|Christmas tree in a Danish home, 2004
|Also called||Christ's Mass|
|Observed by||Christians around the world, as well as by non-Christians who observe the holiday's secular traditions.|
|Significance||traditional birthdate of Jesus|
(January 7 in Old Calendarist Orthodox Churches)
|Observances||religious services, gift giving, family meetings, decorating trees|
|Related to||Annunciation, Incarnation, Advent; the winter holiday season|
Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual holiday that marks the traditional birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth. Christmas combines the celebration of Jesus' birth with various other traditions and customs, many of which were influenced by ancient winter festivals such as Yule and Saturnalia. Christmas traditions include the display of Nativity scenes and Christmas trees, the exchange of gifts and cards, and the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Popular Christmas themes include the promotion of goodwill, giving, compassion, and quality family time.
Christmas Day falls on December 25. It is preceded by Christmas Eve on December 24, and in some countries is followed by Boxing Day on December 26. Some Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on January 7, which corresponds to December 25 on the Julian calendar. December 25 as a birthdate for Jesus is merely traditional, and is not thought to be his actual date of birth.
Christmas is celebrated in most countries around the world, owing to the spread of Christianity and Western culture, along with the enduring popularity of wintertime celebrations. Various local and regional Christmas traditions are still practiced, despite the widespread influence of American and British Christmas motifs disseminated by film, popular literature, television, and other media.
In Anglo-Saxon times, Christmas was referred to as geol, from which the current English word 'Yule' is derived. The word "Christmas" is a contraction meaning "Christ's mass." It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. The words for the holiday in Spanish (navidad), Portuguese (natal), and French (noël) refer more explicitly to the Nativity. In contrast, the German name Weihnachten means simply "hallowed night."
Christmas is sometimes shortened to Xmas, an abbreviation that has a long history. In early Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter Χ (chi), is the first letter of Christ (Χριστός). Since the mid-sixteenth century Χ, or the similar Roman letter X, was used as an abbreviation for Christ.
Pre-Christian winter festivals
A winter festival was traditionally the most popular festival of the year in many cultures, in part because there was less agricultural work to be done during the winter. From a religious point of view, Easter was the most significant feast in the church calendar. Christmas was considered less significant, and the early church opposed the celebration of birthdays of church members. The prominence of Christmas in modern times may reflect the continuing influence of the winter festival tradition, including the following festivals:
Template:Main In Roman times, the best-known winter festival was Saturnalia, which was popular throughout Italy. Saturnalia was a time of general relaxation, feasting, merry-making, and a cessation of formal rules. It included the making and giving of small presents (Saturnalia et Sigillaricia), including small dolls for children and candles for adults. During Saturnalia, business was postponed and even slaves feasted. There was drinking, gambling, and singing, and even public nudity. It was the "best of days," according to the poet Catullus. Saturnalia honored the god Saturn and began on December 17. The festival gradually lengthened until the late Republican period, when it was seven days (December 17-24). In imperial times, Saturnalia was shortened to five days.
Natalis Solis Invicti
The Romans held a festival on December 25 called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered sun." The use of the title Sol Invictus allowed several solar deities to be worshipped collectively, including Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; Sol, the god of Emperor Aurelian (AD 270-274); and Mithras, a soldiers' god of Persian origin. Emperor Elagabalus (218-222) introduced the festival, and it reached the height of its popularity under Aurelian, who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday.
December 25 was also considered to be the date of the winter solstice, which the Romans called bruma. It was therefore the day the Sun proved itself to be "unconquered" despite the shortening of daylight hours. (When Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 45 BC, December 25 was approximately the date of the solstice. In modern times, the solstice falls on December 21 or 22.) The Sol Invictus festival has a "strong claim on the responsibility" for the date of Christmas, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Several early Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus. "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born," Cyprian wrote.
Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period. Yule logs were lit to honor Thor, the god of thunder, with the belief that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. Feasting would continue until the log burned out, which could take as many as twelve days. In pagan greater Germany, the equivalent holiday was called Mitwinternacht (mid-winter night), Wintersonnenwende (winter solstice) and there were twelve Rauhnächte (harsh or wild nights), filled with eating, drinking and partying. As Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan celebrations had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the Germanic word Yule is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900.
