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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 4 - Advent/Christmas 2004

Christian Origins of Familiar Christmas Customs

Most of the trappings of even the most secularized Christmas observances have their roots in Christian symbol and meaning. Though the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, Christmas greeting cards, feasting and flowers have been largely commercialized, we can enjoy them in our homes by understanding their origins and meaning.

Christmas Masses

Early in the Church's history, probably in the 5th century, three Masses were celebrated on Christmas Day: one at midnight known as the "Christ Mass", one at dawn called the "Angel Mass", and one in full daylight known as the "High Mass".

The Midnight Mass was then unique to Christmas, as was the chanting of the Gloria in excelsis, the song of the angels. Midnight was chosen by the Church for celebration of the Christmas Mass to symbolize and, in effect, recapitulate the birth of the Savior according to the flesh, at the beginning of a new day.

The second Mass is offered to honor the birth of Jesus as the Son of God and of the Virgin Mary.

The third Mass commemorates the eternal birth of the Son from the Father. (See John N. Then, Christmas: A Collection of Christmas lore, Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1935, p. 93).

Parents may not want to take young children to Midnight Mass, however. For many families with young children, getting to (and through) Mass on Christmas Day is more difficult than on ordinary Sundays. The wonder and excitement of Christmas morning, the expectation and preparation for family feasts and gatherings tends to make going to Church the farthest thing from the minds of most children (and many adults, for that matter.)

But Christian families must make every effort to make the Mass truly "Christ-Mass". You may have to be especially creative in planning the best way of doing this for your family. It is a good idea to make plans to avoid last-minute rush and so that everyone knows what to expect.

Some families make the room with the Christmas tree "off limits" until after Mass. Others begin the opening of presents before dawn, have an early breakfast, and go to a later Mass. It is worthwhile reminding children that the truest and greatest "Christmas present" is Christ Jesus, who gives Himself to each of us uniquely at Mass, and that is where we receive the One for whom we have prepared and expected for so long.

The Christmas Tree

Despite many historians' attempts to link the Christmas tree to an ancient pagan practice, it is actually Christian in origin. The Christmas tree goes back to the medieval German mystery plays. One of the most popular "mysteries" was the Paradise play, representing the creation of man, the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise. It usually closed with the consoling promise of the coming of the Savior with reference to His Incarnation. These plays were performed in the open, on the large squares in front of churches, or inside the house of God. The Garden of Eden was indicated by a fir tree hung with apples. It represented both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Discernment of Good and Evil, which stood in the center of Paradise. (Gen 2:9)

The Tree in the Home
When the pageant was performed in church, the Paradeisbaum (tree of Paradise) was surrounded by lighted candles and inside the ring of lights, the play was acted. After the suppression of the mystery plays in the churches, the only symbolic object of the play found its way into the homes of the faithful and the Christmas tree became a symbol of the Savior. Following this symbolism, in the 15th century the custom developed into the decorating of the Paradise Tree, already bearing apples, with small white wafers representing the Holy Eucharist. These wafers were later replaced by little pieces of pastry cut in the shapes of stars, angels, hearts, flowers, and bells. And finally, other cookies were introduced bearing the shapes of men, birds, roosters and other animals. The first known use of the fir tree as a Christmas tree is found in a description written by a German traveller visiting Strasbourg in 1605. He tells of trees being planted in rooms, and he notes that they were ornamented with roses of colored paper, apples, tinsel, sugar and cookies. (LaVern Rippley, Of German Ways, Barnes and Noble Books, 1970)

Until the 17th century the Christbaum (as the tree is called in German) had no lights. The Christmas candles, generally used in medieval times, were placed on the Christmas pyramid made of graduated wooden shelves. As time went on, the tree replaced the pyramid in its function of representing Christ as the Light of the world. The candles and glittering decorations were transferred from the pyramid to the tree. A reminder of the origin of the Christmas tree may still be found in sections of Bavaria where fir branches and little trees, decorated with lights, apples and tinsel, are still called Paradeis. (Francis X. Weisner, 1952, The Christmas Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952)

