The Feast of the Nativity
(excerpt from the book "Handbook of Christian Feast and Customs" by Father Francis X. Weiser)
In the Roman Empire it was a general custom to celebrate the birthdays of rulers ( see Matthew 14, 6) and of other outstanding persons. Such birthdays often were publicly honored even after the death of the individual. The day of the celebration did not always coincide with the actual date of birth. The birth-day of Plato, for instance, used to be celebrated on a feast of the god Apollo.
The early Christians, who attributed to Christ not only the title (Kyrios) but also many other honors that the pagans paid to their "divine" emperors, naturally felt inclined to honor the birth of the Savior. In most places the commemoration of Christ's birth was included in the Feast of the Epiphany (Manifestations) on January 6, one of the oldest annual feasts. Soon after the end of the last great persecution, about the year 330, the Church in Rome definitely assigned December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Christ. For a while, many Eastern Churches continued to keep other dates, but toward the end of the fourth century the Roman custom became universal.
No official reason has been handed down in ecclesiastical documents for the choice of this date. Consequently, various explanations have been given to justify the celebration of the Lord's nativity on this particular day. Some early Fathers and writers claimed that December 25 was the actual date of Christ's birth, and that the authorities in Rome established this fact from the official records of the Roman census that had been taken at the time of the Savior’s birth. Saint John Chrysostom held this opinion and used it to argue for the introduction of the Roman date in the Eastern Church. He was mistaken, however, for nobody in Rome ever claimed that the records of the census of Cyrinus were extant there in the fourth century, and much less that Christ's birthday was registered in the lists. In fact, it was expressly stated in Rome that the actual date of the Savior’s birth was unknown and that different traditions pre-vailed in different parts of the world.
A second explanation was of theological-symbolic character. Since the Bible calls the Messiah the "Sun of Justice" (Malachi 4, 2), it was argued that His birth had to coincide with the beginning of a new solar cycle, that is, He had to be born at the time of the winter solstice. A confirmation of this opinion was sought in the Bible, by way of reckoning six months from the annunciation of John the Baptist (which was assumed to have happened on September 24) and thus arriving at March 25 as the day of the Incarnation. Nine months later, on December 25, would then be the birthday of the Lord. This explanation, though attractive in itself, depends on too many assumptions that cannot be proved and lacks any basis of historical certitude.
There remains then this explanation, which is the most probable one, and held by most scholars in our time: the choice of December 25 was influenced by the fact that the Romans, from the time of Emperor Aurelian ( 275), had celebrated the feast of the sun god (Sol Invictus: the Unconquered Sun) on that day.' December 25 was called the "Birthday of the Sun," and great pagan religious celebrations of the Mithras cult were held all through the empire. What was more natural than that the Christians celebrate the birth of Him Who was the "Light of the World" and the true "Sun of Justice" on this very day? The popes seem to have chosen December 25 precisely for the purpose of inspiring the people to turn from the worship of a material sun to the adoration of Christ the Lord. This thought is indicated in various writings of contemporary authors.
It has sometimes been said that the Nativity is only a "Christianized pagan festival." However, the Christians of those early centuries were keenly aware of the difference between the two festivals—one pagan and one Christian—on the same day. The coincidence in the date, even if intended, does not make the two celebrations identical. Some newly converted Christians who thoughtlessly retained external symbols of the sun worship on Christmas Day were immediately and sternly reproved by their religious superiors, and those abuses were suppressed." Proof of this are the many examples of warnings in the writings of Tertullian (third century) and the Christian authors of the fourth and fifth centuries, especially the sermons of Saint Augustine (430) and Pope Leo I (461 )."
The error of confusing Yule (solstice) and Christmas (the "Mass of Christ"), as if both celebrations had a common origin, occurs even in our time. Expressions like "Christmas originated four thousand years ago," "the pagan origins of Christmas," and similar misleading phrases have only added to the confusion. While it is certainly true that some popular features and symbols of our Christmas celebration in the home had their origin in pre-Christian Yuletide customs, Christmas itself—the feast, its meaning and message—is in no way connected with any pagan mythology or Yule rite.
Christmas soon became a feast of such great importance that from the fifth century on it marked the beginning of the ecclesiastical year. After the tenth century, however, the season of Advent came to form an integral part of the Christmas cycle; thus the beginning of the ecclesiastical year was advanced to the first Sunday of Advent."
Emperor Theodosius, in 425, forbade the cruel circus games on Christmas Day, and Emperor Justinian, in 529, prohibited work and public business by declaring Christmas a civic holiday. The Council of Agde (506) urged all Christians to receive Holy Communion on the feast." The Council of Tours (567) pro-claimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast." The Council of Braga (563) forbade fasting on Christmas Day." Thus the groundwork was laid for a joyful celebration of the Lord's nativity, not only in the house of God but also in the hearts and homes of the people.
