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Why do we celebrate Christmas Day every year on December 25? Find out with a brief history of this all-important Christian festival—and know the meaning behind the symbols of Christmas. Plus, let’s bring Christmas alive with recipes, crafts, poetry, and customs from around the world!
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
Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?
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 is also extensively celebrated by non-Christians as a seasonal holiday, on which popular traditions such as gift-giving, feasting, and caroling take place.
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stirred up interest in a festival at this time of year to counter the pagan festivals surrounding the solstice, but no historical document unequivocally explains Rome’s reasons for setting the date as December 25.
“Christmas” comes from the Old English Cristes maesse, meaning “Christ’s Mass.”
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.
Here are two more popular Christmas traditions and how they originated:
How did the idea of a Christmas tree start? Its origin is probably within winter celebrations long before the beginning of Christianity. The practice of decorating a tree, or using plants and trees that were green year-round, was important for people in winter climates. Some cultures believed evergreens would keep witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and even illness 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. Today, 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. → See the story behind the Christmas wreath.
How did the custom of giving Christmas presents originate? 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. → Learn the origins of many more Christmas traditions.