Although the Christmas tree is now the principal symbol of Christmas in America, it was by no means in general use in American families until late in the 19th century. German immigrants most likely set up the first Christmas trees in America as early as 1710, however. Later, during the Revolutionary War, Hessian soldiers were responsible for disseminating the practice throughout the Eastern seaboard.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, pioneer families who settled in areas where evergreen trees were scarce made Christmas trees out of bare branches painted green or wrapped with green paper or cloth. Sometimes a "tree" would be made by drilling holes in a broomstick and inserting branches of cedar or juniper into it. Often the only Christmas tree in the community would be in the Church or in the school. In the absence of a Christmas tree, presents were often hung by ribbons from a decorated clothesline strung across the corner of a room.

Decorating Your Tree
While many Christmas trees go up the first of December (or earlier!) and are in the dumpster by January 2, Catholic families often delay decorating the tree until Christmas Eve. If that is too late for your family, you may want to consider setting up the tree earlier and decorating it simply. It would be appropriate to delay lighting the tree or putting presents under it -- or to save some of the especially splendid ornaments -- until Christmas Eve, when we celebrate the coming into the world of Christ, the Light of the World.

On Christmas Eve, the parents might adorn the tree after small children are asleep, so that the first sight of Christmas morning is the gloriously bedecked tree. Families with older children may want to make the decorating a family affair.

The Blessing for the Christmas tree could be said on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

A Blessing for the Christmas Tree
Holy Lord, we come with joy to celebrate the birth of your Son, who rescued us from the darkness of sin by making the cross a tree of life and light.

May this tree, arrayed in splendor, remind us of the life-giving cross of Christ, that we may always rejoice in the new life that shines in our hearts.

We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Christmas Cards

The Christmas card is a Victorian creation, which began as a kind of stationery. In the late 1830s and 1840s a polite person might send out a sacred poem, delicately engraved within a framework of an embossed ornament. In 1846, the first Christmas card as we know it was produced by Sir Henry Cole, who worked for the British Postal Service, and an artist he hired named John Calcott Horsley. This early card was a depiction of a Christmas scene framed in three panels.

In the center panel was a homey table scene: children, parents and grandparent seated, some of them raising their glasses for a toast. On either side were panels depicting acts of Christmas charity: to the left, feeding the hungry; to the right, clothing the naked. Underneath appears the now familiar phrase "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You". At the same time, the Christmas letter was becoming a tradition because of the invention of Christmas stationery.

Today, many Catholic families who send Christmas cards take care to select cards that express appropriate sentiments for the season. One way to save trouble and expense and still send beautiful greetings is to make your own cards, particularly if you have helpers who love to cut, color and paste. Christmas cards that you have received in past years can be saved and recycled in creating your own cards. A third option is to send spiritual bouquets or Masses with your Christmas greetings. You can choose a special Mass after Christmas, for example the feast of the Holy Family, and arrange a Mass to be said for the intentions of your family and friends. Then send cards to inform them of that blessing.

Many busy mothers have given up sending cards because they simply cannot get them finished before the 25th of December. But remember that in the Catholic celebration of this season, Christmas greetings are appropriate through Epiphany.

Saint Nicholas

Almost everyone has some understanding that our fat, jolly, red-robed Santa is at least a distant relative of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century bishop. In many parts of Europe, it is Saint Nicholas who traditionally appears on the eve of his feast (December 6), bearing gifts. He comes at the beginning of Advent to remind the children to prepare their hearts and lives for the coming of the Messiah.

Not much is known with certainty about the life of this bishop. He was almost certainly imprisoned during Diocletian's persecution of Christians, and he died at Myra in Asia Minor, circa 345. He is said to have been born of wealthy parents and orphaned in his teens. A young man of exceptional virtue, he sought an opportunity to devote his inheritance to works of charity. According to legend, when he learned the plight of three young girls who were going to be given over to prostitution because their father had no money for a dowry, he anonymously gave them bags of gold, which he threw into their window at night.

