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Merry Christmas: Lesser Known Facts About World's Most Celebrated Festival

Image courtesy: AFP Relaxnews

Image courtesy: AFP Relaxnews

Interestingly, the 'Christ-Mass' service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset and before sunrise the next day, so people had it at Midnight!

Celebrated across the globe to remember and honor the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God, Christmas has evolved over two thousand years into a religious and secular merrymaking, subsuming a range of rituals and traditions along the way. Characterised by joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods, Christmas, now celebrated by people around the world, whether Christians or not, is a time when family and friends come together and remember the good things they have and indulge in exchanging presents.

The name 'Christmas' comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service, sometimes called Communion or Eucharist, is where Christians remember that Jesus died for them and then came back to life.

Interestingly, the 'Christ-Mass' service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset and before sunrise the next day, so people had it at Midnight! Hence, the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas.

There are different theories and arguments surrounding why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th since no date is given in the Bible, and so no one knows the real birthday of Jesus.

Located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Bethlehem, is the "little town" where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born and it attracts thousands of pilgrims at Christmas.

Bethlehem is the cradle of Christianity, the site of the Church of the Nativity, which contains an underground cave where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable. A 14-pointed silver star beneath an altar marks the spot and the stone church is a key pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims alike.

The emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena had it built around the year 338.

Over the years, the church has been sacked and undergone several transformations, and it is now administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities.

A space reserved for Muslim prayer has been set aside in a southern wing.

Bethlehem is also home to the tomb of Rachel, wife of Jacob who was Abraham's grandson. It is Judaism's third holiest site, after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The tomb of the biblical matriarch is sacred for Muslims as well, and Jewish and Muslim women visit regularly to pray for safe and smooth pregnancies.

The first mention of Bethlehem in the Old Testament is in the book of Genesis, under the name of Ephrat, where Rachel dies while giving birth to her son Benjamin. Her tomb is at the northern edge of the city.

Adjoining the Church of the Nativity is the Franciscan church of Saint Catherine, where Christmas Mass is celebrated each year at midnight.

A tall Christmas tree is put up in early December outside the church in Manger Square, signalling the start of the festivities, and its lighting is often accompanied by a message of peace from the city to a troubled region.

On Christmas, thousands of tourists and Palestinians -- Muslims and Christians alike -- line the so-called pilgrimage route to watch a procession led by the Catholic patriarch who begins in Jerusalem and passes through the wall that separates the West Bank from Israel.

Scout marching bands escort the cleric to the sound of drums and bagpipes. The square is the site of many other multi-coloured processions.

Other denominations also celebrate Christmas in various parts of the city, though in the Orthodox and Armenian church calendars, Christmas comes in January.

The 12 days of Christmas start on Christmas and last until the evening of the 5th January - also known as Twelfth Night.

The 12 days have been celebrated in Europe since before the middle ages and were a time of celebration.

The 12 days each traditionally celebrate a feast day for a saint and/or have different celebrations.

25th December marks the first day, celebrating the Birth of Jesus. Day 2, on 26th December also known as Boxing Day) is St Stephen’s Day. He was the first Christian martyr. It's also the day when the Christmas Carol 'Good King Wenceslas' takes place.

31st December marks the 7th day or the New Years Eve. Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day. He was one of the earliest popes (in the 4th Century) and in many central and eastern European countries (including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia) New Years Eve is still sometimes called 'Silvester'.

In the UK, New Years Eve was a traditional day for ‘games’ and sporting competitions. Archery was a very popular sport and during the middle ages it was the law that it had to be practised by all men between ages 17-60 on Sunday after Church and the reason behind this was so the King had lots of very good archers ready in case of a war.

Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany. The Church of England, Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, celebrates Twelfth Night on the 5th and "refers to the night before Epiphany, the day when the nativity story tells us that the wise men visited the infant Jesus".

Other lesser known Winter festivals include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights and it remembers the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

‘Hanukkah’ is the Jewish word for 'dedication'. The festival lasts for eight days and starts on the 25th of ‘Kislev’, the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at about the same time as December. Because the Jewish calendar is lunar , Kislev can happen from late November to late December. During Hanukkah, on each of the eight nights, a candle is lit in a special menorah (candelabra) called a 'hanukkiyah'.

Kwanzaa is a seven-day-long festival that celebrates African and African American culture and history. Kwanzaa takes place from 26th December to 1st January.

The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase 'matunda ya kwanza' which means 'first fruits' in the Swahili language (an Eastern African language spoken in countries including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe). Kwanzaa is mostly celebrated in the USA. During Kwanzaa a special candle holder called a kinara is used to hold seven candles, three red ones on the left, three green ones on the right with a black candle in the center. Each night during Kwanzaa a candle is lit, quite similar to the lighting of the menorah in the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah.

first published:December 25, 2016, 12:08 IST