Even though Christmas is one of the most widely celebrated holidays across the world, some religions perceive it differently or don’t celebrate it at all. Here is an overview of how Christmas got started and how it’s celebrated among different religions today.
A brief overview on the origins of Christmas
Although the modern concept of Christmas is largely rooted in Christianity, other cultures and religions have celebrated a similar holiday that extends just as far back in history. Largely tied in with harvest seasons, the Romans had the Saturnalia festival and Scandinavia celebrated Yuletide long before the birth of Jesus.
Nonetheless, as Christianity became more popular and the Romans transitioned from Paganism, Pope Julius I declared December 25th as the birth date of Jesus in an effort to replace the Saturnalia festival with Christmas (then referred to as “The Feast of the Nativity”). The idea was that if they created a holiday that aligned with the Winter Solstice, it would become so widely celebrated that other cultures would begin to move away from Pagan traditions and reinvent new ones. The concept worked and was popularised throughout Egypt, Scandavia and the rest of Europe by the 8th century.
How do different religions celebrate Christmas?
Despite the fact that so many people celebrate Christmas, how it began and how it’s celebrated today are vastly different stories. Let’s take a look at how that evolved among different religions.
Important note: there are many variations on how Christmas is celebrated among different individuals and these examples may not represent everyone’s views across the entire religion.
Christianity and Christmas
When the Romans adopted “The Feast of the Nativity” as a part of Christian religious traditions that marked the beginning of Christmas. But a thousand years ago, how it was celebrated is completely different than today. At that time, the Catholic Church was growing in importance among citizens, but they didn’t have established traditions of Christmas as a family-oriented event. Instead, celebrations consisted of raucous drinking that was similar to Mardi Gras.
The concept of gift-giving among families didn’t begin until the 18th century as industrialism grew and parents wanted to reward their children for good behaviour. This tradition can be attributed to the connection between St. Nicholas and his emphasis on improving the lives of impoverished children (although St. Nicholas was actually from Turkey). As time went on and more people immigrated from Europe to America, European traditions blended together and grew in popularity, especially decorating Christmas trees (a concept that originated from Germany).
Santa Claus is also a rather modern invention that developed in 1822 when Clement Clark Moore published the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that described a jolly man who flew around on a sled pulled by reindeer. Later on in 1881, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew an image for this poem that immortalised Saint Nick as a figure dressed in red and with a long, white beard.
Other religions have begun to adopt similar Christmas traditions among their own religions. In fact, 81% of non-Christian Americans still celebrate Christmas, of which the highest percentage are Buddhists. According to some Buddhists, they do celebrate Christmas as a holiday, but this is entirely separate from the Christian concept of Jesus. One such example is Kate Johnson who writes:
“Although I am a Buddhist, I still participate in many of the rituals of Christmas—buying and decorating a tree, visiting family and friends, searching for meaningful gifts, donating money and time to folks who have less than I do, spending hours making dishes that are consumed in a matter of minutes.”
In her opinion, the emotions associated with the concept of Christmas are similar to the Buddhist beliefs of treating others with love and kindness.
Hinduism is another culture that has begun to integrate Christmas traditions into their holiday celebrations separately from Christian beliefs. According to a family who immigrated to the US from India, “For Hindu families like ours, Christmastime felt like an extension of Diwali, a lunar celebration in October or November, but without the dietary restrictions of alcohol or meat consumption. Our Catholic friends’ Christmases were religious, but just as they did not hesitate to visit us at Diwali, we joined in their excitement and merrymaking.”
Another source states that among Indians living in India, celebrating Christmas has also grown in popularity. Even though only 2% of India’s population is Christian, people still enjoy cooking delicious treats and spending time with the people they love.
Judaism has a holiday known as Hanukkah that occurs at a similar time as Christmas, but is fully distinct from Christian beliefs. Hanukkah celebrations typically involve lighting 9 candles and reciting blessings across 8 days as a reminder of the Hanukkah “Miracle”, a story described within the Talmud (the religion text of Judaism). Other popular Hanukkah customs are playing with four-sided spinning stops known as dreidels, exchanging gifts among family members, and eating special food together. Common dishes are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam-filled donuts). Hanukkah is a minor holiday among Judaism, but due to its overlap in timing with Christmas, it has heavily grown in popularity.
The Islamic religion theoretically doesn’t celebrate Christmas from any religious perspective. According to a Islamic author:
“Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. The Qur’an venerates both Jesus and Virgin Mary by sharing their story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, his special gift of speaking from the cradle, and his ability to perform miracles with the help of God. Muslims believe that his mother Mary is one of the greatest women to ever live, and a chapter of the Qur’an is devoted to her. We believe Jesus was sent as a beloved Prophet of God to deliver the word to the people of his time. However, it is not the practice of Muslims to celebrate the birth of their Prophets.”
Furthermore, Muslims have their own celebratory holidays for their religion known as Eid and Ramadan that involve similar activities of spending time with loved ones, giving gifts, cooking particular food, and offering special prayers.
So, do you celebrate Christmas? And if so, what’s your favourite part of this festive holiday?