In the Western Christian Churches, the Christmas season liturgically begins on Christmas Eve, and is preceded by a four-week fast called Advent. The Mass of the Vigil is said in the late afternoon or early evening hours of December 24. The Christmastide season continues through until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday following the Solemnity of the Epiphany.
Many Roman Catholics and Anglicans traditionally celebrate a midnight Mass (Eucharist) which begins sometime before midnight on Christmas Day; this ceremony, which is held in churches throughout the world, marks the beginning of Christmas Day. A popular joke is to ask what time Midnight Mass starts, but in recent years some churches have scheduled their "Midnight" Mass as early as 7 p.m. In Spanish-speaking areas, the Midnight Mass is sometimes referred to as Misa del Gallo ("Rooster's Mass"). In the Philippines, this custom lasts for nine days, starting on December 16 and continuing daily up to December 24, during which Filipinos attend dawn masses, usually starting at around 4:00-5:00 a.m.
Lutheran parishes often carry on Christmas Eve traditions typical for Germany and Scandinavia. "Krippenspiele" (nativity plays), special festive music for organ, vocal and brass choirs and candlelight services make Christmas Eve one of the highlights in the Lutheran Church calendar. Christmas Vespers are popular in the early evening, and midnight services are also widespread in regions which are predominately Lutheran. The old Lutheran tradition of a Christmas Vigil in the early morning hours of the 25th of December (Christmette) can still be found in some regions of Germany. In eastern and middle Germany many congregations still continue the tradition of "Quempas singing": separate groups dispersed in various parts of the church sing verses of the song "He whom Shepherds once came Praising" (Quem pastores) responsively.
Other churches also hold a candlelight service, which is also typically held earlier in the evening; these often feature dramatizations of the Nativity. Similar worship services are held in many Protestant churches on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
In the early evening, many Methodists come to their church to celebrate Holy Communion with their families. The mood is very solemn, and often the only visible light is the Advent Wreath, and the candles upon the Lord's Table.
The Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast annually from King's College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve has established itself as one of the signs that Christmas has begun in the United Kingdom. It is broadcast to many parts of the world via the BBC World Service.
A number of Eastern Christian churches follow the traditional Julian Calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the modern Gregorian Calendar; thus Christmas Day (December 25) on the Julian Calendar falls on January 7 of the Gregorian Calendar. Some Orthodox Churches have adopted a Revised Julian Calendar, which uses the Gregorian Calendar for the fixed feasts of the liturgical year.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church Christmas is called "The Nativity, According to the Flesh, of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ," and is considered one of the Great Feasts of the church year. It ranks fourth in importance among the Great Feasts, after Pascha (Easter), Pentecost and Theophany (Epiphany). The feast is preceded by a forty-day fast called the Nativity Fast. Christmas Eve is referred to as the "Eve of the Nativity", and is observed as a strict fast day, called Paramony (Greek: παραμονή, Slavonic: navechérie, "preparation", or "vigil"). Those faithful who are physically able to do so, eat no solid food on this day until the first star is seen in the evening sky (or at the very least, until after the Vesperal Divine Liturgy that day). If Paramony falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the day is not observed as a strict fast, but a less restricted fasting meal at which wine and oil are allowed (but no meat, fish or dairy products) is served after the Divine Liturgy that morning.
On this day the Royal Hours are celebrated in the morning. Some of the hymns are similar to those of Theophany and Good Friday, thus tying the symbolism of Jesus' Nativity to his earthly ministry and his death on the Cross. The Royal Hours are followed by the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil which combines Vespers with the Divine Liturgy. During the Vespers, eight Old Testament lections ("parables") which prefigure or prophesy the Incarnation of Christ are read, and special antiphons are chanted. If the Feast of the Nativity falls on a Sunday or Monday, the Royal Hours are chanted on the previous Friday (which is always a fast day), and on the Paramony the Vesperal Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated in the morning.
