Legends, Traditions and Customs of the Christmas Season
When was Jesus of Nazareth born?
The Gospels give us no exact day or month when Jesus was born. In the gospel of Luke there is a reference to "shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). This suggests an early oral tradition of Jesus being born in the spring when the shepherds stayed with their flocks during the birthing season. We also cannot be precise as to the year that Jesus was born. Searching various historical sources available to him at the time, the 5th century scholar and monk Dionysius the Little was the first to date the Christian era by the starting point of Christ's birth as the year 0. Modern scholarship has shown that Dionysius was remarkably only slightly off. Jesus was more likely born between 8 and 4 BC.
Was Jesus born in a stable?
The short answer is probably not. Stables, as we think of them, are used by European farmers, not first-century Middle Easterners. In Jesus' day, livestock were housed in the lower level of a house and more frequently in the many caves that dot the landscape. Often these caves doubled as poor farmers' houses and families lived very close to their animals indeed. This is still the case for many modern Palestinian herders today. In both ancient and modern cave house-barns, a niche is carved into the cave wall to store straw from which the livestock eat. This would probably have been the type of manger that Jesus was laid in. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which for millennia has been believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, was built over such a cave. In the shrine, a golden star in a manger-niche in the cave wall marks the traditional spot where Jesus was believed to have been born. It may be interesting to note that the offering of a cave barn as a place to give birth because " there was no place for them in the inn" may have actually been a kind gesture on the inn keeper's part rather than an act of inhospitality. Travelers' inns or hospices in first-century Israel were not individual, private and furnished rooms at the Hilton. Rather, they were nothing more than a walled courtyard area to spend the night secure from bandits and wild animals. For a woman to give birth in such a crowded public setting would be unthinkable, so the privacy of the cave barn may have been offered instead.
Christmas in the Early Church
It may come to a surprise to many that the birth of Jesus played a very small role in the celebrations of the Early Church. The earliest surviving records that mention the feast day of Christ's birth come from around AD 336. This may be in part to the fact that Easter and the celebration of Jesus' resurrection was the central message of the new faith and dominated the minds and liturgy of the early Christians. The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 also seemed to overshadow any birth celebration. At this same time the cult of Mithras, a sun god imported form Persia, was wildly popular amongst the Roman Empire. In the Roman calendar, the 25th of December was the feast of the Natalis Soli Invicti, the birthday of "the Unconquered Sun". So as not to be eclipsed by this pagan festival, the early Church chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus on this day to remind the world that Jesus was the true "light of the world" (John 12:46) and the prophesied "Sun of Righteousness" (Malachi 4:2). The importance for Christians to celebrate the birth of their Lord may also have arisen out of the early church's internal struggles to define the nature of Christ. Was Christ both God and man? Was he a divine spirit or God veiled in the illusion of a human body? Celebrating the birth of Christ as a historical event affirmed the Church's orthodox teaching that Jesus was indeed the incarnate son of God, the "Word made flesh" and "... incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man."
The Season of Advent
Originally, Advent was a time of prayer and study for those preparing for baptism at the Feast of the Epiphany. Over time, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, as Jesus' birth came to be known, became a major liturgical and cultural festival throughout Western Europe. By the sixth century it was believed that a certain time should be set aside to prepare for Christmas by a period of prayer, fasting and alms giving, much like the Lenten preparation for Easter. Advent, from the Latin word adventus means "the coming" and emphasizes three things in its celebration. First, Advent looks forward to the coming of Christ at his Incarnation and birth into our world to bring us salvation, justice and peace as foretold by the prophets. Secondly, throughout Advent we are reminded that Christ promised to come to us at the end of time to be our judge and king and our need to repair our relationship with God and our neighbours. Thirdly, Advent reminds us of the Christ who has never left us and who comes to us daily in prayer, scripture and Holy Sacraments. The season of Advent also reminds us that Christ still comes to us and makes his presence known to us in the suffering, poverty and brokenness of our brothers and sisters we see everyday. It is for this last reason that Advent is also marked as a time to be especially mindful of the needs of the poor.
