Christmas is predominantly a Christian festival, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, but the 25th December is when most Christians traditionally celebrate Christmas Day, and so this is the date that is generally recognized for the purposes of Christmas celebrations and the giving of gifts. The word Christmas means Mass of Christ.
The story of Christmas comes mostly from the Gospels of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew in the New Testament. According to Luke, an angel appeared to shepherds outside the town of Bethlehem and told them of Jesus’ birth. Matthew tells how the wise men, called Magi, followed a bright star that led them to Jesus in a stable. These wise men brought frankincense, myrrhr and gold as gifts for Jesus.
Some Christians go to church at Christmas, where they take part in special religious services (including midnight mass) led by vicars, priests and minister. Many Christians (and even those of other faiths and beliefs) exchange Christmas gifts and decorate their homes with beautiful decorations including holly and mistletoe, and there is often a Christmas tree under which the Christmas gifts are stored. The tradition of putting up trees possibly even goes back to the Babylonians, when the reincarnation of Nimrod as his own son, by his wife Semiramis, was born at the Winter Solstice (late December). In honour of this event Semiramis organised the cutting down and decorating trees (in Roman tradition they used decorated fir trees).
The first mention of 25th December as the birth date of Jesus occurred in A.D. 336 in an early Roman calendar. The choice of this day as Jesus’ birth date was probably because the ancient Romans held year-end celebrations to honor Saturn, their harvest god; and Mithras, the god of light. Various groups of people in northern Europe held festivals in mid-December to celebrate the end of the harvest season, which was seen as a happy time. During these celebrations, the people prepared special feasts, placed greenery around their homes and enjoyed singing and gift giving. The custom of gift giving seems to stem originally from the Roman tradition of presenting the Emperor and each other with good luck tokens, called strenae. As is often the case, this practice escalated perhaps in an effort to receive special favours or impress, so that more precious gifts were given, clothing, gold or silver items. This occurred during Saturnalia. By AD324 the custom of Saturnalia was ingrained into the culture and the new Christian Emperor, Constantine, needed to satisfy both his new religion and the masses, so he converted Saturnalia into Christmas. However, with the 3 wise men bringing gifts for Jesus at his birth, it seems that gift giving has always been associated with Christmas. These customs including singing and feasting have also gradually became part of the Christmas celebration, with people in today’s society eating Christmas dinner, decorating their homes with Christmas greenery such as holly and mistletoe, singing Christmas carols and giving Christmas gifts.