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Did You Know...That Christmas begins at sundown on the Eve?
by Barbara Laufersweiler

The observance of Christmas Day, like many Christian holy days, can begin at sundown the evening before -- with a vigil. This might be more familiar on Easter Eve, also known as Holy Saturday, when many churches hold an Easter Vigil after darkness descends. It's a time of waiting expectantly, even impatiently, for the festival day. This fits right in with Christmas Eve with children!

The general idea is to "bring in" the holy day with a service that lasts until after midnight, so that the first communion of the holy day can be celebrated as soon as possible: in the wee hours of the morning.

The first service of Easter is the Saturday night service that ends after midnight, and the first service of Christmas is -- not a 6 p.m. Christmas Eve service -- but the midnight mass or other service that finishes after midnight. You could even think of the traditional celebrations on New Year's Eve as vigils of sorts -- we fill our time and wait until the stroke of midnight to celebrate the coming of the new year!

Christmas was not observed by the church as a holy day until many centuries after Christians had begun to observe Easter, the following Easter season, and even Lent. In the early years of colonial America, the northern colonies ignored Christmas for a long time and eventually treated it very strictly as a day for churchgoing and religious observance.

Not until much later did Christmas become a holiday -- rather than a working day -- in that region. As soon as they were able, the southern colonies followed the English nonreligious tradition of huge parties and feasting, and several days' holiday from work.

Traditions from around the world are reflected in some families' special meals on Christmas Eve. Many traditional Christmas Eve meals are meatless, perhaps focusing on seafood -- an old way to prepare for a holy day. Another, less common, approach is to eat very little that day: some families eat very lightly before going to a Christmas Eve service, and then enjoy festival foods near or after midnight. Others bake special breads to be eaten after midnight or on Christmas morning.

On Christmas Day the all-out celebration begins! From delicious, decadent Christmas morning dishes to a groaning-table Christmas dinner, we love to celebrate the day with family, friends, and special foods.

In the last century gift-giving has become a strong focus of Christmas Day. The gifts are offered and opened in a few moments; the setting of family and friends gathered, wonderful food, and religious celebrations makes Christmas a festival of the heart.


Barbara Laufersweiler is an at-home mom, an Episcopalian, and the creator of Faith at Home,, a Web site offering help to parents as they explore and enjoy faith with their children. Copyright 2001 Barbara K. Laufersweiler. All rights reserved.

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