This legend gave rise to the association of this saint with children, and to the custom of giving presents in his name at Christmastime. In England, according to Butler's Lives of the Saints, this custom was an invention during Protestant times, not a survival from Catholic times. Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) was popularized in America by Dutch Protestants. His name is Father Christmas in England, and Père Nöel in France. In Germany, the saint's feast is celebrated on December 6, when children put out shoes to be filled by the saint, assisted by Black Peter, who gives coal to naughty children.

Some Catholic families emphasize Saint Nicholas's historical identity, and downplay his secular identity as gift-giver. Some have banished the jolly old elf and transferred his gift-bearing duties to the Christ Child, with Saint Nicholas's feast celebrated on its normal day.

The Origin of the Christmas Crib

The origin of the Christmas Crib (or Manger or Nativity scene -- or French crêche; Italian presepio; German krippe; Spanish nacimiento) is often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 celebrated the Feast of the Nativity in a new way that led to a new devotional practice. Saint Francis sent for his friend, Giovanni Vellita, a landowner in Greccio where Francis had a favorite hermitage. "If now it seems good to thee that we should celebrate this feast together, go before me to Greccio and prepare everything as I tell thee. I desire to represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes we may see what He Suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe and how He lay in a manger between the ox and ass".

Saint Bonaventure, Francis's biographer, said of the scene, "Many brothers and good people came at Francis's bidding, and during the night the weather also was beautiful. Many lights were kindled, songs and hymns were sung with great solemnity so that the whole wood echoed with the sound, and the man of God stood by the manger, filled with the utmost joy, and shedding tears of devotion and compassion. By his order the manger had been so arranged that Mass was celebrated on it, and blessed Francis ... sang the gospel and preached to the people on the Nativity of Christ our King, and whenever he pronounced His name with infinite tenderness he called Him the 'little Babe of Bethlehem'". (Nesta Robeck, The Christmas Crib, Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1956, p. 45-47)

In the liturgical drama known as the Officium Pastorum, which took shape in the 11th century, we find a praesepe behind the altar as the center of the action. But long before this, something similar seems to have been in existence in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Here Pope Gregory III (731-741) placed a "golden image of the Mother of God embracing God our savior in various gems". The Church was meant to provide a special home for the new festival of Christmas introduced by Pope Liberius (352-366). An important part of the early Christmas ritual was the celebration of Mass over a "manger" in which the consecrated host was laid, just as the body of the Holy Child had lain in the manger at Bethlehem.

The Crêche in the Home
In the 16th century the crêche scene was no longer confined to churches. It still remains common in the Catholic regions of Europe to arrange the krippe underneath the Christmas tree.

Setting up the manger figures is a favorite family activity. Children like to arrange the figures of Mary and Joseph in the stable, and the shepherds, animals and other figures who are moved closer to the stable each day in anticipation of the arrival of the Christ Child. In many families, the figure of the Baby Jesus remains hidden until Christmas morning, when the children "discover" Him in the manger. It is also a custom to have the figures of the wise men begin their approach toward Bethlehem on Christmas Day after the star has appeared, to arrive at the stable on the Epiphany.

The animals traditionally part of every Nativity scene -- usually an ass and an ox -- are not mentioned in the New Testament. However, as early as the 4th century these animals were represented in pictures of the Nativity. The tradition originates in two Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of Christ: Isaiah 1:3 -- "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib, but Israel hath not understood"; and Habakkuk 3:2 -- "In the midst of two animals Thou shalt become known".

Preparing the Manger for the Christ Child
Another custom that evolved from the Christmas Crib is the preparation for the manger -- a practice of having children prepare a soft bedding for the manger. The custom originated in France but spread to Germany and other European countries. Each night a child may place a straw in the manger for each act of devotion or virtue performed throughout the day. When the Christ Child comes on Christmas Eve, He will find plenty of straw bedding to soften the hardness of the manger's boards.

