Christmas is a wonderful time yet a very mixed bag of tricks where many of us do not even know what we are doing or what Christmas is about, even Christians. However, I thought I would give some facts for the inquiring mind.
1. The 567 AD Council of Tours proclaimed Advent, a season from November 11 to December 24 characterized by the spirit of anticipating the birth of Christ.
2. Although the Orthodox Church still begins Advent on November 11, near 600 AD Pope Gregory Ist shortened the season to the four Sundays before Christmas. Later the requirements for fasting & abstention were relaxed, but Advent remains a season of spiritual preparation. During Advent the faithful were forbidden from being absent from regular church attendance during this period and were to fast as strictly as during Lent.
3. The Advent wreath is decorated with four candles, one of which is to be lit on each of the four Sundays. Advent is an observed festively in Nuremberg, Germany where the season is begun with a gala opening of the Christkindl Markt (Christ child shopping market) on the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas markets of stalls selling Christmas specialties in open plazas are popular not only in Germany, but in Italy and Belgium.
4. Los Posados is a Mexican custom that has spread to several central American countries as well as to the Philippines. During the nine days preceding Christmas a nightly procession ("los posados") enacts Joseph and Mary searching for shelter in Bethlehem. According to tradition they must be refused at least once before an innkeeper lets them in.
5. Midnight Mass is the first of three masses held at Christmas by the Roman Catholic Church, each mass characterized by a distinctive liturgy. For many people Midnight Mass is the most important of Christmas masses because of a popular belief that Jesus was born at midnight. Midnight Mass from St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome and from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is broadly televised.
6. St. Stephen's Day (December 26th) commemorates the first Christian martyr Stephen, who was stoned to death for his religious beliefs in 35 A.D. In the Middle Ages priests opened the church alms-box on St. Stephen's Day to distribute deposited coins to the needy. St. Stephen's Day became Boxing Day in Britain and is a recognized holiday not only in Britain, but in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In British tradition, Christmas was a day of exchanging gifts whereas the day following Christmas was a day in which people of less fortunate station (servants, trades people and the poor) received gifts from the more fortunate — often in boxes — without the expectation of anything being given in return. The custom declined, partly because trades people became too demanding of their annual "tips".
7. Holy Innocents' Day (December 28th) commemorates the slaughter of the boy babies of Bethlehem by King Herod. In England this day was the occasion for ritual beating of children, but in continental Europe it was more common for children to be given license to whip adults. The English did allow "boy bishops" to deliver sermons on December 28. In Spain and in many Latin American countries Innocents' Day is celebrated like April Fools' Day — the victims of the practical jokes are the "innocents".