Christmas Eve is the day that immediately proceeds Christmas Day – the day that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. This holiday, which falls on December 24th, is celebrated all over the world and is treated as either a holiday in its own right or as part of the greater Christmas tradition. Traditions associated with this holiday vary from region to region.
History of Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve has been celebrated for as long as Christmas has – starting about 1,700 years ago when the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25th.
For centuries after his proclamation concerning Christmas, Christmas was celebrated as a whole season that begun with the arrival of Christmas Eve – or December 24th. It was during these years that Christmas Eve not only became an important holiday but also one that began to absorb some of the pagan solstice traditions that preceded it. This includes the practice of decoration with holly – which was appropriated from the Druids, bringing in the Yule log – appropriated from Germanic paganism festivals, and using the colors of red and green – traditions that were appropriated from the pagan traditions of ancient Rome, particularly Saturnalia.
From about the 9th through the 19th centuries, Christmas Eve was usually celebrated with storytelling, feasting, dancing and drinking around a large roaring fire. During the 19th century, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol – a story which changed the idea of Christmas, as well as Christmas Eve, forever. It presented a true Victorian version of how Christmas is to be celebrated and that has had a lasting impact on how Christmas Eve is celebrated, especially in the West.
Christmas Eve Customs & Celebrations
Many Western churches began celebrating Midnight Mass at midnight on Christmas Day many years ago. Over the years, some churches have begun to roll the time for these masses back from midnight to 7 pm on Christmas Eve.
In churches in Spanish-speaking areas, Midnight Masses are usually called Misa de Gallo or “rooster’s mass.” However, not all Western churches have a Midnight Mass. For instance, the Church of Scotland doesn’t have a mass but they do have a service just before midnight strikes. During this service, carols are sung and sometimes candles are passed out that are lit during Silent Night from the Christ Candle.
Lutheran practices on Christmas Ever usually involve Nativity plays, vocal choirs and candlelight services. Nativity scenes may be built indoors or outdoors and usually feature infant Jesus in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph. Sometimes other figures are also present such as shepherds, angels and maybe even the Magi – or the 3 wise men.
Methodists can celebrate Christmas Eve in a variety of different ways as well. Some participants choose to celebrate the Holy Communion on this day with their families. Other participants choose to partake in a service of light which entails the singing of Silent Night and the lighting of personal candles. In the Eastern churches, Christmas Eve is celebrated in a variety of different ways. It can be celebrated with feasts, all-night vigils and liturgies, depending on the denomination.
Some people in the United States choose to decorate their homes on Christmas Eve, although many people usually do it much earlier – starting with the day after Thanksgiving. Indoor decorations are centered around the Christmas tree, which is decorated with ornaments, tinsel, lights and usually topped with a star or an angel. Outdoor decorations often include lights and both lighted and inflated figures. These figures often include Santa Claus and his reindeer, snowmen or other traditionally Christmas figures. Some people opt to put Nativity scenes on their lawns.
It is usually frowned upon for Christmas decorations with Christian elements to be placed upon governmental property – due to the belief in the separation of church and state. However, sometimes government properties are decorated with decorations that aren’t overtly Christian – for instance, using bells, snowflakes and stars as decorative pieces.
Often, Christmas stockings are hung on the mantle or near the Christmas tree and are stuffed with treats, fruits, nuts and/or toys. Just before bedtime, many children around the world are read the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. This stokes hopes in the children that the mythical character Santa Clause will come to their home in the middle of the night and bring them presents.
Some American families like to have their traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. This allows them to use the whole day for fun and leisure and not have to worry about cooking a large holiday meal. These Christmas Eve dinners usually consist of a ham, turkey or roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, various vegetables and desserts. Some areas of the country incorporate their own regional dishes in with the Christmas Eve or Christmas Day dinner. This includes including roast venison in Missouri, lutefisk in Minnesota and gumbo in Louisiana.
Songs that may be sung on Christmas Eve include Silent Night, Here Comes Santa Clause, El Noi de la Mare, O’ Little Town of Bethlehem, The Twelve Days of Christmas, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Jingle Bells.
It is not uncommon for families to get together and enjoy one of the many glorious Christmas movies around and watch it together on Christmas Eve. This includes classic movies such as A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street. It also includes relatively new movies which may include A Nightmare Before Christmas, Gremlins, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Polar Express and Scrooged.