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Christmas 2013: Facts, History, Dates, And Traditions Of The Celebration Of Jesus' Birth (PHOTOS)

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The lights on a large Christmas tree are seen at Christmas Square on December 8, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. | Michael Dodge via Getty Images

Christmas is the holiday celebrated by millions around the globe that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ.

Dates To Know
In many Western churches, the Advent liturgical season celebrates the season leading up to Christmas. This year, it began on December 1, 2013, and will continue until Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, 2013.

The Eastern Churches' equivalent of Advent, the Nativity Fast, is 40 days long and began on Nov. 15, 2013.

Epiphany will fall on January 6, 2014, which is the 12th day after Christmas.

Orthodox Christmas Day will be celebrated on January 7, 2014.

Religious Significance
Although the four Gospels in the New Testament differ in their accounts, the common Christmas narrative of the birth of Jesus associated with Christmas starts with Mary, who agrees to bear the Son of God after Angel Gabriel announced the good news to her. The Gospel of Luke goes on to describe the travels of Joseph and the pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem to take the census, and the subsequent birth of Jesus in a manger because there was no room for them in an inn. Angels proclaimed him Messiah or the Christ, shepherds came to adore him, and kings or wise men came with gifts.

The feast of Epiphany commemorates the wise men's arrival, and in some communities is more widely celebrated than Christmas Day. Some traditions celebrate the baptism of Jesus on this day as well.

Traditions
Christmas celebrations vary widely around the world. Nativity plays and Christmas pageants that depict the story of the birth of Christ are often performed around Christmas. Festive carols are sung, as people celebrate the warm and joyous season. Many families place gifts under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, to open on Christmas morning.

Church services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are popular with many people. Christmas is a time to celebrate faith and family.

Santa Claus, or St. Nick, is a popular part of Christmas in many countries. The fantastical character arrived in American in the nineteenth century, as new German immigrants arrived with the traditions of the Christmas tree, Christmas gifts, and the story of St. Nicholas. By the end of the century, Santa Claus was an important part of Christmas in the United States. American children believe he travels from the North Pole in a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. He fills their Christmas stockings with treats, and enters and exits the house through the chimney.

The name "Santa Claus" comes from St. Nicholas' nickname of "Sinter Klaas" in Dutch. St. Nicholas was born in the third century, in a village on Turkey's southern coast. He was known as a protector and helper of children, as well as the poor, and was associated with gift-giving due to stories about his generosity. He became the Bishop of Myra later in his life, and his tomb became a popular pilgrimage site after his death.

History Of Christmas
History.com's feature on the history of Christmas says:

In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25.

It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.

Merry Christmas!

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