Christmas Eve is the day that immediately precedes Christmas Day – the day that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. This holiday, which falls on December 24th, is celebrated all over the world and is treated as either a holiday in its own right or as part of the greater Christmas tradition. Traditions associated with this holiday vary from region to region.
History of Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve has been celebrated for as long as Christmas itself – starting about 1,700 years ago when the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25th.
For centuries after his proclamation concerning Christmas, the season was celebrated beginning with the arrival of Christmas Eve – or December 24th. It was during these years that Christmas Eve not only became an important holiday but also one that began to absorb some of the pagan solstice traditions that preceded it.
This includes the practice of decorating with holly – which was appropriated from the Druids, bringing in the Yule log – appropriated from Germanic pagan festivals, and using the colors red and green – traditions that were appropriated from the pagan traditions of ancient Rome, particularly Saturnalia.
From about the 9th through the 19th centuries, Christmas Eve was usually celebrated with storytelling, feasting, dancing, and drinking around a large roaring fire. During the 19th century, Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” – a story that changed the idea of Christmas, as well as Christmas Eve, forever.
It presented a true Victorian version of how Christmas is to be celebrated and that has had a lasting impact on how Christmas Eve is celebrated, especially in the West.
Christmas Eve Customs & Celebrations
Many Western churches began celebrating Midnight Mass at midnight on Christmas Day many years ago. Over the years, some churches have begun to roll the time for these masses back from midnight to 7 pm on Christmas Eve.
In churches in Spanish-speaking areas, Midnight Masses are usually called Misa de Gallo or “rooster’s mass.” However, not all Western churches have a Midnight Mass. For instance, the Church of Scotland doesn’t have a mass but they do have a service just before midnight strikes.
During this service, carols are sung and sometimes candles are passed out that are lit during “Silent Night” from the Christ Candle.
Lutheran practices on Christmas Eve usually involve Nativity plays, vocal choirs, and candlelight services. Nativity scenes may be built indoors or outdoors and usually feature the infant Jesus in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph. Sometimes other figures are also present such as shepherds, angels, and maybe even the Magi – or the 3 wise men.
Methodists celebrate Christmas Eve in a variety of different ways as well. Some participants choose to celebrate Holy Communion on this day with their families. Other participants partake in a service of light which entails the singing of “Silent Night” and the lighting of personal candles.
In Eastern churches, Christmas Eve is celebrated in a variety of ways. It can be celebrated with feasts, all-night vigils, and liturgies, depending on the denomination.
Some people in the United States choose to decorate their homes on Christmas Eve, although many usually do it much earlier – starting the day after Thanksgiving. Indoor decorations are centered around the Christmas tree, which is decorated with ornaments, tinsel, and lights and usually topped with a star or an angel.
Outdoor decorations often include lights and both lighted and inflated figures. These figures often include Santa Claus and his reindeer, snowmen, or other traditional Christmas figures. Some people opt to put Nativity scenes on their lawns.
It is usually frowned upon for Christmas decorations with Christian elements to be placed on governmental property – due to the belief in the separation of church and state. However, sometimes government properties are decorated with decorations that aren’t overtly Christian – for instance, using bells, snowflakes, and stars as decorative pieces.
Often, Christmas stockings are hung on the mantle or near the Christmas tree and are stuffed with treats, fruits, nuts, and/or toys. Just before bedtime, many children around the world have the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore read to them.
This stokes hopes in the children that the mythical character Santa Claus will come to their home in the middle of the night and bring them presents.
Some American families like to have their traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. This allows them to use the whole day for fun and leisure and not have to worry about cooking a large holiday meal.
These Christmas Eve dinners usually consist of ham, turkey, or roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, various vegetables, and desserts. Some areas of the country incorporate their own regional dishes into the Christmas Eve or Christmas Day dinner. This includes roast venison in Missouri, lutefisk in Minnesota, and gumbo in Louisiana.
Songs that may be sung on Christmas Eve include “Silent Night,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “El Noi de la Mare,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “Jingle Bells.”
It is not uncommon for families to get together and enjoy one of the many classic Christmas movies and watch it together on Christmas Eve. This includes classic movies such as “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
It also includes relatively new movies which may include “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Gremlins,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “The Polar Express,” and “Scrooged.