There are many Christian holidays which are lesser known. Below we will cover the major ones around which Christianity revolves.
What is the origin of Christmas? Why do people celebrate it?
The word Christmas originally comes from the Catholic celebration called "Christ Mass," a church service centered on the birth of Christ.
The nativity story begins with a virgin named Mary conceiving Jesus by the Holy Spirit, and traveling to Bethlehem with her husband Joseph during Caesar's census. She gives birth to the child in a cave with livestock and lays him in a manger. The baby Jesus is worshiped by three foreign kings who traveled to see him, and a group of lowly shepherds who were told that night by a host of angels that the Messiah was born in Bethlehem. Though the actual date of Christ's birth may not be December 25th, that day is chosen to celebrate the day that God became flesh, and Jesus was born into the world. Many of the traditions are commemorative of the nativity story, of Jesus' birth and the events surrounding the day.
Advent is comprised of the four Sundays preceding Christmas. The term "advent" means "coming" in Latin, and the Sundays are to serve as contemplative days where one considers the historical context: the need for the savior, and the four hundred years of silence since the last prophet had spoken of the promised Messiah who would come and save people from condemnation through sin. Jesus' coming ended humanity's separation from God, making forgiveness available to those who would receive it and a personal relationship with God possible. Many denominations choose to fast from specific foods during this time, and church services sing carols, musical stories recounting the birth of Christ. Groups of "carolers" will go door-to-door singing songs of the nativity in the weeks of advent. Many countries have table wreaths with 4 candles, and light one for every week of advent that passes, until all four candles are burning the week of Christmas; there are also advent calendars which teach children to count down the days, and anticipate Jesus' birth as the day the greatest gift was given.
The Christmas traditions tend to range from family to family, and depend on what country people live in. The traditions of Christmas are far too numerous to describe in detail, but the central point is that on the morning of Christmas, families give each other presents to celebrate the gift of Jesus being given as light to a dark world. This is also to reflect the offerings that the three kings brought to the newborn child, which were gifts representing symbolic aspects of Jesus' life and sacrifice. Other common traditions include decorating an evergreen tree, which grows green and verdant even in the depths of winter. The tree has a star or an angel hung on the highest bow, to signify the star that guided the three kings to Jesus' birth place, or the angel that told the shepherds about the Messiah's arrival. In the evening of Christmas Day, there is celebration feast of Christmas dinner with family and friends, and is a time of great joy.
Easter & the Holy Week
Equal to the birth of Jesus, the death and resurrection of the Messiah is of enormous importance to the Christian faith. It represents a time of when the Old Covenant was broken, death was defeated, and believers have the hope of new life with Jesus. "Holy Week" as it is often called, spans from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, and is celebrated in the spring of every year.
Palm Sunday represents the one-week mark before Easter, when in the gospel accounts of Jesus' life, he was welcomed into Jerusalem. Jesus and his twelve disciples traveled to the city to celebrate Passover, and the crowds laid palm trees down before Jesus as he entered on a donkey. Such an action would be fitting for a returning King; and often churches will decorate their sanctuaries with palm branches to remember the day.
This is a traditional feast commemorating the night in the Old Testament (Exodus) during the time when God send plagues to Egypt because Pharaoh would not let His people go. Passover was the final night before Pharaoh let the Hebrews leave Egypt, when the last plague came, bringing the Angel of Death. Israelites were instructed to paint lambs blood on their doorposts so the Angel of Death would pass over their houses and their lives would be spared. This feast is centered around a plate of elements representing symbolic aspects of the story (ie.; bitter herbs, for the slavery; bone for the lamb that was sacrificed, enabling death to pass over the houses, etc.) The Jewish tradition of celebrating Passover lasts for several days, while the Christian celebration of Passover is only the night before Jesus' arrest (often called "Holy Thursday," before Good Friday). Not every Christian celebrates Seder, but many evangelicals commemorate the night with New Covenantal themes, following the Passover dinner with communion. This represents the promise of a coming savior fulfilled by Jesus' death and resurrection.
Good Friday is the day when Jesus was arrested, accused and condemned to death on a cross. Christians celebrate Good Friday by attending a church service to meditate on Christ's sufferings and sacrifice. Many choose to fast, or wear a black ribbon from sundown on Friday to sunrise on Sunday, to honor Jesus laying down his life.
Easter is the day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, making it the most important holiday of the Christian faith. Believers of all denominations often celebrate by holding early sunrise services, in parks or outdoor amphitheatres, and inviting everyone they know to attend. The services are filled with songs and teachings, celebrating Jesus conquering death and giving the hope of new life to everyone who puts their trust in Him. This is the most important holiday, because without Easter (Jesus' resurrection), the claims of the Christian faith would lose all their validity. Through the resurrection, Jesus proved that he was truly the Messiah and accomplished all that He said He would, making this the great day of triumph and joy for Christians. Families have barbeques, parties, and community lunches and enjoy fellowship together.
Historically Catholic Celebrations
Ash Wednesday & Lent
For the Catholics, Ash Wednesday is a day of contrition and confession. When the Hebrews would mourn in the Old Testament, they would cover their heads in sackcloth and ashes to show their sorrow. When Catholics attend mass on Ash Wednesday, they receive a mark of ash on their forehead to signify their confession. This day marks the beginning of a meditative period where Catholics honor a season called "Lent." Mirroring the time that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert, Catholics fast as a personal discipline. For around 40 days before Easter, many will fast from anything such as red meat to caffeine or sugar during this period. This practice originated in the Catholic Church, but many denominations observe the ritual, including some Episcopalians, Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed Churches, Methodists, and Presbyterians, etc.
Maundy Thursday or "Holy Thursday"
Maundy Thursday occurs on the Thursday of Holy Week, the day before Jesus' death on Good Friday. The term "Maundy Thursday" is used in England; "Holy Thursday" used in other denominations and countries, and is a public holiday in select Central and South American, as well as some European countries. Churches that honor Holy Thursday will often have a "Last Supper" mass and ceremony for their congregants.