Christmas is one of the most important holidays of Christianity, and is celebrated as the birthday of Jesus. Many of the traditions surrounding the holiday have also been adopted by non-believers in Christian countries and non-Christians around the world. The Western New Year comes one week after.
|O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
—Placide Cappeau, translated to English by John Sullivan Dwight
In Christianity, Jesus is traditionally said to have been born the night between Christmas Eve (December 24) and Christmas Day (December 25). Some Eastern Orthodox (e.g. Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian) and Oriental Orthodox (e.g. Coptic and Ethiopian) churches follow the Julian calendar, meaning that Christmas falls on what is 7th January on the Gregorian calendar. The Armenian church celebrates Christmas on 6th January, together with the Theophany. Various other days are also celebrated, such as Epiphany, a holiday celebrating the Magi's visit to the baby Jesus, which is the main festive day in some countries including Spain. Christmas – maybe not so coincidentally – follows a tradition found in much of Eurasia prior to the rise of Christianity to celebrate a festival of lights around the winter solstice; therefore, some Christmas traditions predate Christianity. To this day, light plays a dominant role in Christmas symbolism, especially in temperate and polar regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
This time of year is winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Even though "white Christmas" is a cultural trope celebrated in many songs and poems, it is actually quite rare in most of the temperate zone, and in parts of Europe the time around Christmas is usually warmer than the weeks before and after. Winter in North America is usually colder, and especially the Great Lakes area can see plenty of snow in December.
The exact dates of the holiday vary between countries. In the Germanic countries with the exception of the Anglosphere, most celebration happens on the 24th, which is a de facto holiday or "half a holiday" with the latter half of the day free in many professions and retail. In most English-speaking countries, the 25th is the day of most traditions. The word for Christmas in the North Germanic languages is jól (Icelandic and Faroese) / jul (Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian), which is cognate with "Yule", the Germanic Pagan winter solstice festival. "Yule" survives in modern English, and the word "Yuletide" is often used as an adjective to refer to things related to Christmas. The tradition of eating Christmas log cakes is believed to have its origin in the Germanic Pagan tradition of burning the Yule log.
New Year occurs one week after Christmas, and is a major holiday in many parts of the world. In the Gregorian calendar, this is the night of December 31 (New Year's Eve) and January 1 (New Year's Day), but there are other traditional calendars where the date differs.
While some Orthodox countries such as Russia celebrate Christmas on January 6–7 (which is 25–26 December in the Julian calendar), there is also some recognition of the Gregorian December dates.
The Christmas season traditionally ends on January 6 (the Epiphany), the "13th day of Christmas". This date is celebrated in many countries of the world under different names. In many Latin American countries it is Dia los Reyes (or Tres Magos) and is often marked with gift giving. A Rosca de Reyes (King's Cake) is served.
As Christmas is a major holiday in many countries, accommodation and transportation tend to be overbooked. Carriers will raise prices as far as they can get away with; sometimes travel as little as two days earlier can make the cost much more affordable. In the northern temperate zone, cold weather and darkness can complicate travel. Winter driving conditions in the north can also be unpredictable. All transport systems will be tested close to the breaking point – congestion on roads is almost a given, airports may get overcrowded (making delays more likely) and railways may become severely overbooked (get a reserved seat if you can). If you cannot adjust your travel plans, try to prepare well and take the stress with a relaxed attitude and, when travelling with children, make sure they understand that any unpleasantness of the trip will be worth it upon arrival.
Travelling on Christmas Day itself is often much less hectic than travelling on the surrounding days – if there is any transport. Trains in Canada's Windsor-Quebec corridor are usually booked to full capacity on December 24 and December 26, but can be almost deserted on December 25. Likewise, airline tickets on January 1 may be cheaper than on the days before or afterwards, and airports may be quiet on that day.
Most Western countries are largely shut down for Christmas Day (with many businesses closing early on Christmas Eve) as workers head home to their families. It may be very difficult, if not impossible, to buy groceries and other essentials during this period. Public transportation networks may curtail services or stop running entirely, so you should make advance preparations to cope with this day.
On New Years Eve, many public transportation systems offer a special schedule, often having more night service than is common on normal days; some cities offer free public transportation on New Year's Eve in order to reduce the number of drunk drivers on the streets after midnight.
|Christmas in L.A. is weird. There's no snow. It's not even cold.
