The exact birth date of Jesus is unknown, so the date to commemorate the birth varied from place to place as Christianity spread throughout the world.
In 350 AD, Pope Julius I designated December 25 as the date for all Christians to celebrate Christmas Day.
Before Christian times, December 25 was the celebration date for the winter solstice (shortest day) in the northern hemisphere. In England and Scandanavia, these festivals were known as Yule and included the lighting of bonfires and the decorating of houses with tree branches.
In the Roman world, the winter solstice marked the festival of Saturn, the god of farming.
Pope Julius hoped that holding Christmas Day on December 25 would stop people honouring a pagan god. Indeed, that is what eventually happened as Christianity was adopted by more and more societies.
Today, all Christian societies celebrate Christmas on December 25, although the way they mark the festivities is distinctively different in cultures around the world.
Christmas in Italy
Most Italian families have a Christmas crib called a presepio in the home. Legend tells that a lonely old widow named Befana missed out on travelling with the wise man to give presents to the baby Jesus. To make up for this, she now flies from house to house on her broomstick, filling stockings of good children.
Christmas in Holland
In Holland, children receive their gifts on December 6 – St Nicholas’ Day. On Christmas Eve, there are candles and lights in every home. The Christmas tree sparkles with glass bells, little wreaths and is topped off with a glass ornament known as a piek. The tree is taken down on December 26 for a bonfire.
Christmas in Russia
In Russia and other Orthodox countries, Christmas Day is celebrated on January 7. It begins on the previous evening with a twelve-course supper. Babouska (grandmother) is the traditional figure who delivers presents to the children.
Christmas in Australia
In Australia, Carols by Candlelight has become a tradition, with services held outdoors in the cool of the evening. Although Christmas comes in the middle of summer, many families still follow the English tradition of a roast meal and plum pudding on Christmas Day. Santa Claus delivers presents to good children while they are sleeping on Christmas Eve.