 25; in the East, the birth of Jesus was already observed with the Epiphany, on January 6. In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was outshone by Epiphany, though by the later medieval period, Christmas-related holidays were starting to become more popular.

From the formative years of the Church’s celebrations to the Nativity noted today, a multitude of customs have become associated with Christmas: displaying manger scenes, caroling, sending greetings and hanging stockings by a fireplace, to name just a few. Certain saints have been responsible for creating some of the customs—namely, St. Francis of Assisi for the nativity scene, and St. Nicholas for stockings and candy canes—while others are secular or even pre-Christian.

Christmas encountered turbulence through the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens were creating the “heartfelt goodwill” that morphed Christmas into a more secular holiday based on goodwill, family and jollity. (Wikipedia has details.) For billions around the globe, Christmas today includes cookies, gift giving, shared feasts, cherished stories and songs and festive decorations.

Illustration of manger scene with light from above shining on baby Jesus

Photo by Travis, courtesy of Flickr

JESUS:
THE BIRTH OF A SAVIOR

Christians believe the birth of Jesus to Mary fulfills an ancient Messianic prophesy. Two canonical gospels record Jesus as having been born to Mary and her husband, Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. Tradition tells that the birth took place in a stable, because “there was no room for them in the inn.” Nearby shepherds, told of the birth by angels, came to see the baby; magi came later, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. (Find answers for Orthodox Christian questions at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; access Catholic answers at American Catholic.) The Star of Bethlehem is believed to have led the magi to Jesus, and the visit of the magi is celebrated as Epiphany, on January 6.

RECIPES & MORE

The Christmas pudding cooked on Stir-up Sunday is still traditionally served in some countries, but for others, Christmas today is more about cookies and peppermint sweets than old-fashioned fruitcakes and puddings. Interested to learn more?

From Martha Stewart, try baking something beautiful.

From Rachael Ray or Food Network, find an array of professional recipes.

From AllRecipes, gather favored suggestions for dinner, breakfast and dessert.

From Food & Wine, cook up something fancy or unique.

IN THE NEWS

ROCCA ON DICKENS—CBS correspondent Mo Rocca takes us to England for a “tour” of Charles Dickens’ famous tale,  A Christmas Carol. It’s a fun overview for Dickens fans.

NO WHITE CHRISTMAS—Forecasters are united in predicting that the majority of the continental United States won’t see snow on the holiday. Here’s an NBC version of that report.

POPE FRANCIS—Displaying his now world-famous optimism, Pope Francis is making headlines for insisting that he make all of his Christmas-season appearances, despite threats of terrorism. In a talk on December 20, he reminded the world that the Christmas story includes God’s call to compassion for the world’s poorest families. He wasn’t alone. “Jesus himself was a refugee,” Cokie and Steve Roberts reminded readers in this news story.

Yule: Throw a log on the fire and enjoy the longest night of the year

Fire lit in fireplace, darkened room, rock at base and lighted greens draped on mantle

The burning of a Yule log is an ancient custom near the winter solstice. Photo by Justin Kern, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22: Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere brings the longest night of the year—so pull up a chair, pour a glass of wassail or hot cider and celebrate Yule! (Note: Date may vary by location.) Yuletide was originally observed by Germanic peoples, as a welcoming of winter and the return of lengthening days; today, the Yule log and Yule singing are still seen in several regions of the world. Whether a Yule log is placed on the fire or eaten as a buche de noel, the longest night of the year is the perfect time to get warm by the fireplace and revel in the joy of the season.

Did you know? One of the largest Yuletide celebrations in the United States is actually an interfaith ceremony at William & Mary. The Yule Log ceremony has taken place at William & Mary since 1934, and encompasses throwing holly sprigs, singing carols and sharing the holidays of different faiths.

The custom of bringing in a Yule log still held immense popularity in the 19th century, and centuries before, bonfires were lit in fields as the center of Yule activities. Tradition has it that the Yule log is chopped from the base of a Yule tree, and then allowed to burn through the entire night of the solstice. The log smolders for the next 12 days. Ancient Druids gathered what they regarded as the most sacred of Yuletide plants—holly and ivy—and decorated their homes with the live greens.

Today, Wiccans and Pagans may greet the Sun King on Yule and smolder a Yule log; Christians observe the time as Christmastide.

YULE: SOLSTICE, SATURNALIA & INTIHUATANA

Though Germanic peoples are credited with Yule, festivals for solstice are embedded in almost every culture. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia and Brumalia were festivals for the sun god, with food, gift giving and more. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as an Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.

Slice of swirled cake on plate with white frosting and red and green sprinkles

A slice of buche de noel, or a Yule log cake. Photo by Arkomas, courtesy of Flickr

RESOURCES, NEWS & MORE

In Beulah, Colo., the annual community-wide Yule Log Hunt has been tradition for more than 60 years. Read the news story about this year’s hunt, which drew hundreds for the small mountain town’s annual search.

At Indiana University, the second annual Yule Ball brought purple lighting, hanging candles and orchestral music to hundreds of attendees, in what organizers say has become an immensely popular event. The ball was inspired by the Yule dance of the “Harry Potter” series.