Christmas Traditions, Part One

by Shonnie Scarola

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The other day, while preparing dinner, I listened to two announcers on the radio puzzling over the words in some old Christmas carols. "What's figgy pudding?" one asked. "And bells on Bob's tail ring - who's Bob?' commented the other. Of course, they were trying to be humorous, but I think their ignorance and confusion worked as humour because many people do not know the origins of Christmas carols, or the meaning and origins of many of our Christmas customs.

Without any understanding of the faith-foundation of our religious traditions, it is easy to dismiss their relevance in our lives today. We follow them now because they are familiar, and "It just wouldn't be Christmas without it" but do they help increase our faith? Are artificial Christmas trees a modern convenience or a symptom of a deeper spiritual malnutrition in our society?

OK, so that's a stretch.

But to be serious, I think if we knew why, how and when our Christmas traditions began, we would gain a greater appreciation for our forbears, and for the faith that inspired them to create traditions that enrich our lives and teach our children. The many versions of each tradition do not dilute or contradict one another, but rather point to the universality of our faith; every culture and each family is unique and distinct. Each has its own strengths and blessings. All have something to contribute to the great communion of the Church, and the song of Joy which is the Nativity.

Origins of Christmas Traditions, Part One

Saint Boniface and The Christmas Tree:

Saint Boniface, an English missionary, known as the "Apostle of Germany", in 722 came upon some men about to cut a huge oak tree as a stake (Oak of Thor) for a human sacrifice to their pagan god. With one mighty blow, Saint Boniface felled the massive oak and as the tree split, a beautiful young fir tree sprang from its center. Saint Boniface told the people that this lovely evergreen, with its branches pointing to heaven, was indeed a holy tree, the tree of the Christ Child, a symbol of His promise of eternal life. He instructed them henceforth to carry the evergreen from the wilderness into their homes and to surround it with gifts, symbols of love and kindness.

Saint Boniface (feast June 5) received the name Winfrid at his baptism but took the name Boniface before he was ordained to the priesthood. He was martyred at the age of 75.

The Paradise Tree:

There is a very old and charming European custom of decorating a fir tree with apples and 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. Eventually other cookies were introduced bearing the shapes of men, birds, roosters and other animals.

In the Middle Ages, about the 11th century, religious theater was born. One of the most popular plays, the German mystery play, concerned Adam and Eve, their fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden--from the Early Paradise. The Garden of Eden was represented 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. The play ended with the prophecy of a coming Savior, and for this reason, this particular play was often enacted during Advent.

The one piece of scenery--the "Paradeisbaum (the Paradise Tree) became a popular object, and was often set up in churches, and eventually in private homes as well. It became a symbol of the Savior. Since the tree represented not only Paradise, and man's fall, but also the promise of salvation, it was hung not merely with apples, but also with bread or wafers (Holy Eucharist) and often sweets (representing the sweetness of redemption). In sections of Bavaria, fir branches and little trees, decorated with lights, apples and tinsel are still called Paradeis.

The German and English immigrants brought the Christmas tree to America. Fruits, nuts, flowers, and lighted candles adorned the first Christmas trees, but only the strongest trees could support the weight without drooping; thus, German glassblowers began producing lightweight glass balls to replace heavier, natural decorations. These lights and decorations were symbols of the joy and light of Christmas. The star that tops the tree is symbolic of the "Star in the East".

A Viking Story:

This story tells us that when Christianity first came to Northern Europe, three personages representing virtues were sent from Heaven to place lights on the original Christmas Tree. They were Faith, Hope and Charity. Their search was long for they were required to find a tree that was as high as hope; as great as love; as sweet as charity; and one that had the sign of the cross on every bough. Their search ended in the forests of the North for there they found the Fir. They lighted it from the radiance of the stars and it became the first Christmas tree.

The Legend of the Pine Tree:

When the Holy family was pursued by Herod's soldiers, many plants offered them shelter. One such plant was the Pine Tree. When Mary was too weary to travel longer the family stopped at the edge of a forest to rest. A gnarled old pine which had grown hollow with its' years invited them to rest within its trunk--then it closed its branches down and kept them safe until the soldiers had passed. Upon leaving, the Christ Child blessed the pine and the imprint of his little hand was left forever in the tree's fruit--the pine cone. If a cone is cut lengthwise the hand may still be seen.

What is the origin of Christmas cards?

The Christmas card is a Victorian creation, which began as a kind of stationery. The first card was produced by Sir Henry Cole who worked for the British Postal Service, and an artist he hired named John 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 grandparents seated and some 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." Actually cards were preceded by "Christmas Pieces" written by school boys in England as greetings to their parents and as proof of their progress in the art of writing.

Advent Wreaths

The Advent Wreath is a Lutheran custom that originated in Eastern Germany. They are round as a symbol of God's eternity and mercy, of which every season of Advent is a new reminder; and it is made of evergreens to symbolize God's "ever-lastingness" and our immortality. Green is also the Church's color of hope and new life. Four candles, three purple or violet that represent penance, sorrow, and longing expectation and one rose or pink that represents the hope and coming joy are placed within to represent the four weeks of Advent. They are replaced with white candles for the Christmas season which ends with Epiphany. Wreaths are an ancient symbol of victory and symbolize the "fulfillment of time" in the coming of Christ and the glory of His birth.

In old German tradition, on the first Sunday of Advent, the children write their Christmas letter to the Christ child, Christkindl, who accompanied by His angels, will bring the Christmas tree and all the good things on it and under it. In Denmark, the Christmas season begins on December 1, with the lighting of the calendar candle. The candle is marked with 24 lines, one for each day before Christmas; the burning of the candle represents the waiting and preparing for Christ's coming.

There are many ways to create an Advent's some advice on creating your own Advent Wreath.

For Christmas Traditions, Part Two For Christmas Traditions, Part Three