The All-Night Vigil on the night of December 24 consists of Great Compline, Matins and the First Hour. One of the highlights of Great Compline is the exultant chanting of "God is with us!" interspersed between selected verses from the prophesy of Isaiah , foretelling the triumph of the Kingdom of God, and , foretelling the birth of the Messiah ("For unto us a child is born...and he shall be called...the Mighty God...."). The Orthodox do not normally serve a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; rather, the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ is celebrated the next morning. However, in those monasteries which continue to celebrate the All-Night Vigil in its long form—where it literally lasts throughout the night—the conclusion of the Vigil at dawn on Christmas morning will often lead directly into the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. When the Vigil is separate from the Divine Liturgy, the Lenten fast continues even after the Vigil, until the end of the Liturgy the next morning. In the afternoon of Christmas Day, Great Vespers is celebrated. During the service a special prokeimenon, called the "Great Prokeimenon" is chanted by the deacon and choir.
Large meals are common, often with turkey or ham as the main item. In traditional Orthodox and Catholic countries, Christmas Eve continues to be observed as a fast day, and the meal, though fasting has developed a rich symbolism. The Christmas Eve supper is usually held in candle light, in the evening after the first star appears in the sky. The star symbolizes the birth of Jesus in Christian tradition. Sometimes the meal takes place outside under the starts. Hay may be spread on the floor to recreate the experience of that first Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. Foods are often chosen for their symbolic meaning.
In Czech Republic and Slovakia, the meal features a fish soup and breaded roasted carp with potato salad. Italian Catholics eat seven types of seafood. In some parts of Eastern Europe such as Poland and Lithuania, a traditional meatless 12-dishes Christmas Eve Supper is served before opening gifts. Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans serve roast pig (pernil).
A symbolic Christmas Eve meal used to be a common Eastern Orthodox tradition in the Russian Empire, but today it has become virtually extinct in Russia as a result of the official atheism of the former Soviet Union; though it continues to be popular in Ukraine.
By the Christmas traditions of the Serbs, this festive meal is copious and diverse in foods, although it is prepared in accordance with the rules of fasting. Besides a round, unleavened loaf of bread and salt, which are necessary, this meal may comprise e.g. roast fish, cooked beans, sauerkraut, noodles with ground walnuts, honey, and wine.
In France and some other French-speaking areas, a long family dinner, called a réveillon, is held on Christmas Eve. The name of this dinner is based on the word réveil (meaning "waking"), because participation involves staying awake until midnight and beyond. The food consumed at réveillons is generally of an exceptional or luxurious nature. For instance, appetizers may include lobster, oysters, escargots or foie gras, etc. One traditional dish is turkey with chestnuts. Réveillons in Québec will often include some variety of tourtière. Dessert may consist of a bûche de Noël. In Provence, the tradition of the 13 desserts is followed: 13 desserts are served, almost invariably including: pompe à l'huile (a flavoured bread), dates, etc. Quality wine is usually consumed a such dinners, often with champagne or similar sparkling wines as a conclusion.
In Germany traditions vary from region to region. Carp is eaten in many parts of the country. Potato salad with frankfurter or wiener sausages is popular in some families. Another simple meal which some families favour, especially in regions where Christmas Eve still has the character of a fast day, is vegetable or pea soup. In some regions, especially in Schleswig-Holstein where Danish influence is noticeable, a roasted duck or goose filled with plums, apples and raisins is family tradition. In other regions, especially in Mecklenburg and Pomerania, many families prefer kale with boiled potatoes, special sausages and ham. Many families have developed new traditions for themselves and eat such meals as meat fondue or raclette. In almost all families in all parts of Germany you find a wide variety of Christmas cookies baked according to recipes typical for the family and the region.
There is a wide variety of typical foods one might find on plates across Spain on this particular night, and each region has its own distinct specialties. It is particularly common, however, to start the meal with a seafood dish such as prawns or salmon, followed by a bowl of hot, homemade soup. The main meal will commonly consist of roast lamb, or seafood, such as cod or shellfish. For dessert, there is quite a spread of delicacies, among them are turrón, a dessert made of honey, egg and almonds that is Arabic in origin.
In many cultures, a festive dinner is traditionally served for the family and close friends in attendance, when the first star (usually Sirius) arrives on the sky. In Poland it is known as Wygilia (Eve), and being invited to attend a Wygilia dinner with a family is considered a high honour. Unless attendance is impossible or otherwise too impractical, or if the person has made other plans already, turning down such an invitation, or not showing up can be considered extremely rude. Families in some Slavic countries leave one extra place setting for lost visitor (alluding to St. Mary and St. Joseph looking for shelter).
