The day that comes before the day of Christmas and the day on which baby Jesus was born, is known to be Christmas Eve. The day of Christmas is a Christian holiday but is celebrated all around the world irrespective of religion and culture and the day preceding this day or the Christmas Eve is also an equally important holiday.
People are seen to be in a mood for Christmas weeks before the arrival of this day and thus people also observe the Christmas Eve in anticipation of the main day which follows. However, both the days, Christmas Eve as well as Christmas, are considered to be the two most important days of celebration in Western and Christian society across the world.
In the Western Christianity, the Christian celebrations begin on the night of 24th December rather than 25th December itself and have been the tradition for centuries. It is mainly because the Christian liturgical day starts after sunset which is a tradition the Christians have inherited from the Jewish practice. Several churches like the Nordic Lutheran Churches hold prayers and ring their bells in the evening even today.
As the legends and tradition says that Jesus Christ was born at midnight of 24th December, various midnight masses are held on the night of Christmas Eve to celebrate and commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. The very idea that Jesus was born at midnight is clear from the fact that Christmas Eve is also called Heilige Nacht meaning the holy night in German and Nochebuena meaning the good night in Spanish. This thought is also reflected in the English Christmas song, silent night.
Many other traditions are customs are associated with Christmas Eve. People around the world attend feasts with their family and loved ones on this day, decorates the Christmas tree and the entire house with special lights. Wrapping up, exchanging and opening gifts are a common practice done during this holiday since Christmas is all about spreading love and happiness.
As the legend goes, on the Eve of Christmas, the mythical entities like Santa Clause, Christkind, Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas are believed to begin their annual journey of bearing gifts from their secret abode in North Pole and delivering them to children’s houses all over the world in the nightfall when they are fast asleep as reward of being good and well behaved throughout the year. However, in the 16th century, until the introduction of Christkind by the Protestants in Europe, these legendary figures were believed to deliver gifts on the day before the feast of St Nicholas Day, which is observed on the 6th of December.
The tradition of exchanging gifts
In the 16th century and 17th century Europe, at the time of Reformation, several Protestants converted the gift bearer to Christkindl or the Christ Child and also changed the date of giving presents from 6th of December to 24th December, which is the eve of Christmas. The night of Christmas Eve is considered to be the night when Santa Clause makes his secretive nightly visits to the houses and delivers attractive presents to the children who have been good throughout the year and didn’t do any mischief.
This age old tradition of gift giving can be traced back to the famous legend in which the three Magi or the three wise men had visited Jesus Christ and gifted him frankincense, gold and myrrh to baby Jesus right after he was born. In few places like Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia, Saint Nicholas is believed to be the gift bearer and this custom is carried out on the 6th of December. However, they believe Christkind or Child Jesus to be the present bringer on the day of Christmas. In many parts of Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and Czech Republic, gifts and presents are commonly exchanged on the evening of Christmas Eve while the children are told that those presents had been delivered by Christkind or by Weihnachtsmann earlier in their absence.
However, in Germany, gifts are also given on the 6th of December by St Nicholas, whom the natives call Nikolaus, along with his helper, Knecht Ruprecht. Joulupukki in Finland, Julenissen in Norway and Jultomten in Sweden meets all the children personally and gives them their presents every year on the evening of 24th December. In countries like Austria, Argentina, Bulgaria, Denmark, Colombia, Faroe Island, France, Finland, Estonia, Hungary, Germany, Slovakia, Latvia, Iceland, Norway, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Quebec, Uruguay, Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland, the gifts and presents are given mostly on the Christmas Eve or on the 24th of December. This tradition is also followed by the Royal Family of Britain due to their German ancestry.
However in the United States of America, Italy, Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, South Africa, English province of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the custom of exchanging gifts is carried out in the morning of Christmas. In the Latin American countries, all the people, including the children, usually stay up till midnight to unwrap their presents. In Spain, the gifts are given and opened on the morning of 6th January, which is the Epiphany Day, instead of 24th or 25th December as a part of their tradition.
However, in countries like Uruguay and Argentina, people receive gifts on both of the days, around Christmas and Epiphany Day. In Netherlands and Belgium, it is believed that Sinterklaas or St Nicholas delivers gifts to all the children on the evening of 5th December, the day before his name day, with the help of his companion, Zwarte Piet. People here typically go to church, attend feasts or watch the midnight mass on television on the Christmas Eve.
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