Christmas Eve is the evening or day before Christmas Day, the widely celebrated annual holiday. It occurs on December 24 in Western Christianity and the secular world, and is considered one of the most culturally significant celebrations in Christendom and Western society, where it is widely observed as a full or partial holiday in anticipation of Christmas Day.
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 Day, and the Feast of the Epiphany.
Christmas celebrations have long begun on the night before the holiday, due in part to the Christian liturgical day starting at sunset, a practice inherited from Jewish tradition and based on the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.”
Many other varying cultural traditions and experiences are also associated with Christmas Eve around the world, including the gathering of family and friends, the singing of Christmas carols, the illumination and enjoyment of Christmas lights, trees, and other decorations, the wrapping and/or opening of gifts, and general preparation for Christmas Day. Legendary Christmas gift-bearing figures including Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and Saint Nicholas are also often said to depart for their annual journey to deliver presents to children around the world on Christmas Eve. Prior to the Protestant introduction of Christkind (“Christ-child”) in sixteenth-century Europe when gift giving was changed to Christmas Eve, such figures were said to deliver presents on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ feast day on December 6.
On Christmas Eve, the Christ Candle in the center of the Advent wreath is traditionally lit in many church services. In candlelight services, while singing “Silent Night”, each member of the congregation receives a candle and passes along their flame which is first received from the Christ Candle.
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. It is broadcast outside the UK via the BBC World Service, and is also bought by broadcasters around the world.
Roman Catholics and Anglicans traditionally celebrate Midnight Mass, which begins either at or shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve. This ceremony held in churches throughout the world celebrates the birth of Christ, which is believed to have occurred at night. Whilst not performing any kind of Mass per se, the Church of Scotland holds a service beginning just before midnight, at which carols are sung.
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-day Simbang Gabi, when Filipinos attend dawn Masses (traditionally beginning around 04:00 to 05:00 PST) from December 16, continuing daily until Christmas Eve. In 2009 Vatican officials scheduled the Midnight Mass to start at 10 pm so that the 82 year old Pope Benedict XVI would not have too late a night.
Lutherans traditionally practice 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. A nativity scene may be erected indoors or outdoors on Christmas Day, and is composed of figurines depicting the infant Jesus resting in a manger, Mary, and Joseph. Other figures in the scene may include angels, shepherds, and various animals. The figures may be made of any material, and arranged in a stable or grotto. The Magi may also appear, and are sometimes not placed in the scene until the week following Christmas to account for their travel time to Bethlehem. While most home nativity scenes are packed away at Christmas or shortly thereafter, nativity scenes in churches usually remain on display until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
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 of Christmas 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.
In the Byzantine Rite, Christmas Eve is referred to as Paramony (“preparation”). It is the concluding day of the Nativity Fast and is celebrated as a day of strict fasting by those devout Byzantine Christians who are physically capable of doing so. In some traditions, nothing is eaten until the first star appears in the evening sky, in commemoration of the Star of Bethlehem. The liturgical celebration begins earlier in the day with the celebration of the Royal Hours, followed by the Divine Liturgy combined with the celebration of Vespers, during which a large number of readings from the Old Testament are chanted, recounting the history of salvation. After the dismissal at the end of the service, a new candle is brought out into the center of the church and lit, and all gather round and sing the Troparion and Kontakion of the Feast.
In the evening, the All-Night Vigil for the Feast of the Nativity is composed of Great Compline, Matins, and the First Hour. The Byzantine services of Christmas Eve are intentionally parallel to those of Good Friday, illustrating the theological point that the purpose of the Incarnation was to make possible the Crucifixion and Resurrection. This is illustrated in Eastern icons of the Nativity, on which the Christ Child is wrapped in swaddling clothes reminiscent of his burial wrappings. The child is also shown lying on a stone, representing the Tomb of Christ, rather than a manger. The Cave of the Nativity is also a reminder of the cave in which Jesus was buried.
The services of Christmas Eve are also similar to those of the Eve of Theophany (Epiphany), and the two Great Feasts are considered one celebration.
In some Orthodox cultures, after the Vesperal Liturgy the family returns home to a festive meal, but one at which Orthodox fasting rules are still observed: no meat or dairy products (milk, cheese, eggs, etc.) are consumed. Then they return to the church for the All-Night Vigil.
The next morning, Christmas Day, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated again, but with special features that occur only on Great Feasts of the Lord. After the dismissal of this Liturgy, the faithful customarily greet each other with the kiss of peace and the words: “Christ is Born!” to which the one being greeted responds: “Glorify Him!” (these are the opening words of the Canon of the Nativity that was chanted the night before during the Vigil). This greeting, together with many of the hymns of the feast, continue to be used until the leave-taking of the feast on December 29.
The first three days of the feast are particularly solemn. The second day is known as the Synaxis of the Theotokos, and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Nativity of Jesus. The third day is referred to simply as “the Third Day of the Nativity.” The Saturday and Sunday following December 25 have special Epistle and Gospel readings assigned to them. December 29th celebrates the Holy Innocents.
Byzantine Christians observe a festal period of twelve days, during which no one in the Church fasts, even on Wednesdays and Fridays, which are normal fasting days throughout the year. During this time one feast leads into another: December 25–31 is the afterfeast of the Nativity; January 2–5 is the forefeast of the Epiphany.
A meal is often served as part of the religious tradition. A variety of foods are included in different countries. The following are some distinctive examples.
In Bulgaria, the meal consists of an odd number of lenten dishes in compliance with the rules of fasting. Beans, fruits, and bogovitsa (a round home-baked bread with a coin baked into the dough) are always included. The meal is often accompanied with wine or Bulgaria’s traditional alcoholic beverage rakia.