The Colours of Advent
Purple or shades of violet have been the traditional colour adorning the altars and vestments worn by priests during Advent since the Middle Ages. Purple was the imperial colour worn by the Caesars of Rome and by European monarchs and is symbolic of the Church waiting for its Messiah to come as the "Prince of peace" and the "King of kings and the Lord of lords". Like the purple of Lent, it is a somber colour denoting penance and preparation for the coming of Jesus. Rose or pink is optional for use on the 3rd Sunday of Advent called Gaudete Sunday (see below). Blue is also a colour associated with Advent. Blue was the common colour for Advent in England in the Middle Ages and is regaining popularity as a means to differentiate the penitential purple of Lent from Advent, a season marked more with a sense of hope-filled expectation. Blue has royal as well as divine symbolism (the heavens). Blue is also a colour associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary and reminds us of her role in the Incarnation.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath is a circular bough of evergreen branches with four or five candles in it. The Advent wreath was originally a sun symbol in pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic cultures but this symbol was adopted and adapted by the Church to represent Christ the "light of the world." The wreath, a circle with no beginning or end, represents the eternity of God. Unlike other trees that lose their leaves and appear to die in winter, the evergreen remains verdantly alive all year. The evergreen of the wreath symbolizes eternal life through the incarnate Son of God. The three purple or blue candles on the wreath are lit each Sunday of Advent to mark the approach of Christmas. Each candle represents a prophet or prophesy foretelling of the coming of the awaited Messiah. The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday and has a rose coloured candle. Gaudete is Latin for "rejoice!" The scripture readings of the day are full of encouragement and rejoicing at the coming of our salvation in Christ's birth. The fourth candle is usually dedicated to Mary the Mother of God in Christ. On Christmas Eve, a large white candle is placed in the centre of the Advent wreath to symbolize the birth of Christ. Throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas, white candles are placed in the wreath to symbolize that through Christ's birth the radiant light of his love fills the world.
Christmas or " X" mas?
Actually both are in a way correct. Christmas comes for the Old English Christes Maesse, meaning The Christ Mass or The Mass of Christ. The word Xmas comes from the early Middle Ages when scribes used approved short forms for frequently written words. Monk scribes would shorten the word Christ by writing only its first letter as it is spelled in Greek (X=ch, in English alphabet). So "Xmas" is surprisingly from a Christian origin despite the adage "Xmas takes the Christ out of Christmas".
Boxing Day and St. Stephen, December 26th
The origin of Boxing Day dates to the Middle Ages. In the back of every church and cathedral there was a large metal and wooden chest. Many are still there to this day. The church's "poor box" or alms chest was a secure box for keeping money for those in need. Traditionally, the box was opened on the Feast of St. Stephen, December the 26th and the coins distributed to the poor. St. Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," was ordained a deacon by the Apostles to care and minister to the needs of the poor widows and orphans of Jerusalem. He was later martyred, forgiving his persecutors before he died (Acts 6, 7:1-7). The custom of giving alms to the poor on December the 26th continued in the form of the wealthy giving their servants and the local poor, boxes filled with food and cloth. In a culture where Boxing Day is now a mad frenzy at the mall to return unwanted goods or to do more shopping, St. Stephen and his example of faithfulness, compassion and caring for those in need is a good reminder of how not to lose the true message of Christmas.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
There are some high holy days within the Christian Calendar that are so important that their celebration is extended over a period of time to emphasize their significance. Easter, for example, is actually celebrated not just on Easter Day, but for the following forty days afterward. All Saints Day can be celebrated as an eight-day festival. Similarly, our Christmas celebrations are spread over a twelve-day period (despite what the department stores tell you!) and culminate with the great Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. So, during those twelve days of Christmas, continue to say "Merry Christmas!" to everyone, and keep your tree and decorations proudly up. In the Middle Ages, the Twelve days of Christmas were the longest holiday of the year spent in much feasting and celebration, the visiting of family and exchanging of simple gifts. The song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" may reflect this earlier time of whimsical holiday fun. Others have suggested the song might actually be a way for children to learn and memorize their catechism - the basics of the Christian faith. Each stanza may represent an aspect of Christian teaching. For example "On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me; a partridge in a pear tree." The partridge may represent Christ (see Matthew 23:37) born as a gift to the world on the world's first day of Christmas. The tree alludes to Jesus' future suffering on the tree of the cross.
