Christmas. Christ’s Mass. For us in Britain, it’s very much a commercialised affair that is bombarded on our TVs, radios and in our wider culture from late October onwards until Christmas itself. For many Britons, it has evolved into an almost secular festival with greater emphasis on its communal festivity than its religious connotations. Christmas Day in the UK is by far the most anticipated and important day in our calendar, and is a huge economic affair. Christmas is celebrated in Britain even by non-Christian communities. The familiar sights of Christmas trees, stockings and Santa are not seen universally in Christian communities.
Christmas has its origins in many pre-Christian pagan festivals, like the ancient winter solstice tradition, which celebrated by many pagan communities in Europe. The solstice saw animal sacrifices, carnivals and feasting. Christmas has direct origins from this festival, and events the Roman feast of Saturnalia, a festival lasting December 17th to the 23rd and involving gift-giving, partying and a carnival atmosphere. The pre-Roman and Roman-era influences fused into Christmas over time, with the festival’s atmosphere changing over the centuries. It was mostly a drunken, carnival affair in the Middle Ages before becoming to a family-focused event in the 19th century.
The designation of Christmas on December 25th is believed to have been chosen by Emperor Constantine, who had Christianised the Roman Empire, because December 25th also saw the celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. This festival, the ‘birthday of the Unconquered Sun’, was celebrated in the winter solstice. Jesus was associated with the ‘sun of righteousness’ especially with the belief that he was the son of the Abrahamic God.
It has become a public holiday for many non-Christian majority countries, such as Egypt and Syria, which have significant Christian minorities. China’s special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau designate Christmas as a public holiday. This highlights the intrinsic link between colonialism and Christianity, since Hong Kong and Macau were British and Portuguese colonies. Many Chinese people however, practice Christmas-esque customs such as gift exchange, the sending of cards and the hanging of stockings, which are very similar to Western-style celebrations. Pakistan sees its Christian minority decorate their homes with handcrafted stars that signify the Star of Bethlehem, which are hung on rooftops. This represents a different interpretation of Christmas to the West.
The Armenian Lebanese Christian followers represent another localised version of the Christmas holiday. On Christmas Eve, a sheep is butchered for the feast, to honour the birth of Jesus Christ. The head of the household passes a piece of coal representing the sins of Christ around the table at the feast, before it is set on fire. This remaining community of the ancient Armenian Christian tradition celebrate Christmas day itself on January 6th, which is named the Epiphany and represents the visit of the Three Wise Men to Jesus Christ in his manger.
Christmas in the predominantly Catholic country of Mexico also sees a fusing of the Christian festival with traditional Mexican practices. Over a course of nine days before Christmas, groups of people go door to door, representing the journey Joseph and Mary took to try find shelter. These groups are normally welcomed inside houses to smash candy-filled piñatas. Mexican festivities begin on December 12th and last until January 6th; this practice of honouring the Epiphany is a tradition not exercised by most Britons because of the generally secular nature of our Christmas celebrations. Another very different practice in Mexico is the traditional belief that it is the Three Wise Men who bring gifts to Mexican children as well as Santa. The Wise Men fill children’s shoes with candles, oranges, tangerines, nuts, sugar cane, and sometimes money or gold, since the Wise Men gave Jesus gold in his manger.
Coptic Christians of the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, who make up 10% of Egypt’s population have another different interpretative view of Christmas. They share common practices with their Muslim compatriots since some Copts fast forty-three days before Christmas Day, and adhere to a vegan diet, and then consume meat and dairy foods once fasting has ended, much like Muslims do in the festival of Eid el-Adha.