In French-speaking places, Réveillon is a long dinner eaten on Christmas Eve. The name of this dinner is based on the word réveil (meaning “waking”), because participation involves staying awake until midnight and beyond. The food consumed at réveillons is generally exceptional or luxurious. For example, appetizers may include lobster, oysters, escargots, or foie gras. One traditional dish is turkey with chestnuts. Réveillons in Quebec will often include some variety of [[tourtière] (a traditional Québecois meat pie that combines potatoes, onions, and spices).
Dessert may consist of a bûche de Noël yule log. In Provence, the tradition of the 13 desserts (representing Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles) is followed: these 13 desserts almost invariably include: pompe à l’huile (a flavored bread), dates, nuts, and fresh fruit. Quality wine is usually consumed at such dinners, often with champagne or similar sparkling wines as a conclusion.
While other Christian families throughout the world celebrate the Christmas Eve meal with various meats, Italians and Sicilians celebrate the traditional Catholic “Feast of the Seven Fishes” which was historically served after a 24 hour fasting period. Although pre-Christmas fasting is not a popular custom still practiced, Italian-Americans still enjoy meatless Christmas Eve feast and attend the Midnight Mass. In various cultures, a festive dinner is traditionally served for the family and close friends in attendance, when the first star (usually Sirius) arrives on the sky.
A similar tradition (Wigilia, or “Christmas Vigil”) exists in Poland. The meal is prepared in advance and the feast begins when the first star Gwiazdka appears in the sky. Before sitting down at the table everyone breaks the traditional Oplatek (wafer) and exchanges good wishes. The number of dishes is set at 7, 9, or 11 and none contain meat. A traditional Wigilia menu includes mushroom soup, potatoes, pickled herring, fried fish, pierogi, sauerkraut, a dried fruit compote, babka (sweet cake) and assorted pastries, nuts, and candies. Legend states that the number of people at the table cannot be odd or some will not live to see another Christmas.
Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania
In Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania a traditional meatless 12-dishes Christmas Eve Supper is served on Christmas Eve before opening gifts. This is known as the “Holy Meal.” The table is spread with a white cloth symbolic of the swaddling clothes the Child Jesus was wrapped in, and a large white candle stands in the center of the table symbolizing Christ the Light of the World. Next to it is a round loaf of bread symbolizing Christ Bread of Life. Hay is often displayed either on the table or as a decoration in the room, reminiscent of the manger in Bethlehem. The twelve dishes (which differ by nationality or region) symbolize the Twelve Apostles.
The Holy Meal was a common Eastern Orthodox tradition in the Russian Empire, but during the era of the Soviet Union it was greatly discouraged as a result of the official atheism of the former regime. It is coming back in Russia and continues to be popular in Ukraine.
The main attribute of Holy Meal in Ukraine is kutia, a sweet grain pudding. The other typical dishes are borscht, Varenyky, a traditional Christmas compote called uzvar and dishes made of fish, phaseolus, and cabbage.
In accordance with the Christmas traditions of the Serbs, their festive meal has a copious and diverse selection of foods, although it is prepared according to the rules of fasting. As well as a round, unleavened loaf of bread and salt, which are necessary, this meal may comprise roast fish, cooked beans, sauerkraut, noodles with ground walnuts, honey, and wine.
Families in some Slavic countries leave an empty place at the table for guests (alluding to Mary and Joseph looking for shelter in Bethlehem).
During the Reformation in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkind, and the date of giving gifts changed from December 6th to Christmas Eve. Many trace the custom of giving gifts to the Magi who brought gifts for the Christ child in the manger.
In many countries (including Argentina, Austria, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Quebec, Romania, Uruguay, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic) Christmas presents are opened mostly on the evening of the 24th, while in Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, English Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia the opening of presents occurs mostly on the morning of Christmas Day. In some 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 Epiphany day.
In the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, and Hungary, where Saint Nicholas delivers his gifts on December 6, the Christmas gift-giver is the Child Jesus.
In most parts of Austria, Germany, Poland, and Switzerland, presents are traditionally exchanged in the evening of December 24. Children are commonly told that presents were brought either by the Christkind or the Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus). In Germany, the gifts are also brought on December 6 by Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert or Servant Rupert, a companion of Saint Nicholas).
In Belgium and the Netherlands celebrate Sinterklaas (a traditional figure based on Saint Nicholas) is celebrated on December 5.
Jewish traditions on Christmas Eve
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 seventeenth 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 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. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was known to spend his Nittel Nachts 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 pastime.
A cross, left near Ypres in Belgium in 1999, to commemorate the site of the 1914 Christmas Truce. The text reads 1914—The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce—85 Years—Lest We Forget.
A number of historical events have been influenced by the occurrence of Christmas Eve.
During World War I in 1914 and 1915 an unofficial Christmas truce took place, particularly that between British and German troops. The truce began on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols. The two sides shouted Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were calls for visits across the “No man’s land” where small gifts were exchanged. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Funerals took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in No Man’s Land, soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from Psalm 23. The truce occurred in spite of opposition at higher levels of the military command. An earlier call by Pope Benedict XV for an official truce between the warring governments had been ignored.
On December 24, 1968, in what was the most watched television broadcast to that date, the astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman of Apollo 8 surprised the world with a reading of the Creation from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. They took turns reading verses 1 through 10.
In 1969, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp (Scott # 1371) commemorating the Apollo 8 flight around the moon. The stamp featured a detail of the famous photograph of the Earthrise over the moon (NASA image AS8-14-2383HR) taken by Anders on Christmas Eve, and the words, “In the beginning God…”