Instead of using the tiny manger in the crêche scene, a larger manger might be made from a cardboard or wooden box. A separate manger could be made for each child, and placed beside his bed. If straw is not available, dried grass or thin strips of straw colored paper can be used.

The Custom of "Cribbing"
It is a challenge for Catholic families to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas while all around us the season is being taken down, boxed up, or put on sale at half price. If you live in a city, one way of keeping Christmas with children is to visit Jesus in the mangers of other parishes. (The custom of Catholic families visiting the Cribs of many parishes on New Year's Day, although rapidly disappearing in the United States, is still evident in European cities.) Most churches have a beautiful display, and children will be impressed to see the care that each parish takes with its Nativity scene.

See also Creche page

The Christmas Feast

For most Americans, the Christmas feast is the principal meal of the year. In Old England, in the spirit of the humility of Christ's Incarnation -- the act of divine condescension before which all men are equal -- masters and servants enjoyed the Christmas meal at the same table. Saint Francis of Assisi proclaimed that all creation should share in the joy of the day. This led to the custom, still practiced even in the United States, of giving extra food to animals on Christmas morning.

Until the 16th century, the traditional Christmas dinner was pork or roast beef or goose. Turkey was brought to Spain from the Americas, and then to England, where it soon became a special Christmas dish.

The following is an 18th-century recipe for Christmas turkey that includes what we call stuffing:

The best way to roast a Turkey is to loosen the skin on the Breast of the Turkey, and fill it with Force-Meat, made thus: Take a quarter of a pound of Beef Sewet, as many crumbs of Bread, a little Lemon peel, and Anchovy, some Nutmeg, Pepper, Parsley, and a little Thyme. Chop and beat them all well together. mix them with the yoke of an Egg, and stuff up the Breast; when you have not sewet, butter will do; or you may make your Force Meat thus; Spread Bread and Butter thin, and grate some nutmeg over it; when you have enough, roll it up and stuff the Breast of the Turkey; then roast it of a fine Brown, but be sure to pin some white Paper on the Breast till it is near enough.
­ Mrs. Glass: The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1755

Foods for the feast popular in other cultures include spiced beef (Ireland), roast suckling pig (Spain and Portugal), and roast goose (Germany and Austria). There are also many dishes incorporating fish associated with Christmas Eve. This recalls the days when abstinence from meat was practiced during Advent as well as during Lent.

Holly, Christmas Rose, and Poinsettia

Tradition has it that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness from a holly bush. Another legend holds that "because the holly kept secret the whereabouts of our Savior when His enemies were searching for Him, it was rewarded with the privilege of keeping its green leaves all winter". (John Then, Christmas: A Collection of Christmas Lore, page 87)

Holly berries symbolize Christ's blood, and the holly's thorn His crown of thorns. Thus holly, a Christmas symbol, also prefigures Christ's Passion. Traditionally, the holly wreath is hung on the Christian family's home as an invitation to the spirit of the Christ child to enter. The candle in the wreath is to show Him the way.

The Christmas rose, a true Christmas flower, is a symbol of Jesus, the Rose of Sharon, as well as His Mother (the "Mystical Rose"). The rose is also associated with Saint Agnes, the patroness of purity, whose feast day is January 21.

The poinsettia blooms at Christmas in Mexico, where the flower is called the Flower of the Good Night (Christmas Eve.) According to a Mexican legend, the flower acquired this title because of a miracle. A little Mexican boy, eager to visit the Christ Child in the manger in his village Church, was unhappy because he had no gift to offer. Nevertheless, he gathered branches of green leaves from a bush that grew along the dusty road and took them to the Church. The other children made fun of the boy's rude gift, but when he presented the weeds, all were astonished to see a brilliant, red, star-shaped flower blooming on each branch. (Daniel Foley, Christmas the World Over, 1963)


From the Celebrating Advent and Christmas-A Sourcebook for Families,, Women for Faith & Family

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