- Webster 1913 : 2. The evening before a holiday, — from the Jewish mode of reckoning the day as beginning at sunset, not at midnight; as, Christians eve [sic] is the evening before Christmas; also, the period immediately preceding some important event.
Why Is Christmas Eve a Holiday?
As per the original definition of the word "eve," at least in English, Christmas Eve originally was the first part of the day of Christmas itself, which was deemed to have begun at sunset on December 24. Over time, though, the definition of the word "eve" began to be broadened to apply to the entire preceding day or other period of time. In more recent dictionary editions, in fact, the word "eve" specifically is defined as being "the evening or day [ emphasis mine] preceding a holiday." By the time this shift in the meaning was complete, the tradition of beginning the holiday celebration the prior evening already had become well-established, and Christmas Eve has remained an integral part of the Christmas holiday. So the recognition of Christmas Eve as a day and a holiday separate from Christmas itself is in some ways just an etymological accident or artifact from a cultural shift in measuring time. In some places (e.g., Iceland), the original tradition still strongly holds sway, and Christmas itself is celebrated beginning around sunset, December 24.
Other Names for Christmas Eve
- In Iceland, Christmas Eve/Yule Eve is Aðfangadagur.
- In Poland, Christmas Eve is affectionately known as Gwiazdka ("little star"), for the Star of Bethlehem, in Christian tradition the star that guided the Three Kings or Wise Men to the birthplace of the Christ child.
- In Spain, Christmas Eve is la Nochebuena ("the good night").
- In some traditions, the Christmas tree is not erected, decorated and/or displayed until Christmas Eve.
- In some traditions, a special dinner is served on Christmas Eve, with traditional food items and beverages.
- In some traditions, the Nativity story or other Biblical stories are read.
- In some traditions, a creche or nativity scene is set up in addition to or in place of a tree.
- In some traditions, groups of carolers gather on Christmas Eve to go from home to home to sing carols.
- In some traditions, a Yule log is lighted on Christmas Eve, and kept alight through New Year's Day.
- Most Catholic churches and many Protestant churches celebrate Christmas Eve with a Midnight Mass or similar church service. In many Spanish-speaking countries, this service is known as the Misa de[l] Gallo, and in Portuguese Missa do Galo ("The Rooster's Mass").
- Many people exchange gifts on Christmas Eve.
- In many countries, a local version of Santa Claus or the Christ Child is said to bring gifts and/or the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve night; in some countries, though, gifts are said to be brought by other agents and at other times (e.g., In Spain, by the Wise Men/Kings/Magi on January 6).
- The Kristkindl, representing the Christ child, is said to come down from heaven with a band of angels on Christmas Eve to bring gifts and decorate trees.
- After the midnight Mass, families share le réveillon, a late supper.
- Children leave their shoes out, which they believe will be filled with gifts from le père de Noël or le petit Jésus.
- TV transmission stops around 5 pm on Aðfangadagur (Yule Eve) and only restarts at 10 pm; all regular public services also are halted on Yule Eve, and people rarely leave their homes. At 6pm, the church bells rings, and Christmas tree lights are lit for the first time; this is the traditional Icelandic start of Christmas. After the evening meal, Icelandic children open their Yule presents.
- Children set out their shoes for La Befana, a female aspect of Santa Claus, to be filled with candy and toys.
- In Rome and other parts of Italy, a traditional Christmas Eve dinner is made of Capitone, a roasted, baked or fried eel.
- At midnight, fireworks, bells, and whistles are used to announce the birth of Christ.
- At 5 p.m., the churches begin to ring in Christmas.
- The aspect of Santa Claus is known as Julenisse. According to legend, the nisse was the original settler of the land. Many farms would make up a bed for the nisse on Christmas Eve and the honorary place at the table stood ready and waiting for him.
- After church, the family gathers for a holiday meal. Before the family sits down to dinner a bowl of porridge is put out for the nisse.
- After dinner, the family sit down to listen to the Christmas Gospel and then join hands to walk around the Christmas tree, singing carols. A knock at the door announces the arrival of Julenissen with his sack full of gifts.
- After supper, family and guests stay at the table until, at a signal from the host, they all rise in unison and leave. This is the result of an old belief that the first to rise will die before the next Christmas Eve.
- Many families gather after Midnight Mass for a supper called Ceia de Natal. On Christmas Eve, supper consists of codfish with boiled potatoes and cabbage.
- Families gather together to rejoice and feast around the Nativity scenes that are present in nearly every home.
- Bells call the people to Mass at midnight.
- After Mass, families return home for a very late dinner. After the meal, family members gather around the tree and sing carols. An old Spanish proverb says: Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no es noche de dormir ("Tonight is Christmas Eve, it is not a night for sleeping.")
- No work is to be done on Christmas Eve except feeding the livestock and preparing the meal, the smorgasbord.
- The Tomte, the Christmas elf, is said to come after the meal to bring presents. Children leave a dish of porridge for the Tomte.
- Children are told that Santa Claus makes his visits by reindeer-guided sleigh to fill stockings with treats and leave presents under the tree. Children traditionally leave milk and cookies for Santa.
- In many communities, people take drives on Christmas Eve to view the elaborate Christmas light displays at homes and other locations.
Christmas Eve Trivia
- 1867 was the first year that Macy's department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas Eve.
- On Christmas Eve in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, England, the tenor bell called Black Tom is rung once for each year in the Christian Era.
NB: If you can help me fill in any gaps from other cultural or religious traditions, or if I've inadvertently misrepresented anything, please /msg me and I'll update it.
- "European Festivals and Traditions" (http://www.european-schoolprojects.net/festivals/)
- "Holiday Traditions" (californiamall.com/holidaytraditions/)
- "How Christmas Works — The Complete Guide to Christmas Traditions!" (www.howstuffworks.com/)