On December 25th, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. With approximately 1.8 billion Christians in the world today celebrations are bountiful, but where does the tradition come from?
Gold, incense or myrrh? The modern day Christmas gift is slightly different from those exchanged in the days gone by
Christmas is the final day in the Advent calendar. This is a significant day for religious reasons which sees many devout Christians attending midnight mass. In Germany, Christmas eve is spent with the immediate family (mother, father and children) and is sometimes referred to as ‘Dickbauch’ or fat stomach. As the name implies, it is a time for eating and enjoying all the culinary delights associated with Christmas. The tradition stems from a superstition which claims that those who do not eat well on Christmas eve will be haunted by demons during the night.
German families traditionally open their gifts on Christmas eve too. Although, the rest of the world waits another several hours to open their gifts the following morning. One theory as to why Germans do this dates back to the medieval era when time was measured from sundown to sundown. Festivities usually began the night before and ended the following sundown. Time was not measured in hours and minutes as we know it today.
December 25 marks the birth of Jesus Christ, but there is no conclusive evidence that he was born on exactly this day. Before 336 A.D. 25 December was a popular pagan day of celebration called Saturnalia. Heathens traditionally celebrated the winter solstice and worshipped the power of the sun. Also known as the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, the day was cause for merriment since the sun begins to rise again after having been at the lowest point in the heavens.
In an attempt to eclipse these celebrations, Christian leaders declared the day ‘Cristes maesse’ or a day for the Christ’s Mass. From then on Christmas was the celebration of the birth of God’s son for Christians the world over. The day is also referred to as Xmas and many think of it as a mere abbreviation. But, the word Xmas actually stems from the Greek word for Christ, Xristos.
Christmas day also marks the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas. It ends on Epiphany or 6 January in the New Year which marks the day that Jesus was baptised. This was the time when it is believed that the three wise men came bearing gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. Traditionally, 12 small gifts, one per day, were exchanged until Epiphany which is today mostly celebrated in devout Catholic countries.
In Germany, Christmas is spread out over two days. The first Christmas day - 25 December - is celebrated with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins etc. The second Christmas day is a time to spend visiting close friends.
Wishing you a merry Christmas wherever in the world you are!