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 been adopted also by non-believers in Christian countries and non-Christians around the world.
In the context of Christmas, Jesus is traditionally said to have been born the night between Christmas Eve December 24 and Christmas Day December 25 (the real birthday is unknown). 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 & Faroese) / jul (Danish, Swedish & Norwegian), which is cognate with "Yule", the Germanic Pagan winter solstice festival. "Yule" survives in modern English in the word "Yuletide", which is often used as an adjective to refer to things related to Christmas, and the tradition of eating Christmas log cakes is believed to have its origin in the Germanic Pagan tradition of burning the Yule log.
While there are many traditional calendars, the Gregorian New Year occurs at December 31, and is a major holiday in many parts of the world.
While some Orthodox countries such as Russia celebrate Christmas on January 6-7 (which is December 25 in the Julian calendar), there is also some recognition of the Gregorian December dates.
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.
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.
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.
- See also: Winter in the Nordic countries
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. While Rovaniemi has a famous Santaland theme park, there is a smaller similar park in Mora, Sweden. The Danish people say that he lives on 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.
- Bethlehem in the West Bank is the Biblical birthplace of Christ; see Holy Land for other Biblical destinations.
- See also: Christmas in the Philippines
The Philippines boasts the longest Christmas celebrations; the Christmas season begins as early as September and ends at January, as late as the Feast of the Holy Child. 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 warm and tropical, a good escape from the cold in the north.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- In many communities, the New Year is marked with parties and fireworks.
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 the period from late November to mid-January, many stores have Christmas/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. Major retailers and other popular local stores can and 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 store(s). After New Year's, many auto dealerships and stores have large "liquidation" sales or "end-of-New-Year's" sales. Prices are cut dramatically 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, and during this season, many ads on TV shows air regarding these sales.
Tips for an efficient shopping experience
- Once in a mall or other venue of retail stores, try to avoid the major, popular stores and look more at smaller stores, which might have just what you are looking for.
- If you know what you want, know which store(s) you want to go to, where in the store the items you want might be, and make as efficient a beeline as you can for that item. It will help to speed up internal store traffic and it will ease congestion at registers, doors, and around the shelves and aisles.
- If you are just at the mall/venue to wander and window shop, try not to cause any traffic jams by avoiding the registers, avoid loitering at and in doorways, and move out of the way of customers trying to reach items on a shelf you are standing in front of.
- Try not to mingle in stores and near entrances, as this lowers congestion and makes everyone's shopping experience more efficient.
- Don't fight with other people for the last of something. The store will probably have more of that item in the back (just ask) and will most likely have it online.
- If your destination store seems overcrowded, spend some time in a nearby store with less traffic, as this allows you to see a store you wouldn't've otherwise seen, and it allows the destination store to not be as crowded as it would be.
- Follow societal rules regarding other customers (e.g., give a pregnant woman your seat on a bench or chair if there are no other seats left for her nearby).
- Be nice to the staff. They have to deal with hundreds or even thousands of people each day, and they can become exhausted.
- Shop local -- if you can, try to avoid the large, brand-name anchor stores and instead shop at smaller shops and shops unique to the community you are in. Not only will it boost the local economy, but there tend not to be as large crowds in these stores.
- Depending on where you go, bathroom lines may be huge, or non-existent. Try to avoid long bathroom lines, as these can block access to goods near the bathrooms and also the more time spent in the bathroom the less time for shopping. It is recommended that you go immediately before you leave the house to go shopping and do what you can to hold it until you get home (It's inevitably going to occur that you will have to go to the bathroom, when it does, try to find a bathroom that doesn't have a long line). Also, some stores - usually in strip malls - don't have public access to bathrooms, so finding a bathroom may be difficult.
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, as 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. While many animals (including carp, geese and turkeys) are specifically bred for Christmas dinner in the regions where they are common, prices can be steep and availability can be low on the 23rd or 24th of December (some such items are reserved beforehand also by locals; try to do the same). If your plans involve travelling across borders, bringing some types of foods 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 former British colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, traditional Christmas meals include a roast ham and roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings. In the United States, the roast turkey is typically replaced with roast beef, as turkey is considered to be a traditional Thanksgiving dish. The Christmas log cake is also a popular traditional Christmas dish in much of the Anglosphere, as well as in German- and Dutch-speaking areas. Many French and Swiss families opt for a fondue or raclette, both involving copious amounts of hot melted cheese.
Eggnog is popular around Christmas and New Year's in the United States and Canada. At least in 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 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 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.