In the Western Christian Churches, the Christmas season liturgically begins on Christmas Eve. The Mass of the Vigil is said in the late afternoon or early evening hours of December 24.
The Christmas 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 at midnight on Christmas Eve, which is held in churches throughout the world, marking the beginning of Christmas Day.
A popular joke is to ask what time Midnight Mass starts, but in recent years some churches have started their "Midnight" Mass as early as 7 P.M.
Other Catholic churches hold a candlelight service which is 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.
MealsLarge meals are common, often with turkey or ham as the main item. In Czech Republic and Slovakia it is 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 roast a pig.
Gift givingIt is also seen as the night when Santa Claus or his international variants, make their rounds giving gifts to good children. In the Czech Republic, where St. Nicholas (sv. Mikuláš) gave his sweet gifts already more than two weeks earlier, is Ježíšek, that is Child Jesus or also known to most as Christkind, the Christmas gift-giver.
In Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Argentina, Poland, Portugal and Quebec, Kazakhstan Christmas presents are opened on the evening of the 24th, while in Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, English Canada, South Africa, and Australia mostly on the morning of Christmas Day.
In Finland Joulupukki personally meets children and gives presents in the evening of Christmas Eve. In most parts of Germany, Austria and Switzerland Christmas presents are opened in the evening of December 24th ('Bescherung') and are brought by Christkind or Christchild, who leaves the gifts but is never seen doing so.
In Spain gifts are traditionally opened on the morning of January 6, Epiphany day ("Día de Los Reyes"), though in some other countries, like Argentina and Uruguay people received presents both around Christmas and on the morning of Epiphany day; there are also some countries, like the rest of Latin America, where people stay awake until midnight, when they open the presents.
South AmericaIn South America Christmas Eve know as Nochebuena (English - Good Night) is celebrated by staying up until midnight. At midnight gifts and presents are opened. Fireworks are also shot off. Fireworks are the main focus of the celebration. It is not a silent night. With families coming together exchanging presents and going to church. After Christmas the children often play with their new presents or go to church with their parents and grandparents.
SpainAs in South America, Christmas Eve is also known as La Nochebuena in Spain. There are two important traditions: attending Christmas Mass and enjoying a meal with friends and family.
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.
Iceland and NorwayIn Iceland and Norway, Yule starts on the night of December 24th, at 6:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. respectively. Church bells ring at that time and people either sit down for holiday dinner at home or with closest family. After that they open gifts and spend the evening together.
Slavic countriesIn 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 Slavic countries, 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.
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 i.e. in Poland.
After the dinner children unpack presents from under the Christmas Tree. Later people attend a midnight Mass to celebrate solemnly the birth of Jesus Christ.
North AmericaIn North America, there is a mixture of families opening gifts in the evening and, more commonly, on Christmas Day morning. In Quebec and among many francophone families living in other provinces, the Réveillon is held on Christmas Eve with traditional food such as tourtière, attendance at church, and the opening of gifts. Children leave cookies for Santa the night before on a plate. Also, in some families the gifts are given two weeks before Christmas day.
PhilippinesIn 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 lechon, quezo de bola, hamon (Christmas ham), roast chicken (turkey did not gain much popularity in the Philippines), barbecued meats, pancit and 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.
Finland (Declaration of Christmas Peace)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 in Finnish radio (since 1935) and television and nowadays also in some foreign countries.
The declaration ceremony begins with the hymn Jumala ompi linnamme (Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) and continues with the Declaration of Christmas Peace read from a parchment roll:
"Tomorrow, God willing, marks the most gracious feast of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, and therefore a general Christmas peace is hereby declared, and all persons are directed to observe this holiday with due reverence and otherwise quietly and peacefully to conduct themselves, for whosoever breaks this peace and disturbs the Christmas holiday by any unlawful or improper conduct shall be liable, under aggravating circumstances, to whatever penalty is prescribed by law and decree for each particular offence or misdemeanour. Finally, all citizens are wished a joyous Christmas holiday."
The Ceremony ends with trumpets playing "Maamme" and "Porilaisten marssi", with the crowd usually singing when the band plays "Maamme".
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.