Before eating everyone exchanges Christmas greetings with each other by giving a piece of Christmas wafer (Oplatki), usually stamped with a religious image, such as the Nativity scene. There is a tradition of having at least 12 (or its multiple) Lenten (meatless) dishes. One has to try every single dish to avoid bad luck next year. Dishes are usually fish based, with carp being very important in Poland. After the dinner children unpack presents from under the Christmas Tree. Later people attend Midnight Mass to solemnly celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
According to the Serbian Christmas traditions, the head of household ought to go into a forest before the sunrise to find, fell, and bring home a young and strait oak tree. In the evening, this felled tree called badnjak is taken into the house with accompanying observances, and put on the fire that burns on the house’s fireplace called ognjište. An ognjište has a fire-resistant floor, but has no vertical surround and no chimney, so the fire burning on it is similar to a campfire. Since houses today usually have no ognjište to burn a badnjak on, it is symbolically represented by several oak twigs, some of which are burnt in a wood-burning kitchen stove, the others being placed beside the stove. For the convenience of people who live in towns and cities, these twigs can be bought at marketplaces, or received in churches.
The Serbs also take a bundle of straw into the house and spread it over the floor, throwing then walnuts on it. Before the table is served for the Christmas Eve dinner, it is strewn with a thin layer of straw and covered with a white cloth. The head of household makes the Sign of the Cross, lights a candle, and incenses the whole house. The family members sit down at the table, but before tucking in, they all rise and a man or boy among them says a prayer. After the dinner, Christmas and other songs are sung, while the elderly narrate stories form the olden times.
In the Philippines, the predominantly Roman Catholic Christian country in Asia, Christmas Eve is usually celebrated by attending the "Rooster's Mass or Misa del Gallo which is celebrated hours before the clock ticks 12 A.M. signifying the arrival of Christmas Day. After attending church, Filipino families usually hold a feast named Noche Buena to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. A great variety of food is eaten during this feast, an event that usually is done with great preparation. Foods being prepared include the famous lechón, quezo de bola, jamón (Christmas ham), roast chicken (turkey did not gain much popularity in the Philippines), barbecued meats, pancit, among many others. Despite the fact that some families are poor, they still find a way to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ through eating, family time and merry-making.
Most of the traditions, such as Christmas dinner and gift giving are observed on this day. Santa Claus visits homes in person, played by an older family member or a rent-a-Santa.
Declaration of Christmas Peace has been a tradition in Finland from the Middle Ages every year, except in 1939 due to the Winter War. The declaration takes place on the Old Great Square of Turku, Finland's official Christmas City and former capital, at noon on Christmas Eve. It is broadcast on Finnish radio (since 1935) and television and nowadays also in some foreign countries.
Recently, there is also a declaration of Christmas peace for forest animals in many cities and municipalities, so there is no hunting during Christmas.
In Finland people usually take a Christmas sauna. The tradition is very old. Unlike on normal days, when going to sauna is in the evening, on Christmas eve it is before sunset. This tradition has is based on a pre-20th century belief that the spirits of the dead return and have a sauna on the usual sauna hours.
During World War I in 1914 and 1915 an unofficial Christmas truce took place. The truce began on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols. The two sides shouted Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were calls for visits across the "No man's land" where small gifts were exchanged. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Funerals took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in No Man's Land, soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from Psalm 23. The truce occurred in spite of opposition at higher levels of the military command. Earlier in the autumn, a call by Pope Benedict XV for an official truce between the warring governments had been ignored.
On December 24, 1968, in what was the most watched television broadcast to date, the astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman of Apollo 8 surprised the world with a reading of the creation myth from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheist activist, filed a lawsuit under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The suit was dismissed by the US Supreme Court due to lack of jurisdiction.
In 1969, the US Postal Service issued a stamp (Scott # 1371) commemorating the Apollo 8 flight around the moon. The stamp featured a detail of the famous photograph of the Earthrise over the moon (NASA image AS8-14-2383HR) taken by Anders on Christmas Eve, and the words, "In the beginning God..."