Christmas, observed on December 25, one of Christianity’s most important holidays, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, believed by the faithful to be the Son of God. The term Christmas is a combination of the words “Christ” and “Mass,” a ritual of worship of the Roman Catholic Church.
The date is rather problematic because there is no record of the precise date of the birth of Jesus. December 25th was chosen over 200 years after the time of Christ by an early Christian cleric. It took another century for the date to be accepted by the Christian hierarchy. Most likely it was deemed acceptable because it coincided with numerous winter solstice celebrations, particularly the Roman observances of Saturnalia and the “dies solis invicti nati”, or the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun.
The first recorded date of Christmas observance on December 25th was in 336 of the common era, during the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor.
Much has changed over the centuries that followed and many customs fell by the wayside while others that we now associate with Christmas gained popularity. The presentation of gifts to friends and family only dates back to the 15th century while the decoration of evergreen trees is first mentioned in 1605. Christmas trees as we know them today did not arrive until around 200 years ago.
By the early 20th century, Christmas had expanded beyond religious custom to become a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike. Today, Christmas is observed by billions of people around the globe, partly because it is a holiday beloved by children. Liturgical tradition, celebrating the birth of the Child Jesus is still observed, but the emphasis now is often on family, on reconnecting with relatives and celebrating with friends, on giving not only to those we love, but also to those in need. And the wonder in the eyes of the youngest reminds us that Christmas is, as it has always been, a time of renewal and hope, of good cheer and optimism for the coming year.