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Why do we celebrate Christmas Day every year on December 25? Here’s a brief history of this all-important Christian festival. Plus, learn the meaning beyond the rituals and symbols of the season. There is so much comfort in these traditions.
When Is Christmas Day?
For Western Christian churches, Christmas Day always occurs on December 25, though some cultures observe the main celebration on the night prior, Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day Dates
Monday, December 25
Wednesday, December 25
Thursday, December 25
Friday, December 25
What is Christmas?
Christmas Day is an annual Christian festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Specifically, the meaning of Christmas comes in the remembrance and celebration of God’s presence in our world through Jesus, God-made flesh. “Christmas” comes from the Old English Cristes maesse, meaning “Christ’s Mass.”
Christmas is also extensively celebrated by non-Christians as a seasonal holiday, on which popular traditions such as gift-giving, feasting, and caroling occur.
Why Do We Celebrate on December 25?
Although the actual date of Christ’s birth is unknown, Christmas has been symbolically celebrated on the 25th of December since the 4th century.
Scholars can’t agree on exactly when Christ was born, and the exact circumstances of the beginning of Christmas as we know it remain obscure. Some chronographers of the third century reckoned December 25, around the winter solstice, was the most likely day of Christ’s birth, although other dates had been suggested, including several in spring and fall.
The oldest existing record of a feast to celebrate the birth of Christ in the Western Church is in the Roman almanac called the Chronographer (or Chronography) of 354, also known as the Philocalian Calendar. This almanac noted that the church in Rome observed a festival commemorating Christ’s birth in the year 336.
About 350 A.D., Pope Julius I set December 25 as the date the Church would commemorate when Jesus was born. Many historians believe that the Church stirred up interest in a festival at this time of year to counter the pagan festivals surrounding the solstice, but no historical document unequivocally explains Rome’s reasons for setting the date as December 25.
Today’s rich mosaic of Christmas customs dates back through the ages worldwide. For example, the candles and lights associated with Christmas, meant to symbolize guiding beacons for the Christ child, may have evolved from the Yule log, which was lit to entice the Sun to return as part of the jol (Yule) festival in pagan Scandinavia.
Today, there are many traditions, from Christmas trees to presents. Some of these traditions provide comfort in our lives, but they are also meant to evolve, so keep the ones you love, drop the ones you don’t, and start some new ones if you wish! For example, perhaps there’s a more natural way to celebrate this year’s holiday.
The Christmas Wreath
Wreaths are part of many ancient traditions dating back to the earliest civilizations. The circle symbolizes immortality; throughout history, wreaths have been associated with life, rejuvenation, and renewal. → See the story of the Christmas wreath.
Stores are packed with plastic wreaths and greenery, but if you want to make a more eco-friendly choice, buy or make a live wreath with evergreen trimmings from your own or neighbor’s yard. Add some pine cones, seed heads, berries, and a bow. Your wreath will add a lovely fragrance to your home, as well as natural beauty. See how to make a Christmas wreath.
The Christmas Tree
The tradition of bringing in the evergreen goes back to winter celebrations long before the beginning of Christianity. Some ancient cultures believed evergreens would keep evil spirits at bay. During the Middle Ages, December 24 was celebrated as the Feast of Adam and Eve, complete with a Paradise Tree, a fir tree hung with red apples.
The practice of using decorated evergreen trees as part of the Christian celebration of Christmas is a custom begun in Germany over 400 years ago that spread rapidly throughout northern Europe and, hence, became a tradition transplanted to the New World by European immigrants.
Today, many people enjoy the tradition of trimming a tree. Again, if you want an Earth-friendly option, go with a live-cut tree, especially one cut from a local Christmas tree farm and not shipped long distances; tree farmers continually replant their trees.
Even better is getting a balled or container tree you can plant in the ground. The trick is: the plant can’t be kept indoors for more than 7 to 10 days, so don’t buy too early. Prepare the hole in the garden whenever the ground is not frozen and fill it with leaves or cover it with a tarp until ready to plant.
Contrasting against the deep evergreens are winter-flowing houseplants, from poinsettias to amaryllis. Other holiday plants include Christmas cactus, kalanchoe, cyclamen, and orchids.
One of our favorites is the fragrant paperwhite narcissus. Simply fill a glass dish with stones, set the bulbs on top, and fill with water. Within a month, beautiful tiny white flowers will bloom. See more detail in our paperwhites growing guide.
The ancient Romans gave each other gifts on the calends (first day) of January, and the practice spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Eventually, Christians moved the custom to December 25, although many Christians still give gifts on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the manifestation of Jesus’ divine nature to the Magi.