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The origins of Christmas

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Christmas (literally, the Mass of Christ) is a holiday in the Christian calendar, usually observed on December 25, which celebrates the birth of Jesus. According to the Christian gospels, Jesus was born to Mary in Bethlehem, where she and her husband Joseph had traveled to register in the Roman census. Christ's birth, or nativity, is believed to fulfill the prophecies of Judaism that a messiah would come, from the house of David, to redeem the world from sin. The precise chronology of Jesus' birth and death as well as the historicity of Jesus are still debated.

In many countries throughout the world Christmas is recognized as a national holiday. In 1890 the United States government recognized Christmas Day on December 25th of every year as a national holiday.

In predominantly Christian countries, Christmas has become the most economically significant holiday of the year, and it is also celebrated as a secular holiday in many countries with small Christian populations. It is largely characterized by exchanging gifts within families, and by gifts brought by Father Christmas or Santa Claus, a big jolly man with a white beard, or other folk figures. Local and regional Christmas traditions are still rich and varied, despite the widespread influence of American and British Christmas motifs disseminated through literature, television and other media.

The word Christmas is a contraction of Christ's Mass, derived from the Old English Cristes mæsse and refering to the religious ceremony of mass. It is often abbreviated Xmas, probably because X or Xt have often been used as a contraction for Christ. The English letter X resembles the Greek letter Χ (chi), the first letter of Christ in Greek (Χριστός transliterated as [Christos]). Crimbo is an informal synonym used in British English. Xmas is pronounced the same as Christmas, but most people just say X-Mas.

Historians are unsure exactly when Christians first began celebrating the Nativity of Christ. Some fringe scholars maintain that December 25 was only adopted in the 4th century as a Christian holiday by the Roman Emperor Constantine, to encourage a common religious festival for both Christians and Pagans. The majority opinion is that Constantine did not have such authority. Perusal of historical records indicates that the first mention of such a feast in Constantinople (Constantine's own city, after all) was not until 379 AD, under Gregory Nazienzen. In Rome, it can only be confirmed to mention in a document from approximately 350 AD, but without any mention of sanction by Emperor Constantine.

Early Christians celebrated more the subsequent Epiphany, when the baby Jesus was visited by the Magi (and this is still a primary time for celebration in Spain). Efforts to assign a date for his birth, though better known from writings from some centuries later, would have been important to all Christians then, no less than now.

The Romans honored Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture, each year beginning on December 17 in a festival called the Saturnalia. This festival lasted for seven days and included the winter solstice, which at that time fell on December 25 (today, following calendar reform, it falls on December 21). During Saturnalia the Romans feasted, postponed all business and warfare, exchanged gifts, and temporarily freed their slaves. With the lengthening of daylight, these and other winter festivities continued through January 1, the festival of Kalends, when Romans marked the day of the new moon and the first day of the month and religious year (the secular year began in March).

By the 4th century another factor was also at work. Many Romans also celebrated the solstice on December 25 with festivities in honor of the rebirth of Sol Invictus, the "Invincible Sun God," or with rituals to glorify Mithra, the ancient Persian god of light (see Mithraism). Sol Invictus was a religion to which both Constantine himself before his confession of Christianity, and his predecessor Diocletian, who had rebuilt the Roman Empire, were especially devoted, and to whom the latter had attributed his military successes (though Constantine saw Christ as having delivered him from the former Roman order's designs: Diocletian at one time had had Constantine living under his eye, against his will, separating him from his father). Constantine is therefore assumed to have found it convenient to find a common major festival for both Sol Invictus and Christianity. There is no actual evidence beyond this chain of assumptions that the holiday was actually instituted by the Emperor. Indeed, all extant evidence indicates that it was generally adopted decades after his death in most parts of the Empire.


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