The Nativity of the Theotokos (I cent. BC(E)) is celebrated today throughout Christendom (except by people who don’t celebrate such things, but this isn’t their kind of book, I’m thinking). The circumstances surrounding our Lady’s birth are not related in the Scriptures; most of what we know thereof comes from the Protoevangelium of James, a late second-century apocryphal (meaning “not in the Scriptures”) gospel. The details of her parents’ barrenness and her eventual conception were detailed in our entry for July 26, and I commend you to that page. I will say however that she was traditionally born (which is the best way to be born) either at the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem (between services), or in Sepphoris of Galilee (modern-day Zippori, Israel, about 6 km NNW of Nazareth on the 700, 79, and 7926). Now let’s talk about the history and significance of this feast. (Actually, I’ll talk and you’ll listen. Um, read.)
For the vast majority of saints on the calendar, the Church honors them on the day of their birth-into-the-new-life day (“promotion to glory” as they say in the Salvation Army), or in short, the day they died. There are three feasts however that celebrate birthdays—those of our Lord, John the Baptist, and the Mother of God. Some sources aver this is because of their intimate connection to the life of our Lord and thus to our salvation; others indicate it’s because all three were born without original sin. Yet another site says that the Orthodox believe original sin was removed from the Theotokos at the Annunciation. This sounds like exactly the type of worm can your intrepid hagiographer delights in avoiding, although on December 8/9 (feasts of the Immaculate Conception and Adjectiveless Conception, respectively), I wet my feet in the turbulent waters.
Some sources say the feast originated from the fifth-century dedication of a church to St. Anna in Jerusalem. It was definitely celebrated by 556, as Romanos the Melodist wrote hymns for it, and that’s when he died. We know more about the history of the feast in the West, since it was there a novelty. It was known in Reims by 631, and Pope Sergius (d. 701) proclaimed a litany and procession for the feast in Rome. By the thirteenth century it was everywhere in the West (feasts traveled slowly in those days), and was given its own fancy (i.e. with a Vigil and a fast) Octave (F above to F below middle C). Pius X (d. 1914) removed the Vigil, and Pius XII in 1955 took away the Octave altogether, although it remains a Liturgical Feast (whew!), which places it firmly below a Solemnity and above a Memorial. It is not, however, a holy day of obligation in years where it does not fall on a Sunday. (Okay close your book and repeat that back to me.)
In Orthodoxy, it is one of the Twelve Great Feasts, and indeed the first such of the church year (which starts September 1). The last Great Feast is (of course) the Dormition of the Theotokos, so you could say that the birth and death of the Mother of God “bookend” the Church year, as her pure body contained the earthly body of the uncontainable God. (That is profound, man.) (Okay, maybe not.)
In France, the feast is celebrated as “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest,” coming as it does in the middle of the period known there as “the grape harvest.” Grapes are brought to the church to be blessed, a festive meal (featuring guess which fruit?) is eaten, and clusters of grapes are placed in the hands of statues of the Virgin.
I close with the Kontakion of the feast (OCA): By your nativity, O most pure Virgin, Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness; Adam and Eve from the corruption of death. And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you: The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the Nourisher of our Life.