Followers of the Christian faith celebrate Christmas day, December 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Christmas story, which relates the birth of the child Jesus to the Virgin Mary in a stable in Bethlehem as a fulfillment of the coming of a great prophet or messiah foretold in Jewish scripture, is as central to the Christian religion as that of the death of the adult Jesus by crucifixion at the hands of Roman officials.
For many families, attending a church service on Christmas Eve or on Christmas day is as much a part of their observance of the holiday as the placing of a decorated tree in their home or the purchasing of gifts. Normally church sanctuaries are decorated with representations of the scene in the stable or manger in Bethlehem where it is believed Jesus was born.
These nativity scenes are often intricately detailed and elaborate in their representation of the holy family, the stable animals, and the shepherds who reputedly were drawn to the stable by a shining star where they honored the tiny baby. In addition three "wise men" or "magi" are often placed in proximity to the nativity scene. Also drawn to Bethlehem by the star, the "wise men" supposedly presented the baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is common for homes to feature small nativity scenes as part of their holiday decorations or for such representations to be placed on the lawns of private homes. Because in the United States there is a clear separation of church and state, in recent years various groups have challenged the legality of such nativity displays. In spite of these legal actions, however, there is no shortage of visible nativity scenes during the Christmas season.
Christmas day and the season leading up to its celebration have taken on many secular elements and represent a booming industry for the sale of elaborate decorations (both for Christmas trees and for the outside of homes) and for the retail world (with gift giving at the center of the celebrations). For many, however, the remembrance on Christmas day of the simple Christmas story of the birth of a child under difficult but wondrous circumstances represents the true meaning of the holiday, the coming of a savior, and a bringer of hope to mankind.
As a result of this religious foundation to an otherwise secular holiday, Christmas day is not only tied to family observances like the exchange of gifts or the sharing of a large meal, but also to unusually high church attendance. Many people who feel no need to attend a religious service at other times of the year are drawn to churches on Christmas day because they feel a sentimental attachment to the intermingling of the holiday with the core religious story of their culture.
Regardless of the manner in which Christmas day is observed, however, there is no denying the economic and social impact of the Christmas holiday season, which dominates American culture from some time right after Halloween (at the end of October) until December 25 itself. Whether this high exposure of Christmas-themed activities and merchandise reflects profit potential or a genuine love of the holiday and its traditions and associations, the Christmas season is without question the most prominent holiday in those countries that observe it.