The Nativity of Jesus is certainly one of the most important Christian feasts of the year. Christmas pageants, crèche scenes, Mass and special meals have a significant place in the celebration in many countries. Still, Catholics in different cultures, usually on the basis of very long-standing traditions, are fairly diverse in the emphasis they place on various liturgical feasts celebrating the incarnation, and in the particular ways they celebrate these days. Globalization is bringing Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Christmas presents and snowman images all over the world, but these are not indigenous to most Catholics’ practice. Many older practices still endure as major religious, social and cultural events.
Even in cultures where religion is otherwise quite privatized, Christmas is a very public celebration. In as secular a place as Denmark, Christmas is a major event, tied in to the darkness of winter and celebrated with St. Lucy’s Day. Perhaps more than any other Christian feast, Christmas often competes against secular and consumerist equivalents that define its meaning quite differently than the church does.
In Northern European and most English-speaking cultures, Christmas, December 25, is the key date for celebration of the Nativity. For even the most tenuous Catholics, it is regarded as an essential time of celebration, a holiday not to be missed. Christmas is marked by the Church as a season that runs from December 25 to Epiphany Sunday in January, but in the United States, Catholics commonly refer to “the Christmas season” as a time of parties and shopping that runs from the end of November, after the Thanksgiving holiday, until Christmas day itself, or a few days later. A Christmas tree might go up as early as December 1, and typically will be taken down on December 26 or almost always by December 31. The Church works to call attention to Advent, but competing notions of “the Christmas season,” for mostly commercial reasons, work against that.
A whole range of Christmas celebrations remains to be explored further on this website. One example of the variety is in the old Catholic coastal towns of Veli and Thumba, India, where Christmas is celebrated by bathing at the beach (the only time of the year that this is done), and by dancing in the street at night after midnight Mass.
Another area to explore is the degree to which attention is also directed to the times before and after December 25. Many Latin American cultures focus much greater attention on feasts like the Tres Reyes — Three Kings Day — than on Christmas Day itself.
Mexicans, for example, start the celebration earlier, though in a non-commercial way. At Las Posadas, candlelight processions go from door to door for nine days before Christmas, like Mary and Joseph searching for room to lodge. Children have active roles and get to break open piñatas containing small treats. Las Posadas ends on Christmas Eve, which is celebrated in earnest, but Mexicans tend to leave Christmas itself as a quiet day of rest from the events leading up to it. Filipinos similarly mark nine days of Masses leading up to a celebration on Christmas Eve. Puerto Ricans place special emphasis on the Three Kings Day, which is celebrated with gifts and dinners.
Epiphany is celebrated somewhat differently in Eastern Catholic churches, where the focus is not on the Magi, but on the Baptism of the Lord. For Melkite Greek Catholics, this is an important feast, celebrated at the same time as Epiphany in the West. For them, however, the Epiphany to the world is not revealed in the adoration of the kings, but in the sign of the dove at Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan.
Meals play an important part of nativity celebrations, though the choice of food varies widely around the world. The Eastern churches require a fast during Advent. In some places, there are specific foods customary to various Nativity feasts, such as fish or turkey or ham, while in others it is simply important that the meal be special. In Spain, Portugal, France, and many Latin countries, a special cake is served on Three Kings’ Day, with a prize baked in for one lucky person to find.