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The flowers are springing up,
the season of singing birds
has come;
Song of Solomon 2v12

Christmas Traditions and Symbols

The Date of Christmas:

The idea to celebrate Christmas on December 25 originated in the 4th century. The Catholic Church wanted to eclipse the festivities of a rival pagan religion that threatened Christianity's existence. The Romans celebrated the birthday of their sun god, Mithras during this time of year. Although it was not popular, or even proper, to celebrate people's birthdays in those times, church leaders decided that in order to compete with the pagan celebration they would themselves order a festival in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Although the actual season of Jesus' birth is thought to be in the spring, the date of December 25 was chosen as the official birthday celebration as Christ's Mass so that it would compete head on with the rival pagan celebration.

Mistletoe and Holly:

Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. They would gather this evergreen plant that is parasitic upon other trees and used it to decorate their homes. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion. Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably derived from this belief. The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins. Instead, church fathers suggested the use of holly as an appropriate substitute for Christmas greenery.

Christmas Carols:

The Catholic Church valued music greatly and it is no wonder that the early Christmas songs date from 4th century (the earliest known is Jesus refulsit omnium by St.Hilary of Poitiers). The Mediaeval Christmas music followed the Gregorian tradition. In Renaissance Italy there emerged a lighter and more joyous kind of Christmas songs, more like the true carols (from the French word caroler, meaning to dance in a ring). These songs continued to be religious and in Latin, though. In Protestant countries the tradition, as everything Christmas related, intensified.

Luther wrote and composed his song "From Heaven above I come to You". Music by Handel and Mendelssohn was adapted and used as Christmas carols. The old Finnish/Swedish collection Piae Cantiones was translated and published in English in mid - 19th century. The most famous of all, Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) was written by the Austrian parish priest Joseph Mohr and composed by Franz Gruber, church organist, in 1818. In 19th century and later many popular songs were written by composers (e.g. Adam, Sibelius). The themes of songs surpassed religion and the totality of Christmas paraphernalia found its way to carol music.

Gift Giving:

The giving of gifts is a custom with a long history and many faces. From the Ancient Romans, came the practice of distributing gifts of good luck to children during Saturnalia. The Bible tells of the Magi bestowing gifts upon the Baby Jesus who himself was seen as the giver of hope and life to all. Our more modern day stories of Father Christmas and Santa Claus are closely related to the older tale of St. Nicholas, the anonymous benefactor, giving presents to all good children. Other characters of generosity are present in cultures around the world, and include Befana - Santa's female counterpart in Italy, Christmas gnomes, various Saints, the Kolyada from Russia and the Joulupukki, who comes from Finland. This latter tradition, did not necessarily involve a presenter of a gift - rather, an individual threw gifts in from the door and made a hasty, unseen retreat, leaving the recipient to enjoy their good fortune.

The day of gift giving varies greatly in different Christian cultures and times:

6th December - In memory of St. Nicholas

24th December - Christmas Eve

25th December - Birthday of Jesus

1st of January - The New year

6th of January - The Epiphany which commemorates the day of the Three Wise men (the Magi)

Christmas Cards:

Although it could not compete with the speed of email today, the 1800's nevertheless experienced a revolution in communication that played an important role in creating the tradition of the Christmas greeting card. Helped by the new railway system, the public postal service made corresponding a popular past time. In England, Sir Henry Cole recognised the advantage of a more efficient mail service and initiated the practice of sending Christmas greeting cards to friends.

The first card was designed by J.C.Horsley as a commercial endeavour. One thousand copies were sold in London, and soon others followed suit. An English artist, William Egley, produced a popular card in 1849. Louis Prang, a German born printer, working from his shop in Roxbury, Massachusetts, printed his first American cards in 1875. Even more important than his printing was the fact that he did more than anyone else to popularise the cards by instituting nation-wide contests for the best Christmas designs, which were awarded cash prizes.

Adding to the popularity of Christmas cards was the "penny post," created by the British Postal System. This resulted in an inexpensive way to correspond with large numbers of friends, and as printing methods improved, Christmas card production increased. From the beginning the themes have been as varied as the Christmas customs world-wide. Traditionally, Christmas cards showed religious pictures - Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, or other parts of the Christmas story. Today, pictures are often jokes, winter pictures, Father Christmas, or romantic scenes of life in past times.

Christmas Tree:

The Christmas Tree originated in Germany in the 16th century. It was common for the Germanic people to decorate fir trees, both inside and out, with roses, apples, and colored paper. It is believed that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, was the first to light a Christmas tree with candles. While coming home one dark winter's night near Christmas, he was struck with the beauty of the starlight shining through the branches of a small fir tree outside his home. He duplicated the starlight by using candles attached to the branches of his indoor Christmas tree. The Christmas tree was not widely used in Britain until the 19th century. It was brought to America by the Pennsylvania Germans in the 1820's.

Xmas:

This abbreviation for Christmas is of Greek origin. The word for Christ in Greek is Xristos. During the 16th century, Europeans began using the first initial of Christ's name, "X" in place of the word Christ in Christmas as a shorthand form of the word. Although the early Christians understood that X stood for Christ's name, later Christians who did not understand the Greek language mistook "Xmas" as a sign of disrespect.

The Candy Cane:

Candy canes have been around for centuries, but it wasn't until around 1900 that they were decorated with red stripes and bent into the shape of a cane. They were sometimes handed out during church services to keep the children quiet. One story (almost certainly false) that is often told about the origin of the candy cane is as follows:

In the late 1800's a candy maker in Indiana wanted to express the meaning of Christmas through a symbol made of candy. He came up with the idea of bending one of his white candy sticks into the shape of a Candy Cane. He incorporated several symbols of Christ's love and sacrifice through the Candy Cane. First, he used a plain white peppermint stick. The color white symbolizes the purity and sinless nature of Jesus. Next, he added three small stripes to symbolize the pain inflicted upon Jesus before His death on the cross. There are three of them to represent the Holy Trinity. He added a bold stripe to represent the blood Jesus shed for mankind. When looked at with the crook on top, it looks like a shepherd's staff because Jesus is the shepherd of man. If you turn it upside down, it becomes the letter J symbolizing the first letter in Jesus' name. The candy maker made these candy canes for Christmas, so everyone would remember what Christmas is all about.

Santa Claus

The original Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was born in Turkey in the 4th century. He was very pious from an early age, devoting his life to Christianity. He became widely known for his generosity for the poor. But the Romans held him in contempt. He was imprisoned and tortured. But when Constantine became emperor of Rome, he allowed Nicholas to go free. Constantine became a Christian and convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicholas was a delegate to the council. He is especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity. He is the patron saint of sailors, Sicily, Greece, and Russia. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children. The Dutch kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas, which became corrupted to Sinterklaas, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick," which was later published as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit.

Copyright 2003 by Jerry Wilson. Used with Permission.
Also available on the Web at www.wilstar.com