Christmas Explained Religion Series

This is the second year that Christmas, the most social and secular of Christian holidays, takes place during a pandemic. With the number of infections increasing, many governments are reimposing restrictions. Millions are wondering how they will celebrate their most important religious, cultural and social festival.


Christmas is the date in the Christian calendar that commemorates the birth of Jesus, an event that is described in two of the four Gospels that form the core of the Christian Bible. Christians consider Jesus to be the human incarnation of divinity, or the Son of God. They believe he was fully human but was also a manifestation of the godhead.

As per the Christian story, a virgin named Mary became miraculously pregnant and gave birth to a child in a manger. The baby born was Jesus. Joseph, Mary’s husband, was present at the birth.

The couple were in a manger because they had been obliged to travel because Romans were conducting a census. No rooms were available at any inn. So, Mary and Joseph took refuge in a stable for farm animals. On hearing the news of the miraculous birth of Jesus, the Magi, three wise men, came to pay homage to the baby. They came from different lands and brought gifts.


The Bible tells the story of Jesus’ birth but does not mention the date. The early Roman church designated December 25 as that date. Like other winter festivals such as Jewish Hanukkah, Roman Saturnalia and pagan Yuletide, Christmas occurs close to the winter solstice, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere.

These winter festivals celebrated the lengthening of days and the shortening of nights. The birth of Jesus appropriately coincides with the increase in light. Notably, the Orthodox church decided on January 7 as the date for Christmas.


Christmas is celebrated around the world. This includes countries like the United States, Brazil, Russia, South Africa and the Philippines, as well as in places like Egypt, Jordan, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia by mostly Christian minorities.


The Catholic Church and nearly all Protestant churches hold special ceremonies to mark Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Many non-practicing Christians tend to attend church on Christmas. Communities come together during this festival. Today, many non-Christians also celebrate Christmas.

Nations seeped in Christian traditions celebrate the festival as a family occasion. Gifts are exchanged, feasts partaken and conversations enjoyed. As societies have secularized, the festival is a time to be “merry” and celebrate with family. Gift-giving has also become a key part of Christmas. So too has the Christmas tree, which has no religious connotation at all.

Santa Claus is now the patron saint of the festival. This portly man with a flowing white beard rides a reindeer-drawn sleigh and dispenses gifts generously. This tradition of celebrating Father Christmas or St. Nick harks back to Roman times and honors a saint who was a legendary giver of gifts.


In the early centuries of Christianity, the church focused on the events at the end of Jesus’ life and ministry. Early Christians paid little attention to the story of the birth of Christ. By far, the most significant holiday for Christians was Easter. It takes place in the spring and marks the three days between the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans and marks his resurrection.

It took several centuries for Christians to become curious about Jesus’ birth. Soon, they attributed a date to his birth and created the holiday that has gone on to become Christmas. They chose the date to be mid-winter. Roman and Germanic pagan traditions celebrated mid-winter festivals.

The Roman emperor Aurelian declared the feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, to celebrate the return of the sun after its lowest point in the year at the winter solstice. Christians possibly chose to place the birth of Jesus around the same time to win pagans over to their tradition.

The Italian Saint Francis, in the early 13th century, turned Christmas into a special celebration and created the first nativity scene. This went on to become a standard feature of Christmas in churches and even in homes. Many Catholic homes still display the nativity scene, or “crèche,” with Mary, Joseph, the three Magi, the shepherds and animals.

Often, in the same home, you might find a colorfully decorated Christmas tree. This is a pagan heritage that now sits easily with the Christian religious symbol of the crèche. Christmas is now not only a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also of home, family, generosity, tradition and hope.


In modern times, both observant Christians and secular Christians celebrate Christmas at home around the tree, while observant Christians will probably also take the time to attend a religious ceremony. Depending on the traditions of the country or region, people will come together for a feast that includes local rituals, particularly concerning the items on the menu of the meal. In English-speaking countries, serving turkey or goose has long been traditional.

Because of the importance of gift-giving associated with Christmas, the religious character of the holiday has been eclipsed by a new set of rituals associated with commercialism and the consumer society. Shopping for gifts to put under the Christmas tree has become some people’s principal activity related to Christmas. Some decorate their homes or front yards with objects and ornaments that celebrate the season, sometimes including figures of Santa Claus — and even his sleigh and reindeer and artificial snow. This visual representation of Christmas has eclipsed the religious symbols in importance.

And, of course, children focus on the opening of gifts on Christmas Day, which they are encouraged to believe were provided by the bearded old man in the red costume who flies through the air on a sleigh drawn by reindeer. The belief in Santa Claus as a real person contradicts the religious significance of Christmas. But it has proved to be a major driver of Christmas sales in the consumer society.


Written by Peter Isackson and Atul Singh. Produced by Abul-Hasanat Siddique. Images from Shutterstock © All rights reserved.

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