What can I say about this holiday? Ages ago people recognized the periodical passing of the seasons. Midwinter was a day to celebrate, as the days were shortest and would be getting longer again. On the other hand midwinter is also the start of the actual winter. A long and cold period during which you can endlessly ponder if your family will survive. After all, the harvest is in and the animals slaughtered (no need to feed them precious food). Most of the meat is preserved for the long winter ahead, but what about the better cuts? Why not eat them to celebrate midwinter?
The Syrians had a feast called “Sol Invictus” which started on December 21st and lasted a few days (three, later five). The Romans adopted the feast, renamed it Saturnalia and celebrated it on December 25th . It included naked dancing and singing.
When Emperor Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity he realized that it would be unpopular to take away this holiday and he decided to co-opt it for Christianity instead. The birth of Jesus, also a sort of new hope for some people, seemed like a good fit.
So what is celebrated?
And more importantly: do I have the day off?
The countdown to Christmas starts four Sundays before Christmas: the advent period. Every Sunday a new candle is lit. This is the meaning of the candles:
- 1st candle: Start thinking about Christmas dinner.
- 2nd candle: Start thinking about Christmas presents.
- 3rd candle: Make a spreadsheet with all the things you’ll need to buy.
- 4th candle: Run to the shops in panic because you actually sat on the couch the previous three weeks.
I don’t think there is a real religious reason for advent. In the church of my grand parents the period was used to remember the people who died during the year. Some people (I think it is very popular in Germany) give each other an advent calendar, with a small present for every day.
December 24th: Christmas Eve
To make sure that the Christmas days can be used for traveling to family members and eating, there usually is a church service on Christmas Eve . For some reason it is not unusual that people who are usually not very religious attend this service as well. It is a cheesy story about a kid being born with some singing. Is there booze afterwards? I hope so.
December 25th: Christmas Day
The day that the birth of Jesus is celebrated, even though there is only a 1 in 365 chance that this was actually the case.
People who call this the most holy day of the Christian calendar are of course mistaken. Christianity is about Jesus dying for our sins and then walking (floating?) away. In order to die he had to be born first  , but it is not the most holy day of Christianity.
People who say Christmas is not about food are also wrong: as written earlier, the pagan feasts that preceded Christmas had everything to do with eating, drinking and dancing around naked.
December 26th: Second Christmas Day (or Boxing Day)
Why have one free day when you can have two? I couldn’t find any reason for this day being a holiday. It is convenient if your parents are divorced though. Or if you have a massive hangover from the day before.
For unknown reasons the English call this Boxing Day. Maybe Santa Claus had to clean up the boxes or something . A more plausible explanation is that boxes were filled with stuff for the poor. Nobody really knows.
January 6th: Epiphany
Christmas is a holiday that just keeps giving… especially for the Germans, who have yet another free day (no such luck elsewhere). Epiphany “celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ” (copy-pasted from Wikipedia — this is too much for me to type).
What exactly happened (or is supposed to have happened) is not entirely clear to me. Wikipedia spends a lot of text on which day it is celebrated and the by which names it is called, but is rather unclear about the event itself. It seems that a star rose and “three wise men from the East” came to visit the newborn Jesus and baptized him. Sometimes it seems as if the emphasis is on the presents, the baptizing or the realization that something was going on.
There is also confusion about what these men (no women) were. Were they kings or wise men? The Economist has a nice article about the different possibilities. In Dutch we call them “Driekoningen” (Three kings). The Dutch Wikipedia page also says that the number three is actually nowhere to be found in the Bible. The number was probably chosen because there were three gifts (gold, incense and myrrh) which means there probably were three kings as well .
So… where does this leave us?
Well, probably with a feeling of having eaten too much, a medium to large hangover and possibly some gifts that you may or may not like. Happy Saturnalia!
 Other people say that it was usual to go to church the day before the actual holiday. Yet other people say that the service  should take place at midnight, but that is not very popular with parents of young kids. ↩