Origin of Christian festival
It is unknown exactly when or why December 25 became associated with Jesus' birth. The New Testament does not give a specific date. Sextus Julius Africanus popularized the idea that Jesus was born on December 25 in his Chronographiai, a reference book for Christians written in AD 221. This date is nine months after the traditional date of the Incarnation (March 25), now celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation. March 25 was also considered to be the date of the vernal equinox and therefore the creation of Adam. Early Christians believed March 25 was also the date Jesus was crucified. The Christian idea that Jesus was conceived on the same date that he died on the cross is consistent with a Jewish belief that a prophet lived an integral number of years.
The identification of the birthdate of Jesus did not at first inspire feasting or celebration. Tertullian does not mention it as a major feast day in the Church of Roman Africa. In 245, the theologian Origen denounced the idea of celebrating Jesus' birthday "as if he were a king pharaoh." He contended that only sinners, not saints, celebrated their birthdays.
The earliest reference to the celebration of Christmas is in the Calendar of Filocalus, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome in 354. In the east, meanwhile, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus as part of Epiphany (January 6), although this festival focused on the baptism of Jesus.
Christmas was promoted in the east as part of the revival of Catholicism following the death of the pro-Arian Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The feast was introduced to Constantinople in 379, to Antioch in about 380, and to Alexandria in about 430. Christmas was especially controversial in 4th century Constantinople, being the "fortress of Arianism," as Edward Gibbon described it. The feast disappeared after Gregory of Nazianzus resigned as bishop in 381, although it was reintroduced by John Chrysostom in about 400.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in the west focused on the visit of the magi. But the Medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the "forty days of St. Martin" (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours), now known as Advent. In Italy, former Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent. Around the 12th century, these traditions transferred again to the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 26 - January 6). The evening of January 5 was called Twelfth Night, a festival later celebrated in the play of that name by William Shakespeare. The fortieth day after Christmas was Candlemas.
By the High Middle Ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates celebrated Christmas. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. The Yule boar was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts. Caroling also became popular, and was originally a group of dancers who sang. The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers that provided the chorus. Various writers of the time condemned caroling as lewd, indicating that the unruly traditions of Saturnalia and Yule may have continued in this form. "Misrule" — drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling — was also an important aspect of the festival. In England, gifts were exchanged on New Year's Day, and there was special Christmas ale.
Often the "misrule" got quite out of hand. According to the History Channel's documentary, Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas, there was even a Christmas custom pre-dating trick-or-treat, in which revelers would knock at a door and demand the best portion of their host's food and ale, with "severe consequences" if he did not agree.
The Reformation and the 1800s
During the Reformation, Protestants condemned Christmas celebration as "trappings of popery" and the "rags of the Beast". The Catholic Church responded by promoting the festival in an even more religiously oriented form. Following the Parliamentary victory over King Charles I during the English Civil War, England's Puritan rulers banned Christmas, in 1647. Pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities, and for several weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Restoration of 1660 ended the ban, but most of the Anglican clergy still disapproved of Christmas celebrations, using Protestant arguments.
In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas; its celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. At the same time, residents of Virginia and New York celebrated the holiday freely. Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom.
By the 1820s, sectarian tension in England had eased and British writers began to worry that Christmas was dying out. They imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts were made to revive the holiday. Charles Dickens' book A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion over communal celebration and hedonistic excess.
During the early part of the 19th century, interest in Christmas in America was revived by several short stories by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon and "Old Christmas", which depicted harmonious warm-hearted holiday traditions Irving claimed to have observed in England. Although some argue that Irving invented the traditions he describes, they were imitated by his American readers. The numerous German immigrants and the homecomings following the American Civil War helped promote the holiday by bringing with them continental European Christmas traditions still upheld in Catholic and Lutheran countries on the continent. Christmas was declared a U.S. federal holiday in 1870.
The 20th century and after
In 1914, the first year of World War I, there was an unofficial truce between German and British troops in France. Soldiers on both sides spontaneously began to sing carols and stopped fighting. The truce began on Christmas Day and continued for some time afterward. Although many stories about the truce include a soccer game between the trench lines, there is no evidence that this event actually occurred.