Many people travel to, or within, the tropics or the southern hemisphere, as it is summer there. However, those who prefer winter sport or just want to experience a white Christmas travel to, or within, the northern temperate zone.
While Christmas is celebrated even in many places where Christianity is a minority religion at best, some countries do not celebrate it at all and in some countries people who celebrate Christmas are targeted for harassment or worse by the government or religious extremists.
If you are going to spend Christmas in a non-Christian country, and want to celebrate the holiday, you might want to check where any Christian expat community might gather. In some countries some luxury hotels arrange Christmas celebrations, as they receive many Western guests or cater to the expat community. The celebration might or might not be like what you'd expect from home.
Many people go to the Alps for Christmas, and venues are overbooked. On the other hand, snow tends to be a given above certain altitudes.
While the Nordic countries are known for snow, the Nordic capitals have poor odds for a White Christmas, from a toss-up chance in Helsinki to very unusual in Copenhagen. Snow in December can be found further north, or on the mountains.
Each Nordic country has a claim to be home of Santa Claus. Norwegians claim he lives in Drøbak; while Rovaniemi has a famous Santaland theme park, there is a smaller similar park in Mora, Sweden. The Danish people say that he lives in Greenland.
Gävle in Sweden is famous for a 12-metre straw goat which is built before Christmas every year. The goat has traditionally become the target of arsonists.
While Nordic people celebrate Christmas with families on the 24th, the 25th is a major nightlife event in Sweden.
- Bethlehem in the West Bank is the Biblical birthplace of Christ; see Holy Land for other Biblical destinations.
The Philippines boasts the longest Christmas celebrations; the Christmas season begins at September and ends at January, as late as the Feast of the Infant Jesus. It is also the busiest season in the country, where malls and flea markets hold periodic sales all season round. Children can be seen singing Christmas carols as early as October. Though Western culture has penetrated the Filipino Christmas, which incorporated Hispanic traditions like the Misa de Gallo and Nochebuena, you can still encounter authentic Filipino traditions like the parol (star-shaped Christmas lantern) and belen (Nativity scene). Christmas in the Philippines is rather mild, warm and tropical, and a good escape from the harsh winter far north.
New York City's Radio City Christmas Spectacular is one of the best-known Christmas shows. In addition, New York City is also known for the giant Christmas tree and ice skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. A large number of movies are set around Christmas in New York: Home Alone 2, Miracle on 34th Street, When Harry Met Sally, Elf, Scrooged.
- Churches celebrate Christmas in different ways.
- Christmas markets
- Christmas carols are sung by amateur choirs, often at free public concerts in the street (e.g. at markets) or door-to-door at private residences. Carollers usually take donations for charity, embodying the Christmas spirit of giving.
- Some towns and cities hold tree-lighting ceremonies.
- Visit some reindeer, and perhaps even have a tour with them. Available in many places in the northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway.
- Department stores and shopping malls, as well as some minor shops, create special Christmas window displays in many cities.
- Many Western cities decorate their main streets with illuminated displays. Public parks, many private homes and sometimes entire neighborhoods will get into the spirit as well.
- A "Santa Claus parade" or "Christmas parade" is held in many communities in late November or during December.
- Nativity plays retelling the conception and birth of Jesus are an important part of Advent for many Christians. Often performed by children, these usually form part of special church services or other public events like the tree-lighting ceremony.
- Many theatres in the UK, Ireland and parts of the Commonwealth put on pantomimes. These are plays based on fairy tales, with loud audience participation, elements of musical theatre, crossdressing, humour and larger-than-life stock characters: the Principal Boy or Girl, the Dame, the Baddie, the Horse, etc. Most 'pantos' are family-friendly, but the best ones also have content for adults – innuendo or references to current affairs – that goes over the heads of younger audience members.
- Other perennial Christmas stage shows include the Shakespeare play Twelfth Night and Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker.
- In many communities, the New Year is marked with parties, fireworks, and a group rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
- See also: Shopping#Shopping in a busy season
Giving presents is one of the most important aspects of Christmas for many people. Thus the time before Christmas is a major shopping season. In some countries tax refunds and salary bonuses are timed to coincide with this. Expect shops to do their best to benefit. This does not necessarily mean higher prices, but at least it means crowded shopping centers.
