Christmas, which is celebrated on the 25th of December every year, is the gayest festival of the Christians. It is observed all over the world as the birthday of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity. In India, the Christians who form the third largest religious group in the country, celebrate the occasion with great zest and glee. Our great cities take on a festive air. During the British times, the ten days before Christmas until after the New Year, were declared as public holidays and Christmas was observed as a season of goodwill, merriment, and exchange of greetings. The traditions left behind by them still continue. Although the festival has lost its official patronage, it remains one of the most important religious festivals with an almost universal social participation in the great cities.
Long, long ago, in the days of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, there lived in the town of Nazareth, a humble and pious Jewish couple named Joseph and Mary. One day the Emperor decreed that a census of Jews be taken throughout his empire. Every Jew was asked to present himself in the city of his forefathers within a week after the beginning of the winter solstice, or by 25th December. So Joseph and Mary left for Bethlehem, their home town, to register their names. The journey was long and when they reached Bethlehem, it was late in the evening. The town was crowded with visitors who had also come to get their names registered. The one and only inn was full. Poor Joseph and Mary had to take shelter in a stable. There, in the middle of the night, Mary gave birth to a baby. She wrapped the baby in swaddling clothes and laid him in a crib or fodder bin. At that very moment a group of shepherds, watching their flock, heard an angel announce the birth of their Saviour in the stable. The overjoyed shepherds were guided by a mysterious light and hurried to the stable to pay homage to the child.
The child was later named Jesus. He was acclaimed as the 'Son of God' who had come down to earth to guide men back to the ways of Truth.
On Christmas Eve, all churches are brightly lit. The scene depicting the birth of Jesus in the stable is beautifully recreated both in churches and homes. Groups of devoted singers go round from street to street, singing Christmas carols. One of the most popular of these carols is 'Silent Night':
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
This carol has been translated into many Indian languages and even set to Indian music.
At the stroke of midnight, the bells in the churches begin to ring, announcing the joyful event, and a special mass is held.
Among the various celebrations connected with the festivities, the sending of Christmas cards to friends and relatives has be come almost a ritual.
On Christmas day, people turn out in their best clothes to go to church and visit their friends and relatives. Sweets and greetings are exchanged. A special lunch of roast turkey and hot plum pudding is made. Christmas for the Christians is the festival of festivals.