The Great Feast of Epiphany
The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th ends the Twelve Days of Christmas. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning "manifestation" to "make known" or " to reveal or show". It is also known as the Theophany meaning "the manifestation of God." Next to Easter and Pentecost, Epiphany is one of the oldest and most significant holy days in the Christian Calendar. It even overshadowed Christmas in importance or absorbed Christmas as part of its theme. The early Church tended to emphasize the manifestation of the works of God in Christ over his divine birth narrative. Depending where and at what time in Christian history you were, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrated various different biblical events in the life of Jesus as his divine nature was revealed to the world. In some times and places, the Epiphany celebrated Jesus baptism, his birth, the visitation of the wise men or the wedding at Cana or a combination of the above. In the Orthodox Church, the Epiphany celebrates both Christ's birth (manifesting both his human and divine natures), and his baptism (manifesting the three persons of the Holy Trinity). In the Western Church, the Epiphany celebrates the visitation of the wise men to the Holy Family (Matthew 2: 1-12). The emphasis of the Western Church's Epiphany is Christ being recognized and worshipped as the saviour to the people outside the Jewish world. Over time, the number and the nature of the wise men changed. In some legends there were two, eight, ten or twelve. By the 5th century there were three wise men and they had become kings in popular legend. Later, artists would portray them as great monarchs from Asian, African and European races symbolizing that all the nations of the world acknowledged Jesus as their Lord and king. In the Middle Ages, they were given the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. But who really were the wise men or the magi as the Greek New Testament called them? In all likelihood, they were priest-astrologers from Babylon or Persia, drawn to follow a new astronomical phenomenon in the sky. Such celestial occurrences were believed to mark the birth or death of a great king. The magi's gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense are laden with deep symbolism. Gold represents the Christ Child inheriting the royal throne of King David and becoming the King of Kings. Incense symbolizes Jesus becoming our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-5:1-10). Myrrh is used in the burial of the dead and foreshadows Christ's death on the cross.
Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
According to tradition, Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in the early part of the 4th century in the city of Patara, now in modern Turkey. Upon his parents death, he gave his riches to the poor, became an ordained monk and eventually became bishop of the city of Myra. He suffered persecution and imprisonment under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Renowned as a holy man and a caring pastor, he was known for his acts of love and defending the unjustly accused. In one famous story, he secretly provided for the dowries of three young girls who otherwise may have been forced into slavery or prostitution. The dowries were provided by anonymously tossing three bags of gold through their window. The story later evolved into the bags going down a chimney. In the Middle Ages the story changed again when St. Nicholas placed gold coins in the girls stockings hung by the fire to dry - and behold the early origin of the Christmas stocking! Two other legends tell of St. Nicholas saving young men or children from murder and an unjust execution. St. Nicholas became one of the most popular saints in both the Western and Orthodox Churches with over 2,000 churches dedicated to his name. Because of the associations of children and gifts and that his feast day of December the 6th falls so close to Christmas, St. Nicholas has evolved into the benevolent gift-giving saint of Christmas and the patron saint of children. Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, his feast day was celebrated with great pomp. "Boy Bishops" were elected in cathedrals and churches, allowing children to officiate at all the church services and play games and tricks on their adult superiors on that one day of the year. The Dutch name for Saint Nicholas is Sinter Klause and he is attired in traditional bishop's vestments. When Dutch immigrants brought the tradition of St. Nicholas to North America, he evolved into Santa Claus, which in turn took on a whole life and new legends of its own. In England, St. Nicholas customs barely survived the Reformation, but he kept such things as his scarlet bishop-like robe and the name "Father Christmas." The life of St. Nicholas embodies the Christmas message of love, generosity, a concern for justice and care for the poor. He is believed to have died December 6th around AD 350.
