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Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, Messiah of the Christian faith. The name Christmas comes from the Old English Cristes maesse, meaning Christ’s Mass, in reference to the Catholic mass ceremony held in celebration of Jesus. Christmas is observed as a public holiday in more than 160 countries around the world.
Christmas is observed by Christians with dedicated church services. For the Roman Catholic church, the first liturgy of Christmas is the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and the Anglican church holds a Midnight Communion. The Presbyterian midnight service does not include Mass but is celebrated with carol singing.
Religious observance aside, Christmas is celebrated as a secular cultural holiday all around the world, with families gathering for feasts and gift giving.
One of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas is that of the Christmas tree. The tradition of cutting down an evergreen tree, bringing it inside and decorating it brightly is thought to have originated in 16th century Germany. The evergreen tree is often substituted for an artificial equivalent in modern times. Many people arrange their Christmas gifts under the tree.
The tradition of gift giving on Christmas is thought to commemorate the gifting of gold, myrrh, and frankincense by the three wise men to the baby Jesus. Gift giving has become a huge part of the modern Christmas tradition and the lead up to Christmas is the most significant retail period in the Western world. Inextricably tied to the Christmas gift giving tradition is the character of Santa Claus.
The origin of Santa Claus lies with the third century Turkish monk St. Nicholas, who was sainted for giving away all his wealth to the poor. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children, and his feast day is celebrated on the 6th of December. Early Dutch immigrants to the United States brought with them the cultural tradition of celebrating the death of St. Nicholas. They knew him as Sint Nikolass, which was abbreviated to Sinter Klass, and has since become Santa Claus. The modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly, white-bearded fellow can be traced to early 20th century Coca-Cola advertising, which was so successful it has become the definitive image for Santa the whole world over.
Much of the imagery associated with Christmas relates to winter, as Christmas is celebrated just after winter solstice in northern hemisphere, and this imagery is retained in Aotearoa New Zealand despite Christmas being a summer festival. As such, alongside the snowmen, mulled wine, and Santa’s sleigh we have beach visits, barbeques and strawberries.
Christmas is celebrated in too many places and by too many people with too much wonderfully diverse cultural expression for us to possibly capture it all here, but at the heart of it, whether you are Christian or not, Christmas is about togetherness, with love, peace, and goodwill for all.
Christmas falls on the 25th of December every year.