Christmas Eve is the evening or day before Christmas Day, the widely celebrated annual holiday. It occurs on December 24 in Western Christianity,and is considered one of the most culturally significant celebrations in Christendom and the Western world, where it is widely observed as a full or partial holiday in anticipation of Christmas Day.One reason celebrations occur on Christmas Eve is that the traditional Christian liturgical day starts at sunset, an inheritance from Jewish tradition.This practice is based on the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.”This structure for the liturgical day is followed for all feast days throughout the year in the Eastern rite and is retained for Christmas (as well as for Sundays and other major festivals) in the West, where the liturgical day ordinarily begins at midnight. Many churches still ring their church bellsand hold prayers in the evening before holidays; for example, the NordicLutheran churches. In some languages, such as the Scandinavian, Christmas Eve is simply referred to as “Christmas Evening”.
Since Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born at night (based in Luke 2:6-8), Midnight Mass is celebrated on Christmas Eve, traditionally at midnight, in commemoration of His birth. The idea of Jesus being born at night is reflected in the fact that Christmas Eve is referred to as “Heilige Nacht” (“Holy Night”) in German, “Nochebuena” (“the Good Night”) in Spanish and similarly in other expressions of Christmas spirituality, such as the song “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Christmas Eve is celebrated in different ways around the world, varying by country and region. Elements common to many areas of the world include the attendance of special religious observances such as a midnight Mass or Vespers, and the giving and receiving of presents. Along with Easter, Christmastime is one of the most important periods on the Christian calendar, and is often closely connected to other holidays at this time of year, such as Advent, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, St. Nicholas Day, St. Stephen’s Day, New Year’s, and the Feast of the Epiphany.
Roman Catholics and Anglicans traditionally celebrate Midnight Mass, which begins either at or sometime before midnight on Christmas Eve. This ceremony, which is held in churches throughout the world, celebrates the birth of Christ, which is believed to have occurred at night.In recent years some churches have scheduled their “Midnight” Mass as early as 7 pm. In Spanish-speaking areas, the Midnight Mass is sometimes referred to as Misa de Gallo, or “Missa do Galo”, in Portuguese (“Rooster’s Mass”). In the Philippines, the custom has expanded into the nine-daySimbang Gabi, when Filipinos attend dawn Masses (traditionally beginning around 04:00 to 05:00 PST) from 16 December, continuing daily until Christmas Eve. In 2009 Vatican officials scheduled the Midnight Mass to start at 10 pm so the 82 year old Pope Benedict XVI would not have too late a night.Whilst not performing any kind of Mass per se, the Church of Scotland has a service beginning just before midnight, wherein carolsare sung. The Church of Scotland no longer holds Hogmany sevices on New Years Eve, however, The Christmas Eve Sevices are still very popular.
Lutherans traditionally celebrate with Christmas Eve Eucharistic traditions typical of Germany and Scandinavia. “Krippenspiele” (Nativity plays), special festive music for organ, vocal and brass choirs and candlelight services make Christmas Eve one of the highlights in the Lutheran Church calendar. Christmas Vespers are popular in the early evening, and midnight services are also widespread in regions which are predominately Lutheran. The old Lutheran tradition of a Christmas Vigil in the early morning hours ofChristmas Day (Christmette) can still be found in some regions. In eastern and middle Germany, congregations still continue the tradition of “Quempas singing”: separate groups dispersed in various parts of the church sing verses of the song “He whom Shepherds once came Praising” (Quem pastores) responsively.Methodists celebrate the evening in different ways. Some, in the early evening, come to their church to celebrate Holy Communion with their families. The mood is very solemn, and the only visible light is the Advent Wreath, and the candles upon the Lord’s Table. Others celebrate the evening with services of light, which include singing the song “Silent Night” as a variety of candles (including personal candles) are lit. Other churches have late evening services at 11 pm, so the church can celebrate Christmas Day together with the ringing of bells at midnight. Others offer Christmas Day services, as well.The annual “Nine Lessons and Carols” broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve, has established itself as one of the signs that Christmas has begun in the United Kingdom. lt IS broadcast outside the UK via the BBC World Service, and is also bought by broadcasters around the world.
During the Reformation in 16th–17th-century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, and the date of giving gifts changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve. It is the night when Santa Claus makes his rounds delivering gifts to good children.In the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Hungary, where St. Nicholas (sv. Mikuláš/szent Mikulás) gives his sweet gifts on December 6, the Christmas gift-giver is the Child Jesus (Ježíšek in Czech, Jézuska in Hungarian, Ježiško in Slovak and Isusek inCroatian).In most parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, presents are traditionally exchanged in the evening of December 24. Children are commonly told that presents were brought either by the Christkind (German for: Christchild), or the Weihnachtsmann (German name of Santa Claus). Both leave the gifts, but are in most families not seen doing so.In Finland, Joulupukki, and in Sweden Jultomten, personally meets children and gives presents in the evening of Christmas Eve. In Argentina, Austria, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg,Norway, Poland, Portugal, Quebec, Romania, Uruguay, Sweden, and the Czech Republic, Christmas presents are opened mostly on the evening of the 24th, – this is also the tradition among the British Royal Family, due to their mainly German ancestry – while inItaly, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, English Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, this occurs mostly on the morning of Christmas Day. Except in Italy and the United States, countries that open gifts on the morning of Christmas Day also have Boxing Day as a secondary holiday (this day is celebrated as St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland) where some gift giving is involved.In other Latin American countries, people stay awake until midnight, when they open the presents.In Spain, gifts are traditionally opened on the morning of January 6, Epiphany day (“Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos”),though in some other countries, like Argentina and Uruguay, people receive presents both around Christmas and on the morning of Epiphanyday.In Belgium and the Netherlands they also celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5
Some Jews observe Christmas Eve as “Nittel Nacht”, a minor folk (sad) holiday with its own unique customs.Beginning no later than the 1500s, a number of Jewish customs developed around Christmas Eve, often reflecting feelings of mourning over the historic birth of Christianity and fear of pogroms by contemporary Christian neighbors. By the 17th century, European Jews began referring to the night as “Nittel Nacht” and treating it as a kind of minor day of mourning. Most prominent among these customs is the tradition to not engage in Torah study on Nittel Nacht. Some have theorized that this custom developed out of fear of heightened antisemitic persecution on Christmas Eve, with Jews avoiding synagogues and study halls where they would be easy targets, and instead opting to spend the night safe at home.Less popular is a custom to not engage in marital relations on Nittel Nacht. This custom, as well as that to not study Torah, are similar to the traditions of mourning practiced on Tisha B’av.With Torah study (and, for some, sex) off the table for the evening, a number of traditions developed as to how to spend one’s night. Most well known is a custom to play cards, dreidel, chess or other table games. (Some modern synagogues hold poker nights on Christmas Eve, in a continuation of this once home-bound tradition.) The Lubavitcher Rebbe was known to spend his Nittel Nacht’s sewing. Some spend the night ripping a year’s worth of toilet paper and paper towels, an errand helpful for observing certain Sabbath laws. Today, where most Jews do not fear antisemitic attacks on Christmas Eve, and most Jews hold a more ecumenical view towards the birth of Christianity, observance of Nittel Nacht is less popular than once was. That said, many yeshivas still do not conduct Torah classes on Christmas Eve, and card-playing remains a well known Nittel Nacht past time.