The Creche or Crib
The Manger or Nativity Scene we see set up in homes and churches originated with St. Francis of Assisi in the small Italian mountain village of Greccio in 1223. By building a life-size nativity scene, St. Francis wanted to help the towns folk "…see with our bodily eyes… what [Jesus] suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe and how he lay in a manger between an ox and an ass." Contrary to popular belief, St. Francis did not fill the nativity scene with actors or statues to represent the Holy Family. Rather, he wanted the people to see that Jesus had come down to them to be born in a place and time that looked exactly like their own poor and simple homes and farms. On Christmas Eve, he gathered the people of Greccio for Midnight Mass in the nativity scene itself; hymns were sung, Francis chanted the Gospel of Christ's birth and "Greccio was transformed into a second Bethlehem, and that wonderful night seemed like the brightest day to both humanity and beast for the joy they felt at the renewing of the mystery," wrote Thomas of Celano, Francis' friend and biographer. St. Francis' friars spread the custom throughout Europe where statues were added to the manger scene. Part of the traditional Christmas Eve liturgy is to process a figure of the Christ Child and place it in the manger to symbolize Christ's birth. The manger, also known as a creche in French and a crib in England, became the focus of prayers and devotion for the faithful throughout the Christmas season as a poignant reminder that the Son of God in his love and humility would become Emanuel, God With Us in all our frail and vulnerable humanity.
Christmas Plays and Pageants
Christmas pageants have their origins in the monasteries of 10th century Europe. Monks and nuns would put on very simple biblical plays to celebrate the holy days of the Christian calendar. By the Middle Ages, these plays had evolved into colourful and exciting dramas put on in village squares sponsored by local trade guilds. These Mystery Plays (so called as they portrayed the mysteries of the faith) were often performed as a cycle of plays lasting several days. So, a Christmas cycle might begin with a play about the Annunciation and end several plays later with a play about the visitation of the magi. Mystery plays, pageants and oratorios (musical biblical dramas) have continued through to modern times. The modern children's Christmas play originated in the Victorian era with the arrival of public education and Sunday schools.
The Christmas Carol
For most of its history, the music of the Church was sung and written in Latin, a language few people knew and fewer could write. The carol, on the other hand, belonged to the common folk. They were simple, but memorable songs often set to a familiar or popular tune with easy to remember refrains. Although we generally associate the carol with Christmas, carols celebrated many other holy days as well. Carols would be sung at family or community gatherings, as part of religious processions and sometimes even in church to the dismay of many clergy (carols often shared the same tunes with bawdy pub songs!) Caroling door to door was part of that community element of a religious festival. Carolers were often given a sip from the Wassail Bowl (pronounced waa sul, from the Saxon "to your health,") a spiked warm brew, to warm them on their way. The Wassail Bowl is an ancient Celtic-Nordic custom. Caroling, as well as Christmas itself, was banned briefly under the Puritan rule in England the 1600's as being considered frivolous, "papist" and excessively fun. Caroling was revived in the 19th century by jolly Anglo-Catholics who tended to have a love of all things pre-Reformation and antiquarian.
