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Christmas Eve: ‘Twas the Night before…’

Christmas Eve

Christmas EveChristmas Eve. Hardly the main event, is it? So, does it stand, as a Big Idea?

Well, hardly on its own. Without Christmas, there’d be no Christmas Eve.

But, it does have enough cultural attachments of its own, to justify a place on our list of Big Ideas. Especially as, once every 7 years, we publish on Christmas Eve.

Why Do We Have a Christmas Eve?

There are two western festivals that come to mind where we mark the eve: Christmas Eve and All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. I think that, in the case of Christmas Eve, it is the magnitude of the festival for Christians.

Easter is as big. And, in a way, the eve is celebrated, via the attention to Good Friday that precedes it. But I can find no gospel significance to the day or night before Christmas Day.

Neither, by the way, is the date of 25 December supported by any solid evidence of the birth date of the historical Jesus. Dates had huge significance in the late ancient and early mediaeval worlds. So, the choice of 25 December for Christmas Day (and therefore, 24 December for Christmas Eve) are matters of complex socio-religious history. I shan’t tackle them here. Take a look at the Wikipedia article for more detail – although it does fail to cover the link with Roman Mithraic tradition.

What Happens on Christmas Eve?

Depending on where you live, Christmas Eve supports many traditional practices. But let’s not forget that, for most of the world’s population, the day has no special significance at all.

But, in broadly Christian cultures, you’ll find some mix of:

  • Preparations
  • Midnight mass
  • Vespers
  • Vigils
  • Fasting and feasting
  • Carolling – singing Christmas songs, or carols
  • Buying and decorating a tree
  • Exchange of presents

Traditions Linked to Gift Giving

Christmas is also linked with gift-giving. This is a tradition that ties in closely with the Big Idea of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas. So you will find many households hanging out stockings as receptacles for gifts.  In exchange, they will also put out gifts for Santa:

  • Milk and cookies, or
  • Sherry and a mince pie, plus a carrot for the reindeer

Pre-Christian Traditions

Much of the symbolism of the modern Christian Christmas is a call-back to pre-Christian traditions around a mid-winter festival. 25 December is the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year. A good theory for its selection as a date for Jesus’s nativity from a theological perspective is connected. The symbolism of days getting longer and lighter after his birth must have been appealing to early Christian scholars. The fact that Roman and northern European cultures all had mid-winter festivals was probably the trigger.

In many European cultures families would bring a ‘Yule Log’ into the home and light it through the darkest days. It became traditional to do this on Christmas Eve, and it would would burn until Twelfth Night (night of the 5 January/6 January). This is the eve (there’s another eve) of the epiphany. In western Christian tradition, that was the day the Magi visited the baby Jesus and gave their gifts. In eastern Orthodox Christianity, it marks the day of Jesus’s baptism.

Back to the Pre-Christian Christmas Eve

The use of greenery in pre-Christian winter festivals emphasises the evergreen nature of holly, ivy, and mistletoe. So, in co-opting those plants, many cultures create decorations with these plants and mount them on Christmas Eve. Many others, now, do so as early as November!

If Christmas carol singing has become a popular Christmas eve tradition, it originates from the house-visiting wassail. Wassailing is processing around town or countryside, singing, drinking (alcoholic drinks) and making merry – often in a raucous way. It also links to a lesser-known tradition of mummering, or mumming. This involves visiting houses in disguise and offering dance, music, and other revels, in exchange for food and drink.

The Classic Anglophone Western Christmas Eve

…is not so old. Many of the traditions go back to Charles Dickens and his characterisation of Christmas Eve in his 1843 short story, ‘A Christmas Carol’ (US|UK). And it’s an enduring story we continue to honour today. Some read the book, as a family. Or watch one of the many versions committed to film. There’s a new one on BBC Television that looks good.

And then we follow his tradition of going to bed, to wake up on Christmas Day, for a burst of gift giving and over-eating.

Merry Christmas!

What is Your experience of Christmas Eve?

We’d love to hear your experiences and traditions. Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more…

Of you are in a festive mood, you may also like two of our previous Big Ideas Christmas articles:

And to all our readers…

A merry Christmas, one and all.

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