Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily (but not exclusively) on December 25th each year. Christmas is celebrated in some capacity by nearly every country in the world (see full table at page bottom) and billions of people across the globe. Christmas is both a religious and a cultural/secular holiday, incorporating not only the birth of Christ but also many nonreligious traditions such as gift-giving, the decoration of trees, gathering with loved ones, and a general sentiment of peace and good will.
The origin and timing of Christmas
While the majority of Christians celebrate Christ's birth on December 24 (Christmas Eve) and/or December 25 (Christmas Day), these are not universally agreed-upon dates. This is because Christian denominations follow two different calendars.
Catholics, Protestants, and most of the secular world all follow the modern Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which places Christmas in the "usual" December 24-25 slot. However, many Orthodox churches, particularly in the slavic and "stan" countries of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, follow the older Julian calendar, established in 46 B.C. by Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. The Julian calendar currently trails 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, so Dec. 25 (Christmas Eve) takes place 13 days later, on the day the rest of the world knows as January 06, with Christmas Day following on Jan 07.
Whichever calendar one follows, there exists no proof that Christ was born exactly on December 25. In fact, the first mention of it did not appear until 221 A.D., nearly 200 years after the death of Jesus, in the writings of historian Sextus Julius Africanus.
Multiple theories exist as to why that particular date was selected to represent Jesus' birthday. For example, one prevailing theory postulates that early Christians sought to coordinate with an existing Roman festival, the dies solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”), thereby connecting the rebirth of the sun with the birth of God's son. Another theory suggests they chose a day nine months (the duration of pregnancy) after the Spring Equinox, March 25, which was believed to be the day God added light when creating the universe and therefore would also be the day he introduced Jesus, the "light of the world."
Christmas around the World
Christmas celebrations around the world vary greatly. Religion is obviously the biggest differentiating factor, as the holiday has a much greater significance for Christians, who believe Jesus Christ is their spiritual savior, than for those who view it as the time Santa (or one of his allegories) visits. On a similar, but opposite note, Muslim nations, whose governments may believe non-Islamic holidays are sinful, are more likely to view Christmas with disdain.
However, even within the spiritual or secular camps, Christmas takes on a huge variety of forms around the world. Many themes are nearly universal—decorating trees, setting up nativity scenes, spending time feasting and celebrating with loved ones, receiving gifts left by a supernatural being—but the details vary fantastically from one country to the next.
For example, in some countries, gifts mysteriously appear in children's stockings, but in other countries they appear in shoes or pillowcases. Moreover, the gifts may appear at various times from December 06 through January 07, and may be delivered by anyone from the white-bearded, red-clad Santa Claus of the United States to the similar (but New Year's oriented) "Winter Father", the baby Jesus, or even the littlest camel in the three wise men's caravan. Santa may also be accompanied by a sidekick or opposite character such as Krampus (many European countries), Old Man Beggar (Liberia) or the controversial Black Pete or his less offensive replacement Sooty Pete (Netherlands, Luxembourg).
Christmas trees, too, display a variety of approaches. Many are stereotypical conical evergreens, but they may alternately be an olive branch, a palm tree, or a model made of coconuts or even chicken feathers. They may be decorated with anything from electric lights and ornaments to candles, ribbons, candy, and more. Also, they are not always strictly Christmas trees, as some countries—particularly former members of the Soviet Union—have no Christmas holiday per se, but celebrate the New Year in a way that the rest of the world would identify as decidedly Christmas-like (see Kazakhstan, below).
This illustrates the fact that Christmas is not a single holiday, but a season. Many countries celebrate not only on December 24-25, but also during the days leading up to Christmas, New Year's, and especially the arrival of three wise men in Bethlehem, typically called either the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, on January 6-7.
Official recognition of Christmas by various governments
Around the world, the majority of governments declare Christmas an official public holiday—some countries even recognize both Gregorian Christmas on Dec. 25 and Julian/Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 07. Other governments recognize Christmas as a cultural event, but stop short of declaring it an official legal holiday. A few majority Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, designate December 25 as an official holiday only for Christians.
Finally, a small subset of countries have taken an aggressive stance against Christmas, even going so far as to make public Christmas celebrations illegal. These countries are typically ruled by a totalitarian regime (North Korea) or by a Muslim government that follows a strict interpretation of Sharia Law and feels that any non-Muslim holidays are a violation of Islamic principles.
Christmas celebrations in various countries
Germany and Poland
In Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day. This was introduced by Martin Luther, who felt that Christmas Day should focus on Christ’s birth and not on gifts. Germany is also reportedly the first country in which people began to put Christmas trees inside their homes. The tree is typically brought into the home on Christmas Eve, after the children have gone to sleep, and is secretly decorated by the mother of the family.
Christmas Eve in Poland is a day of fasting, with a festive meal served at the end of the fast. Families usually feast on a 12-course meal, which represents the 12 disciples of Jesus. Christmas Eve ends with Pasterka, the midnight mass at the local church. Christmas Day in Poland is spent attending mass and visiting friends.
Kazakhstan and Russia
The government of the Soviet Union sought to stamp out the religious aspect of Christmas, and so officially denounced the holiday--however, many of the holiday's secular elements transferred to the New Year's holiday. This led to the modern scenario in former Soviet countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan, in which only the Orthodox Christian minority celebrates Christmas (on Jan. 07), but everyone celebrates the New Year festival—which includes New Years trees and the bearded Snow Father (also called Father Frost or Grandfather Frost), who delivers presents to children on New Year's Eve.
As in other European countries, gifts are opened on Christmas Eve in Norway. Santa Claus, known as Julenissen, and his small gnomes, known as “nisse” deliver the gifts. Christmas Day is a quieter and more relaxed day, with a traditional breakfast served and Church services attended. December 26th has continued celebrations of gatherings and parties with Christmas cookies and treats are enjoyed.
Because few Christians live in Japan, Christmas is not celebrated as a religious holiday. Nor is it recognized by the government as a formal public holiday. However, Christmas is seen as a time to spread happiness in Japan, and many Western Christmas traditions have been adopted by Japan. Gifts are exchanged and Christmas parties are held around Christmas Day. During the 1970s, an advertising campaign made it popular to eat KFC around Christmas, a tradition so popular that KFCs in Japan now take reservations and orders for Christmas meals weeks in advance.
Iceland celebrates Yule, which is linked to winter solstice celebrations dating back thousands of years before Christmas. In fact, many Christmas traditions are taken from Yule. Celebrations in Iceland begin four Sundays before December 24th (Advent) and end on January 6th, 13 days later. Thirteen days before December 24th, children leave out shoes by the window so that the Yule Lads, the two sons of trolls living the mountains known for their mischief, can leave them small presents. On the 24th, some will attend mass at 6:00 pm and others will begin their holiday meal, after which gifts are opened.