Because Christmas is the most pompous Christian holiday in the world, Christmas Eve is usually the time to prepare for fulfilling its traditions. Not many countries in worldwide observe it as a standalone public holiday, but the Eve is always part of the Christmas season.
In the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, December 24 is a day for Christmas shopping, house decorating or cooking for the following holiday. Some families celebrate it with a modest meal and by going to a special church service. Another name for the holiday is the Vigil of Christmas, and the Irish call it Oíche Nollag. Christmas Eve is the final day of Advent; it is the time of anticipation and preparation.
Some Christmas traditions, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe decorations might have been adopted from Roman mid-winter festivals and Celtic celebrations. In the Christian times, the Eve has always accompanied Christmas Day, similarly to the legend of Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus. When in the 16th century Protestants distinguished their gift-bringing Christkind from the Catholic Santa, the tradition of him embarking on a journey to deliver presents was moved from December 5 to December 24. Nowadays, in many cultures the gifts appear in the morning of Christmas Day, though some places, like Quebec, celebrate giving presents on Christmas Eve.
The holiday tradition came to America and Oceania mostly with British settlers; that is why, in Australia, probably the first Christmas Eve was observed on December 24, 1788, a day before the first observance of Christmas Day by Governor Arhur Philips. There are a few important historical events associated with the Eve, for example: the Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and British troops formed a momentary peace in order to sing Christmas carols and to bury and commemorate their dead; the reading from the Book of Genesis done by astronauts orbiting the moon in Apollo 8 in 1968.
Many countries cultivate some Christmas Eve traditions, such as the Midnight Mass, the Christmas decoration, the hanging of Christmas stockings and carol singing. The aforementioned church service used to be held on the midnight before Christmas Day due to the belief that Christ was born then. Nowadays, however, many such masses are held in the evening of Christmas Eve. When it comes to Christmas decorations, they are usually displayed long before Christmas Eve. It is not until December 24, however, that special decorations, such as mistletoe or glass angels, are hung on the Christmas tree or elsewhere in the house. The Christmas stocking tradition is connected to Santa Claus and his gift-bringing; this is a special custom for children, who wait for their big socks to be filled with presents. Carol singing is a prominent tradition especially in England, since it is the birthplace of many famous Christmas songs; the prominent radio station that broadcasts them annually throughout the entire UK and beyond is the one in King’s College, Cambridge. The tradition of Carols by Candlelight (the community gathering and singing carols outdoors, lit by candles) originated in Australia in the 19th century, but has been held annually there and around the world since 1938. In addition to these customs, there are also nativity plays, mostly organized by schools and churches. The figures of Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and baby Christ are central to these shows.
Most English-speaking countries do not recognize Christmas Eve as a day off. Only the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Texas, South and North Carolina celebrate the Eve as a public holiday, when most institutions and businesses close. Some states, similarly to a few places in Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have half-holidays on December 24. On the territories where the holiday is not sanctioned, many employees take a couple of hours off anyway. It is important for some people to spend the last day of Advent at home, preparing meals and cleaning the household. Others need to have December 24 free because they celebrate Christmas then, too. Either way, Christmas Eve is an international observance that, though not independent from Christmas Day, is filled with traditions and has its own meaning.