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The practice of giving gifts, which goes back to the 15th century, contributed to the view that Christmas was a secular holiday focused on family and friends.
This was one reason why Puritans in Old and New England opposed the celebration of Christmas and in both England and America succeeded in banning its observance.
Moreover, in countries such as Austria and Germany , the connection between the Christian festival and the family holiday is made by identifying the Christ Child as the giver of gifts to the family.
In some European countries, St. Nicholas appears on his feast day December 6 bringing modest gifts of candy and other gifts to children. While both name and attire—a version of the traditional dress of bishop—of Santa Claus reveal his Christian roots, and his role of querying children about their past behaviour replicates that of St.
Nicholas, he is seen as a secular figure. In Australia , where people attend open-air concerts of Christmas carols and have their Christmas dinner on the beach, Santa Claus wears red swimming trunks as well as a white beard.
In most European countries, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, December 24, in keeping with the notion that the baby Jesus was born on the night of the 24th.
The morning of December 25, however, has become the time for the exchange of gifts in North America. In 17th- and 18th-century Europe the modest exchange of gifts took place in the early hours of the 25th when the family returned home from the Christmas mass.
When the evening of the 24th became the time for the exchange of gifts, the Christmas mass was set into the late afternoon of that day.
In North America the centrality of the morning of the 25th of December as the time for the family to open presents has led, with the exception of Catholic and some Lutheran and Episcopal churches, to the virtual end of holding church services on that day, a striking illustration of the way societal customs influence liturgical practices.
Given the importance of Christmas as one of the major Christian feast days, most European countries observe, under Christian influence, December 26 as a second Christmas holiday.
This practice recalls the ancient Christian liturgical notion that the celebration of Christmas, as well as that of Easter and of Pentecost , should last the entire week.
The weeklong observance, however, was successively reduced to Christmas day and a single additional holiday on December Eastern Orthodox churches honour Christmas on December However, for those that continue to use the Julian calendar for their liturgical observances, this date corresponds to January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
The churches of the Oriental Orthodox communion celebrate Christmas variously. For example, in Armenia , the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion , the church uses its own calendar; the Armenian Apostolic Church honours January 6 as Christmas.
Congregations of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria follow the date of December 25 on the Julian calendar, which corresponds to Khiak 29 on the ancient Coptic calendar.
With the spread of Christianity beyond Europe and North America, the celebration of Christmas was transferred to societies throughout the non-Western world.
In many of these countries, Christians are not the majority population, and, therefore, the religious holiday has not become a cultural holiday.
Christmas customs in these societies thus often echo Western traditions because the people were exposed to Christianity as a religion and cultural artifact of the West.
In South and Central America , unique religious and secular traditions mark the Christmas celebration.
Christmas is a great summer festival in Brazil , including picnics, fireworks, and other festivities as well as a solemn procession of priests to the church to celebrate midnight mass.
In some parts of India the evergreen Christmas tree is replaced by the mango tree or the bamboo tree, and houses are decorated with mango leaves and paper stars.
Christmas largely remains a Christian holiday and is otherwise not widely observed. Japan serves as illustration of a different sort. Christmas Article Media Additional Info.
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External Websites. Articles from Britannica Encyclopedias for elementary and high school students. Hans J. The Nativity , fresco by Giotto, c.
Top Questions. Get exclusive access to content from our First Edition with your subscription. Subscribe today. Learn about the Christmas traditions of Advent calendars and wreaths.
Lighting of the U. The true essence of Christmas nativity scene lies in the story of the first Christmas, the guiding star of Bethlehem, the Three Kings, the manger where lay the baby Jesus.
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