Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies. The New Testament contains two accounts which describe the events surrounding His birth. These accounts are found in the first chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. They say Jesus was born to Mary, who was with her husband Joseph in the city of Bethlehem.
Tradition has placed the birth in a stable. A manger is mentioned in Luke 2:7 where it states Mary “wrapped him (Jesus) in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” and “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
Luke also recounts that angels told shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem of the birth and they were the first to see the child. Tradition also holds that three kings or wise men visited the infant Jesus in the manger, though this does not strictly follow the Biblical account.
The Gospel of Matthew describes a visit by an unspecified number of magi, or astrologers, sometime after Jesus was born while the family was living in a house. In this account, the magi brought gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh to the young child Jesus.
The visitors were said to be following a mysterious star, commonly known as the Star of Bethlehem, believing it to announce the birth of a king of the Jews. The commemoration of this visit, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrated on January 6, is the formal end of the Christmas season in some churches.
Christians celebrate Christmas in various ways. In addition to this day being one of the most important and popular for the attendance of church services, there are other devotions and popular traditions — pageants, cantatas, carol services, decorations in the colours of green, red, gold and white.
Prior to Christmas Day, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices the 40-day Nativity Fast in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, while much of Western Christianity celebrates four weeks of Advent.
The final preparations for Christmas are made on Christmas Eve, and many families’ major religious observation of Christmas actually falls in the evening of this day.
The nativity has inspired many paintings and much music over the years. Nativity scenes are traditionally set in a stable with livestock and include Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus in the manger, the three wise men, the shepherds and their sheep, the angels, and the Star of Bethlehem. Nativity scenes or crèches with figurines are also common in churches and homes.
In the West today, the real meaning of Christmas is sometimes forgotten. For many, it has become a non-religious holiday associated with family gatherings, feasts, Santa Claus and lavish gift-giving. Christmas is typically the largest annual economic stimulus for many nations around the world. Sales increase dramatically in almost all retail areas and shops introduce new products as people purchase gifts, decorations, holiday supplies and festive food.