In the later part of the 20th century, the United States experienced controversy over the nature of Christmas, and its status as a religious or secular holiday. Some considered the U.S. government's recognition of Christmas as a federal holiday to be a violation of the separation of church and state. This was brought to trial several times, including in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) and Ganulin v. United States (1999). On December 6, 1999, the verdict for Ganulin v. United States (1999) declared that "the establishment of Christmas Day as a legal public holiday does not violate the Establishment Clause because it has a valid secular purpose." This decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on December 19, 2000.
Concerns regarding Christmas' combined Christian and secular nature continued into the 21st century. In 2005, some Christians, along with American political commentators such Bill O'Reilly, protested against the perceived secularization of Christmas. Some believed that the holiday was threatened by a general secular trend, or by persons and organizations with an anti-Christian agenda. The perceived trend was also blamed on political correctness.
Template:Main The Nativity refers to the birth of Jesus. According to biblical accounts, Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, assisted by her husband Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. The birth took place in a stable, surrounded by farm animals, and the infant Jesus was laid in a manger. Shepherds from the fields surrounding Bethlehem were told of the birth by an angel, and were the first to see the child. Christians believe that the birth of Jesus fulfilled many prophecies made hundreds of years before his birth.
Remembering or re-creating the Nativity is one of the central ways that Christians celebrate Christmas. The Eastern Orthodox Church practices the Nativity Fast in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, while much of the Western Church celebrates Advent. In some Christian churches, children perform plays re-telling the events of the Nativity, or sing carols that reference the event. Many Christians also display a small re-creation of the Nativity, known as a Nativity scene, in their homes, using figurines to portray the key characters of the event. Live Nativity scenes are also performed in some areas, using actors and live animals to portray the event with more realism.
Nativity scenes traditionally include the Three Wise Men, Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, who are said to have followed the Star of Bethlehem, found Jesus, and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In the U.S., Christmas decorations at public buildings once commonly included Nativity scenes. This practice has led to many lawsuits, as some say it amounts to the government endorsing a religion. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a city-owned Christmas display, even one with a Nativity scene, does not violate the First Amendment.
Santa Claus and other bringers of gifts
In Western culture, where the holiday is characterized by the exchange of gifts among friends and family members, some of the gifts are attributed to a character called Santa Claus (also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas or St. Nikolaus, Sinterklaas, Joulupukki, Weihnachtsmann, Saint Basil and Father Frost).
Santa Claus is a variation of a Dutch folk tale based on the historical figure Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who gave gifts on the eve of his feast day of December 6. He became associated with Christmas in 19th century America, and was gradually renamed Santa Claus or Saint Nick. In 1812, Washington Irving wrote of Saint Nicholas "riding over the tops of the trees, in that selfsame waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." The connection between Santa Claus and Christmas was popularized by the 1822 poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, which depicted Santa driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and distributing gifts to children. The popular image of Santa Claus was created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who drew a new image annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the form we now recognize. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s.
Father Christmas, who predates the Santa Claus character, was first recorded in the 15th century, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa. The French Père Noël evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image. In Italy, Babbo Natale acts as Santa Claus, while La Befana, is the bringer of gifts and arrives on the eve of the Epiphany. It is said that La Befana set out to bring the baby Jesus gifts, but got lost along the way. Now, she brings gifts to all children.
The current tradition in several Latin American countries (such as Venezuela) holds that while Santa makes the toys, he then gives them to the Baby Jesus, who is the one who actually delivers them to the children's homes. This story is meant to be a reconciliation between traditional religious beliefs and modern day globalization, most notably the iconography of Santa Claus imported from the United States.
In Southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Südtirol and Liechtenstein the Christkind brings the presents. The German St. Nikolaus is not identical with the Weihnachtsman (who is the German version of Santa Claus). St. Nikolaus wears a bishop's dress and still brings small gifts (usually candies,nuts and fruits) on December 6 and is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht.
Although many parents around the world routinely teach their children about Santa Claus, some have come to reject this practice, considering it deceptive.
Christmas tree and other decorations
Template:Main The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship. The English language phrase "Christmas tree" is first recorded in 1835 and represents an importation from the German language. The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century. From Germany the custom was introduced to England, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. Around the same time, German immigrants introduced the custom into the United States. Christmas trees may be decorated with lights and ornaments.