The Christmas Tree
In the dead of winter, a vibrantly green tree was a symbol of life to the Nordic peoples. Vikings would bring evergreen trees into their homes during the long brutal winters with the hope that the life force within the green tree might spread its health and life-giving powers to its dwellers during a season of sickness and darkness. For this reason, evergreen trees became central to the worship and symbolism of Celtic and Nordic peoples. According to early lore, the missionary monk St. Boniface (672-754) set out from England to teach the Germanic peoples the Gospel. Seeing the importance of the tree in pagan customs, he adopted and adapted the symbol to explain that the evergreen tree was like the Tree of Life. The tree that not even winter could kill symbolized eternal life in Christ who died on the tree of the cross but rose again. He also pointed out that the evergreen's shape was a triangle, the traditional symbol of the Holy Trinity. Another story tells how the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) was walking home one night and was struck by the beauty of the stars twinkling through the branches of a fir tree. This inspired him to attach candles to a tree in his own home. Luther taught that the unfading green of the tree represented God's steadfast love for humanity in sending his Son to us at the first Christmas. The lights on the tree symbolized the hope that the birth and resurrection of Christ would bring light and life to our world. The Christmas tree became immediately popular in England and the colonies as Queen Victoria adopted the custom from her German husband Prince Albert.
Holly is a bush with brilliant red berries whose waxy, prickly leaves stay green throughout the winter. Like the evergreen trees, the Celtic peoples saw the plant as having magical and healing properties for its ability to be alive in the deadness of winter. Once again, Celtic Christians adopted and adapted a powerful cultural symbol but changed its meaning. The thorn-like holly was said to represent Christ's crown of thorns and the small red berries symbolized the drops of blood from Jesus' brow. But a crown of thorns at Christmas? Many of the symbols of Christmas are foreshadowings that allude to the future suffering and death of Jesus.
Mexican legend tells of a young poor girl called Pepita who had nothing to offer the Christ Child in her village church's manger scene but a simple unremarkable green flower. Kneeling down in prayer beside the manger, she offered the humble plant to the Christ Child. Miraculously its leaves burst forth in a brilliant red colour as a sign that the heart of Jesus was touched by this humble, yet loving gift. In South America, the poinsettia is a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem.
Mistletoe and the Kiss of Peace
Mistletoe is a waxy green plant that grows on trees in winter. Like all green plants that strangely thrive in the dead of winter, this plant was considered sacred and mystified the ancient Celts and Germans. This plant was considered so sacred that warriors refused to fight in woods where it grew. So, in time it became a symbol of peace and became associated with the Christian custom of sharing and exchanging the Kiss of Peace (2 Corinthians 13:11-12, 1 Peter 5: 14). It was placed over doorways to ensure that the evil of discord could not enter a house and that all who entered or left that house where it hung would do so in peace and harmony. Unfortunately, today it has evolved into a kissing game and has lost its original meaning as a sign of "peace on earth to all of goodwill" during the season of the birth of the Prince of Peace.
There are countless stories of candy canes came to be. They may have been one of the unique and special treats associated with the Feast of St. Nicholas as they resemble a bishop's crozier. Another tale tells of a clever choir master in the cathedral in Cologne Germany in 1670. As all parents, Sunday school teachers and choir masters know, it isn't easy to keep restless children quiet in church. The choirmaster had a candy maker make candy canes to occupy the children when not singing during the Christmas Mass. So the clergy wouldn't get upset with children eating in the Sanctuary during the liturgy, the choir master explained to the cathedral priests and choir the purpose of the candy cane. He told them that the cane represented the shepherds crook at the birth of Christ. The white stripe was symbolic of Christ's purity, the red symbolized his blood. They loved the idea and the candy cane became part of Christmas.
What can we offer you, O Christ, for coming to earth as a man because of us?
Your creation you fashioned offer you their grateful thanks:
the angels bring their hymns of praise, while the heavens offer you a star;
the magi present gifts and the shepherds, their amazement;
the earth offers a cave ,and the wilderness, a manger,
while we present to you from our humanity your Virgin Mother.
O God who are before the ages, have mercy on us.
- From the Orthodox Liturgy for Christmas
Article by Dean Rose.
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.