In addition to normal shops, there may be Christmas markets, which may make it easy to buy local handicraft and other more unusual items, and charity bazaars. While the former may be not-to-miss events, also some of the latter may be a nice way to make contact with the local community (and to make bargains if you find something you like).
In North America, from late November to mid-January, many stores have Christmas and New Year's sales, with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday being the three shopping days with the most sales, drastic price cuts and other discounts – but watch out for fake discounts: the item may never have been sold for its "normal" price, or the price may have been risen just to allow cutting it a few weeks later. Major retailers and other popular local stores will be overcrowded, especially malls, and many people prefer to shop online instead. Finding parking at and around malls and shopping centers can be a challenge in its own right, let alone the chaos that ensues inside the stores. After New Year's, many stores have large "liquidation" sales or "end-of-New-Year's" sales. Prices are cut or other gimmicks are employed (i.e. "No down-payment and no payment due for 24 months!") to try to get people in to their stores. Be careful also at these sales: either they probably have little left, or else they got the items specifically for the sales, in which case they hardly planned for losses.
Many legacy department stores have Christmas displays which are an attraction in their own right.
While Christmas is commonly associated with certain types of food, traditions tend to vary not only between countries but often within countries and sometimes even between individual families. Christmas food is one of a few traditions handed down over the generations by an immigrant family that has otherwise assimilated to their new place of residence.
Many animals (including carp, geese and turkeys) are specifically bred for Christmas dinner in the regions where they are common. However, prices can be steep and availability low immediately before Christmas. Some such items are reserved beforehand by locals; try to do the same. If your plans involve travelling across borders you might be tempted to bring some types of food. However, this might prove tricky at best, as some countries have strict prohibitions on bringing in products that could carry pathogens that cause agricultural diseases.
In Britain and Ireland, as well as some Commonwealth countries like Canada, New Zealand and Singapore, traditional Christmas meals include a roast ham, beef or turkey dinner with all the trimmings. In the United States, the roast turkey is typically replaced with roast beef, as turkey is a traditional Thanksgiving dish, while in Australia, prawns, usually tiger prawns, are usually consumed. Many French and Swiss families opt for a fondue or raclette, both involving copious amounts of hot melted cheese. Suckling pig (Spanish: cochinillo asado, German: Spanferkel) is commonly eaten in Spain, Germany and Austria for Christmas Eve dinner. In Japan, where mass observance of Christmas is a recent phenomenon, the dinner of choice for millions of people is Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Portuguese Eurasian community in Malaysia and Singapore is known for the devil's curry, which is very spicy and traditionally eaten for Christmas. In some countries, such as Italy and Lithuania, Christmas Eve is traditionally a day of abstinence from meat, so families will prepare a special vegetarian or fish-based feast.
Specific kinds of fruit may hold a traditional or symbolic place in the holiday. Children in Europe might find an orange among their gifts, harkening back to the days when citrus fruit was a small luxury that was available primarily during the winter. In China, it is now traditional to give an apple to each person on Christmas Eve, as a wish for a peaceful new year.
Certain confectionaries are Christmas staples. The Yule log (bûche de Noël) is a popular chocolate cake in French-speaking Europe, and has spread to France's former colonies around the world and to much of the Anglosphere. In Spain, mazapán (marzipan) from Toledo and turrón (similar to French nougat or Italian torrone) from Alicante and Jijona are popular Christmas sweets. Cakes or puddings incorporating nuts, spices, and candied fruits are common in Europe: German Stollen, Italian pannetone, and English Christmas pudding and Christmas cake are famous examples that have been adopted outside of their native lands.
Eggnog is popular around Christmas and New Year's in the United States and Canada. The eggnog available in grocery stores is almost always non-alcoholic.
In Northern Europe, mulled wine and mulled cider are very popular during this season.
British kids traditionally leave Father Christmas a glass of sherry and a mince pie on Christmas Eve; in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, the same tradition is practised, but the teetotal Santa Claus enjoys milk and cookies instead.
New Year's Eve is infamous for irresponsible use of alcohol. It is also a busy night for taxis and public transit, as intoxicated persons are often in no condition to walk nor drive. Many large cities in Canada offer free bus service on New Year's Eve and extend the operating hours in an effort to get people to leave their cars at home. In most of Germany there is extended night public transit service or even 24 hour service on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.