Since the 19th century, the poinsettia has been associated with Christmas. Other popular holiday plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus. Along with a Christmas tree, the interior of a home may be decorated with these plants, along with garlands and evergreen foliage.
In Australia, North and South America, and to a lesser extent Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures. Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well. Christmas banners may be hung from street lights and Christmas trees placed in the town square.
In the Western world, rolls of brightly-colored paper with secular or religious Christmas motifs are manufactured for the purpose of wrapping gifts. The display of Christmas villages has also become a tradition in many homes during this season.
Economics of Christmas
Christmas is typically the largest annual economic stimulus for many nations. Sales increase dramatically in almost all retail areas and shops introduce new products as people purchase gifts, decorations, and supplies. In the U.S., the "Christmas shopping season" generally begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, though many American stores begin selling Christmas items in October and early November. In England and Wales, the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004 prevents all large shops from trading on Christmas Day. Scotland is currently planning similar legislation.
Most economists agree, however, that Christmas produces a deadweight loss under orthodox microeconomic theory, due to the surge in gift-giving. This loss is calculated as the difference between what the gift giver spent on the item and what the gift receiver would have paid for the item. It is estimated that in 2001 Christmas resulted in a $4 billion deadweight loss in the U.S. alone. Because of complicating factors, this analysis is sometimes used to discuss possible flaws in current microeconomic theory.
Other deadweight losses include the effects of Christmas on the environment and the fact that material gifts are often perceived as white elephants, imposing cost for upkeep and storage and contributing to clutter. This is mitigated by white elephant gift exchanges in which participants make the best of their white elephants, and by alternative giving. Some people have taken to selling their unwanted gifts shortly after Christmas on online auction sites.
Commercialization of Christmas
Since the late 1800's the economic importance of Christmas has lead to concerns over what is seen as the increasing commercialization of Christmas. The 1822 poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" had popularized the tradition of exchanging gifts and seasonal “Christmas shopping” began to assume economic importance. In her 1850 book "The First Christmas in New England", Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a character who complained that the true meaning of Christmas was being lost in a shopping spree. 
The importance of the economic impact of Christmas was reinforced in the 1930's when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed moving the Thanksgiving holiday date to extend the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy during the Great Depression. Religious leaders protested this move, with a 1931 New York Times roundup of Christmas sermons showing the most common theme as the dangers of an increasingly commercial Christmas.
In 1958 Stan Freberg and Daws Butler recorded the audio theater satire Green Chri$tma$, recasting Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit in the roles of advertising executives. Due to the controversial nature of the piece, it received no commercial airplay until 1983.
Regional customs and celebrations
Template:Main Christmas celebrations include a great number and variety of customs with either secular, religious, or national aspects which vary from country to country:
In the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas occurs during the summer. This clashes with the traditional winter iconography, resulting in images such as a fur-coated Santa Claus surfing in for a turkey barbecue on Australia's Bondi Beach. New Zealanders also commonly celebrate Christmas at the beach, coinciding with the vibrant red flowering of the coastal Pohutukawa or "New Zealand Christmas Tree".
Japan has adopted Santa Claus for its secular Christmas celebration, but New Year's Day is a far more important holiday. In South Korea Christmas is celebrated as an official holiday, and in India it is often called bada din ("the big day"). Celebrations revolve around Santa Claus and shopping.
In Poland, Santa Claus gives gifts on two occasions: on the night of December 5 (so that children find them on the morning of December 6), and on Christmas Eve (so that children find gifts that same day). In addition to the major observances of Christmas, German children also put shoes out at their doors on the night of December 5, and find them filled with candy and small gifts the next morning. Santa Claus (Hungarian: Mikulás), or Father Winter (Hungarian: Télapó) also visits Hungary on December 6, bringing small gifts, and is often accompanied by a black creature called Krampusz; while on Christmas Eve (Holy Night - (Hungarian: Szenteste)) the Little (Baby) Jesus (Hungarian: Kisjézus or Jézuska) delivers the presents.
In Spain, gifts are brought by the Magi on Epiphany (January 6), and in Scotland, presents were traditionally given on Hogmanay, which is New Year's Eve. In recent times, both countries have also adopted gift-giving on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. In England and Wales, children traditionally hang up a stocking on Christmas eve (December 24), into which Father Christmas places gifts which are discovered and opened on December 25.
