It begins, of course, with evening services the previous evening. Churches in different parts of the city have different traditions, varying from an essentially ordinary Vespers, to a midnight Vigil.
Many churches across the city also have their own traditions, but they are eclipsed by the mid-morning service in the Imperial Cathedral. This service begins simply, with (after an opening hymn and greeting) a reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. But it becomes more elaborate, including pageantry and dramatic presentations of the story, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the collection of a special offering to benefit the city’s poor, as well as the singing of many carols and other hymns throughout the service.
Members of the Chosen, born and raised on Earth, and their children exchange a great number of gifts, which they usually open Christmas afternoon. As I explained two years ago, for native-born citizens it’s far less usual to give gifts at particular times when they might be expected, but some have happily adopted the “Earth” custom the newcomers reintroduced.
Starting Christmas Eve, the cathedral, other churches, the palace, and other public buildings, as well as many private homes, are decked in white and gold banners and other decorations, as those are the liturgical colors designated for the Christmas season. Greenery is also, as ever, a popular decoration, though “Christmas trees” are only popular or widespread among the Chosen.
In the afternoon, well after the cathedral’s service has ended, the King makes a speech, and publishes an “honors list” indicating a number of citizens whom he and his government particularly wish to honor. (Such lists are a regular—quarterly or perhaps monthly—occurrence, released on the most major holiday in a given period, but the Christmas list is one of the most prestigious.)
In the early evening, most people have something of a feast in their homes, or in the home of a friend or neighbor. Some local church bodies hold potlucks, though that’s not as common on Christmas as it is on other major Church holidays on the calendar. In the royal household, at the palace, the feast is largely served by the family itself, and most servants are given paid leave for the holiday.
Because of all of these events—and the general significance of the day—most ordinary activities are suspended. “Essential services” remain in place, but most businesses close down for the day, schools are often closed for the entire Christmas season, and so on. Parliament always recesses for at least the day; it, too, is usually in recess for the entire Christmas season, with a generous number of additional days before (the Advent session is traditionally brief and reserved for formalities and only the most urgent real business) and after, but there have been years when the session ran until noon on Christmas Eve, or began again early on the second day of the Christmas season, or both.
Speaking of Parliament: Several early statesmen of the Sunshine Kingdom, long before the formation of the Shine and Wild Empire, began a tradition in the Parliament that members (or former members unseated before the Advent session) of either the House of Peers or the House of Commons who have found themselves in particularly strong or frequent conflict with another member or other members should buy gifts—tokens of esteem, chosen on the basis of the recipient’s tastes, but not anything very expensive—for their most frequent or strident interlocutors.
In circles where the custom of giving gifts on Christmas has become usual, and where most are wealthy enough to employ servants, the employers often give their servants presents—tokens, or preferably something useful they have seen the servant’s need for—on the second day of Christmas, though the term “Boxing Day” has not caught on. The related custom of giving servants items which are being replaced is far more widespread, but not specifically connected with Christmas because gift-giving isn’t primarily associated with the holiday.
Normal activities resume after the end of the Christmas season, which is to say after Epiphany. The civil calendar turns before Advent, rather than in the middle of the Christmas season, so citizens of the Empire don’t have that complication (and their New Year celebrations are muted anyway).