Holiday History: Christmas Eve traditions

Wreath and advent candles
A Christmas wreath with lit advent candles. (Shutterstock)

Christmas was first observed on the date of December 25th in the year 336 AD, but new traditions continue to arise from it almost 18 centuries later. One recent example is how many people in China are now giving apples to each other on Christmas Eve.

This exchange of apples as gifts originates because two words sound like each other. In Mandarin, the word for apple sounds very similar to the word for Christmas Eve, which roughly translates as “silent night” or “peaceful night.”

This illustrates the popularity of Christmas Eve – and Christmas itself – in both the secular world and the Christian world. The World Watch List from the organization Open Doors ranks countries where they say it’s most difficult to follow Jesus, and China ranks 17th among the world’s 200 countries. 

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Yet, some secular Chinese are giving each other apples, and many of those apples have messages such as “love” and “peace” printed on them. Those are the same words that even the most devout Christians would also apply to Christmas Eve and Christmas messages.

Giving fruit on Christmas Eve is not new. In the United States, fresh fruit was also given, often as a stocking stuffer. In the book Farmer Boy, part of The Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes how a young Almanzo Wilder receives an orange for Christmas in the winter of 1866. It makes sense that at a time when much of the country would not have access to fresh fruit that far into the year, something such as an orange would be a particular treat.

Traditions are part of what makes Christmas Eve so special. What are the traditions in your family? Does one set of grandparents host Christmas Eve each year? Are you able to open one present, leaving the rest to be opened Christmas morning? Do you get to “raid” the stockings but leave the gifts under the tree to the next day? Do you watch the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” or maybe the action movie “Die Hard,” the events of which happen on Christmas Eve?

Wait, you may ask, Die Hard as a Christmas movie? There has actually been a friendly social media debate about that for years.

If you believe it is, there is bad news for you. Appearing in a celebrity roast in his honor several years ago, Bruce Willis, the star of the film, stated emphatically, “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie!”

On the other hand, Steven E. de Souza, one of the writers of the film’s screenplay, has indicated he thinks it is a Christmas movie. 

And that brings us to another Christmas tradition: family debates. For some of us, it’s hard to imagine a holiday gathering without one. 

Another part of what makes Christmas Eve so special is, of course, anticipation. It is the night Santa Claus delivers his presents. Many songs have been written about children who can’t go to sleep in anticipation of what Santa might leave under the tree to be discovered Christmas morning, and many parents have experienced that in real life.

Shutterstock A candlelight service in Delray Beach, Florida.

For Christians, it is the anticipation of Christ’s birth on Christmas. That birth marks the fulfillment of God’s plan to redeem humanity through the gift of His son, who comes to Earth as an infant, fully human and yet fully divine.

As such, Christmas Eve has been celebrated in many churches for centuries. Some observances are joyous at the pending arrival of the Christ child, others are solemn as the congregants still await the good news and great tidings of His birth.

Regardless of what your Christmas Eve traditions may include, may this weekend be filled with peace and joy in your home. 

Merry Christmas.

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