Origins of Christmas Traditions, Part Three

by Shonnie Scarola

Domestic-Church.Com - Articles - Christmas Traditions, Part Three

The Christmas Rose

The Christmas Rose is from a charming tale of a little shepherd girl who stood weeping outside the stable where Jesus was born because she had no gift for him. A watching Angel caused the snow at the little girl's feet to disappear, revealing the Christmas Rose which was formed by the angels from each tear of the little shepherdess; a lovely gift for the baby Jesus. The Christmas rose should be planted by the door to welcome Christ into the house. The rose is also associated with Saint Agnes, the patroness of purity, whose feast day is Jan. 21. She was only 13 when she suffered martyrdom for the Faith in Rome in 303.

The Legend of Rosemary

Rosemary is a revered ceremonial herb symbolizing remembrance, friendship and fidelity. It was thrown into, or placed on graves and presented to those that grieved (as a sign that the deceased would always be remembered). It was also woven into a bride's wreath, used to decorate the church and was presented, tied with ribbons, to the bridesmaids and guests. Anne of Cleves wore a rosemary wreath when she embarked on her ill fated marriage to Henry VIII. The floor of the church was strewn with it at Christmas and, as a poor man's incense, was burnt in place of the real thing. Housewifes spread it on the floor at Christmas!

There are many legends surrounding rosemary but perhaps the best known is that it will never grow higher than Christ and if it outlives the 33 years of Our Lord's life, will grow outwards rather than upwards.

Another legend claims the flowers were originally white, only changing to blue when Mary, on the flight from Egypt, threw her blue cloak over a bush, changing its color at the same time as giving it its distinctive fragrance. A variation of this legend says when the Holy Family fled to Egypt, they stopped to rest on a hillside, by a little stream where Mary washed the baby's clothes. She spread His tiny garments on a fragrant bush to dry in the sun. For its humble service, the plant was named rosemary, and God rewarded it with delicate blossoms of the same heavenly blue as Mary's robe.

For Saint Thomas More, whose garden was lavishly planted with rosemary, and Shakespeare's Ophelia, the herb symbolized remembrance. During exams, Greek students wore rosemary in their hair to aid their memories. It was cultivated in monastery gardens for medicine and food. According to medieval legends, Rosemary decorating the altar at Christmas time brings special blessings to the recipients, and protection against evil spirits. It was used to garnish the boar's head at the Christmas feast.

Christmas Gifts

In ancient Rome, people exchanged gifts on New Years' Day, as a means of saying "Happy New Year". According to their means, these might be jewelry, pieces of gold and silver, or home-made pastry, cookies and candies. In French Canada, this custom has been preserved. Also customary were to give gloves or else the money to purchase them, which was known as "glove money". This custom was extended to metal pins, introduced in the 16th century. Eventually "pin money" came to mean the little bit of cash that women were allowed to spend as they pleased during the centuries when they lacked economic rights! Sweet things were given to ensure sweetness for the year to come; lamps to wish for the light and warmth; and money was given to wish for increasing wealth. Wrapping of gifts may have originated in Denmark.

This is one of the instances where Holy Mother Church took an already existing custom and "baptized" it. When the Apostles brought the Gospel to Rome, the people learned of the Three Wise Men who came from the Orient to present gifts to the newborn King. From then on, the old custom was only slightly changed. The exchanging of presents remained, but now it was done in imitation of the Three Holy Kings.

Customs and dates for Christmas gift-giving vary from country to country, as do the supposed donors of the gifts. Depending upon the place, the gifts allegedly are delivered by elves, angels, the Christ Child, and even by Jesus' camel. They are provided by the Three Kings or Wise Men, or by Saint Nicholas or his derivative, Santa Claus. When the Dutch settled what was to become New York, they brought with them an annually reappearing Saint Nicholas or, as they called him, Sinterklaas. From there his name was altered to Santa Claus. In Brussels, it is a custom to give living gifts such as birds, pets, flowers. In the West Indies it is the custom to exchange or give hospitality, service or talent. Material gifts are not exchanged.

God Bless and May All Your Gifts Be From the Heart
This Season and Always,

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas is actually a catechism song. Between the years 1558-1829, English Catholics were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Without regular mass, sacraments, or catechism lessons from the priest, there was little parents could do to help their children learn and remember all out their faith. This song was created to keep the Catholic faith in their lives, even though hidden for the time.

Instead of referring to an suitor, the "true love" mentioned in the song refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents symbolizes every baptized person.

'A partridge in a pear tree' is Jesus Christ. A mother partridge will feign injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. The children hearing this song would know that, and would understand the parallel between the acts of a mother bird, and the sacrifice of Christ.

The other symbols continue the symbolism:
  • 2 turtle doves — the Old and New Testaments;
  • 3 French hens — Faith, Hope and Charity;
  • 4 calling birds — the Four Gospels;
  • 5 golden rings — the first five books of the Old Testament, which give the history of man's fall from grace;
  • 6 geese a laying — the six days of creation;
  • 7 swans a swimming — seven gifts of the Holy Spirit;
  • 8 maids a milking — the eight Beatitudes;
  • 9 ladies dancing — nine choirs of angels;
  • 10 lords a leaping-the Ten Commandments;
  • 11 pipers piping — the eleven faithful Apostles;
  • 12 drummers drumming-the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

EDITOR'S NOTE:In case you're interested, and in answer to the cyber-pile of letters we've received over the years, we've tracked down what seems to be the first modern author of this interesting historical 'tidbit,' a Fr. Hal Stockert, based on casual references to the song he found in letters from the 16-17th centuries.

For Father Hal's explanation of how he came to write his description and explanation of the song and it's hidden meanings, I refer you to the postscript at Origin Of "The Twelve Days Of Christmas"

From that page; "Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant to me. You can enjoy it or not, as you choose. I hadn't written it as a doctoral thesis, simply as some delicious tidbit I thought the world would be delighted to share over a holiday season... Believe if you will. Dissent if you choose. Let the rest enjoy the story."

And since the point to Domestic-Church.Com is promoting the faith life of the family NOW, I say, "Whatever works, use." Mothers, fathers, families and teachers are using 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' as a catechism NOW. It works for them. That's good. Some day scholars will examine some of the documents Father Hal read and the story will be documented in a reference book that everyone can read.

But, don't hold your breath on that last bit about the scholars and reference books. If the experts can decide the King Solomon and King David never existed, Mary was not a virgin, and that human beings are soulless chemical formulas, well, I'm sure they will go on insisting that the "Twelve Days of Christmas" is not a catechism song, no matter what Father Hal says. Some people seem to think the idea that there are or were any catechism songs is ridiculous … so get your 5 year-old to stop singing "The Lord told Noah to build Him an Arky Arky Arky. Build it out of hickory barky" … it's just too upsetting for some people.

(Why have we written this addition to the article? Because typically the letters we've received about the Twelve Days of Christmas, and other issues, are either curious about the veracity of the story, helpfully point us to an 'Urban Legends' site that debunks the tale or, more common, accuse us spreading poison by promoting an obviously untrue and ridiculous story usually in an effort to seduce the innocent into the Whore of Babylon.) (I'm not kidding.)

For Christmas Traditions, Part One

For Christmas Traditions, Part Two