After learning about Advent, now I get to blog about the big kahuna: Christmas. I wanted to know how different Christian churches celebrate the holiday. I know that Jewish holidays are celebrated differently in synagogues of different denominations — some synagogues use much more Hebrew than others, some allow women to be called to the bimah while others do not, etc. So it wasn’t so surprising to find that there are differences apparent in Christmas services at different churches. Most churches celebrate Christmas on December 25th, though many Eastern Orthodox churches use a different calendar (the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar) and celebrate Christmas on January 7th. All churches read the Bible’s nativity story during Christmas, although it varies from church to church whether they read the account in the Gospel of Luke or the version from the Gospel of Matthew.
The main differences among Christian denominations’ rituals center on the belief about the bread and wine offered at communion, known as the Eucharist in some churches. Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe in transubstantiation (new vocab word of the day!), meaning they believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. Protestants generally do not believe in transubstantiation; instead they believe the bread and wine are simply symbolic of Christ’s flesh and blood. (There are plenty of other differences among denominations; you can look here if you want more info!)
Different churches celebrate Christmas with their own form of worship, with some extra bells and whistles to commemorate a particularly special time of the year. Think of it as celebrating a holiday with a typical Shabbat service with the Torah reading centering on the holiday story. In other words, Catholics still celebrate Mass (see our Mass cheat sheet), Protestants have services, and so on; they just include Christmas hymns and read the story of the nativity. (Fun fact: we say “Christmas” as a translation of the old English phrase to refer to this holiday — “Christ Mass” — a Mass celebrating the birth of Jesus.) Interestingly, some say midnight Mass is celebrated at night in observation of the Jewish tradition that the day starts at sundown. For Baptists, Christmas is one of the few times communion is taken.
“The Christmas season” doesn’t just mean the month of December. It’s a real period in the Christian calendar, occurring right after Advent: it begins on December 24th (Christmas Eve) and continues through the Epiphany (the Christian holiday that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ), on January 6th. Have you ever heard the song “The 12 Days of Christmas”? I just assumed that was a countdown until the big day of Christmas when everyone got to open his or her presents, but it actually refers to the Christmas season, those 12 days after Christmas and before the Epiphany. I guess the Christmas season doesn’t actually start when the radio stations dust off their Christmas tunes!