The Declaration of Christmas Peace has been a tradition in Finland from the Middle Ages every year, except in 1939 (due to World War II). The declaration takes place in the Old Great Square of Turku, Finland's official Christmas City and former capital. It is broadcast on Finnish radio and television. Sauna bathing has an important role in Finnish Christmas, often after the visit of Joulupukki on Christmas Eve.
Saint Nicholas' Day remains the principal day for gift giving in the Netherlands while Christmas Day is a more religious holiday.
In Russia, Grandfather Frost brings presents on New Year's Eve, and these are opened on the same night. However, after the Russian Revolution, Christmas celebration was banned in that country from 1917 until 1992. Even today, throughout the U.S. and Europe, several Christian denominations, notably the Jehovah's Witnesses  , Puritans, and some fundamentalists, view Christmas as a pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible.
Social aspects and entertainment
In many countries, businesses, schools, and communities have Christmas parties and dances in the weeks before Christmas. Christmas pageants may include a retelling of the story of the birth of Christ. Groups may visit neighborhood homes to sing carols. Others do volunteer work or hold fundraising drives for charities.
On Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, a special meal is usually served. In some regions, particularly in Eastern Europe, these family feasts are preceded by a period of fasting. Candy and treats are also part of Christmas celebration in many countries.
Another tradition is for people to send cards to their friends and family members. The traditional greeting phrase on these cards is "Merry Christmas". Cards are also produced with messages such as "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays", so as to include senders and recipients who may not celebrate Christmas .
Christmas carol media
Arts and media
Template:Main Many fictional Christmas stories capture the spirit of Christmas in a modern-day fairy tale, often with heart-touching stories of a Christmas miracle. Several have become part of the Christmas tradition in their countries of origin.
Among the most popular are Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker and Charles Dickens' novel A Christmas Carol. The Nutcracker tells of a nutcracker that comes to life in a young German girl's dream. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is the tale of curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge rejects compassion, philanthropy, and Christmas until he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, who show him the consequences of his ways.
Some Scandinavian Christmas stories are less cheery than Dickens's. In H. C. Andersen's The Little Match Girl, a destitute little girl walks barefoot through snow-covered streets on Christmas Eve, trying in vain to sell her matches, and peeking in at the celebrations in the homes of the more fortunate.
In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg's poem Tomten featuring the first painting by Jenny Nyström of the traditional Swedish mythical character tomte, which she turned into the friendly white-bearded figure and associated with Christmas.
Many Christmas stories have been popularized as movies and TV specials. Since the 1980s, many video editions are sold and resold every year during the holiday season. A notable example is the film It's a Wonderful Life, which turns the theme of A Christmas Carol on its head. Its hero, George Bailey, is a businessman who sacrificed his dreams to help his community. On Christmas Eve, a guardian angel finds him in despair and prevents him from committing suicide by magically showing him how much he meant to the world around him. The 1964 stop-motion version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, narrated by Burl Ives, became an annual holiday tradition on television after its first telecast. Perhaps the most famous animated television production is the 1965 production A Charlie Brown Christmas, wherein Charlie Brown tries to address his feelings of dissatisfaction with the holidays by trying to find a deeper meaning in them. This special is noted for one character's retelling of the first Christmas. The humorous A Christmas Story (1983) in which the main character dreams of owning a Red Ryder BB Gun, has slowly become a holiday classic after receiving indifferent reviews, and is even repeated for 24 hours straight starting on Christmas Eve night and going on through Christmas Day on US cable channel Turner Network Television or TBS.
A few true stories have also become enduring Christmas tales themselves. The famous newspaper editorial, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus is among the most well-known of these.
Radio and television programs aggressively pursue entertainment and ratings through their cultivation of Christmas themes. Radio stations broadcast carols and Christmas songs, including classical music such as the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah. Among other classical pieces inspired by Christmas are the Nutcracker Suite, adapted from Tchaikovsky's ballet score, and Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). Television networks add Christmas themes to their standard programming, run traditional holiday movies, and produce a variety of Christmas specials.
- American Christmas traditions
- Carols by Candlelight
- Christmas cracker
- Christmas Sunday
- Christmas worldwide
- Festive ecology
- Snow baby
- Twelve Holy Days
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