The great religious pioneers and missionaries who brought Christianity to the pagan tribes of Europe also introduced the celebration of Christmas. It came to Ireland through Saint Patrick (461), to England through Saint Augustine of Canterbury (604 ), to Germany through Saint Boniface (754). The Irish monks Saint Columban (615 ) and Saint Gall (646) introduced it into Switzerland and western Austria; the Scandinavians received it through Saint Ansgar ( 865). To the Slavic tribes it was brought by their apostles, the brothers Saint Cyril (869) and Saint Methodius (885); to Hungary by Saint Adalbert ( 997).
Most of these saints were the first bishops of the countries they converted and as such they established and regulated the celebration of the Nativity. In England, Saint Augustine observed it with great solemnity. On Christmas Day in 598, he baptized more than ten thousand Britons." In Germany, the observance of Christmas festivities was officially regulated by a synod in Mainz in 813.
By about the year 1100, all the nations of Europe had accepted Christianity, and Christmas was celebrated everywhere with great devotion and joy. The period from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries was the peak of a general Christian celebration of the Nativity, not only in churches and monasteries, but in homes as well. It was a time of inspiring and colorful religious services. Carols and Christmas plays were written. It was at this period, too, that most of the delightful Christmas customs of each country were introduced. Some have since died out; others have changed slightly through the ages; many have survived to our day. A few practices had to be suppressed as being improper and scandalous, such as the customs of dancing and mumming in church, the "Boy Bishop's Feast," the "Feast of the Ass," New Year's fires, superstitious (pagan) meals, impersonations of the Devil, and irreverent carols."
With the Reformation in the sixteenth century there naturally came a sharp change in the Christmas celebration for many countries in Europe. The Sacrifice of the Mass—the very soul of the feast—was suppressed. The Holy Eucharist, the liturgy of the Divine Office, the sacramentals and ceremonies all disappeared. So did the colorful and inspiring processions, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. In many countries all that remained of the once rich and glorious religious festival was a sermon and a prayer service on Christmas Day." Although the people kept many of their customs alive, the deep religious inspiration was missing, and consequently the "new" Christmas turned more and more into a feast of good-natured reveling.
On the other hand, some groups, including the German Lutherans, preserved a tender devotion to the Christ Child and celebrated Christmas in a deeply spiritual way within their churches, hearts, and homes.
In England the Puritans condemned even the reduced religious celebration that was held in the Anglican Church after the separation from Rome. They were determined to abolish Christ-mas altogether, both as a religious and as a popular feast. It was their contention that no feast of human institution should ever outrank the Sabbath (Sunday); and as Christmas was the most important of the non-Sunday festivals, they directed against it all their attacks of fierce indignation. Pamphlets were published denouncing Christmas as pagan, and its observance was declared to be sinful. In this anti-Christmas campaign these English sects were much encouraged by the example of similar groups in Scot-land, where the celebration of the feast was forbidden as early as 1583, and punishment inflicted on all persons observing it.
When the Puritans finally came to political power in England, they immediately proceeded to outlaw Christmas. The year 1642 saw the first ordinances issued forbidding church services and civic festivities on Christmas Day. In 1644, the monthly day of fast and penance was appointed for December 25.22 The people, however, paid scant attention to these orders, and continued their celebrations. There was thus inaugurated a great campaign of two years' duration (1645-1647). Speeches, pamphlets and other publications, sermons and discussions were directed against the celebration of Christmas, calling it "antichrist-Mass, idolatry, abomination," and similar names. Following this barrage of propaganda, Parliament on June 3, 1647, ordained that the Feast of Christmas (and other holidays) should no longer be observed under pain of punishment. On December 24, 1652, an act of Parliament again reminded the public that "no observance shall be had on the five-and-twentieth of December, commonly called Christmas day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches in respect thereof.
Each year, by order of Parliament, town criers went through the streets a few days before Christmas, reminding their fellow citizens that "Christmas day and all other superstitious festivals" should not be observed, that market should be kept and stores remain open on December 25.
During the year 1647 popular riots broke out in various places against the law suppressing Christmas, especially in London, Oxford, Ipswich, Canterbury, and the whole county of Kent. In Oxford there was a "world of skull-breaking"; in Ipswich the festival was celebrated "with some loss of life"; in Canterbury "the mob mauled the mayor, broke all his windows as well as his bones, and put fire to his doorsteps." " An ominous note was sounded against the republican Commonwealth at a meeting of ten thousand men from Kent and Canterbury who passed a solemn resolution saying that "if they could not have their Christmas day, they would have the King back on his throne again.
The government, however, stood firm and proceeded to break up Christmas celebrations by force of arms. People were arrested in many instances but were not punished beyond a few hours in jail." Anglican ministers who decorated their churches and held service on Christmas Day were removed from their posts and replaced by men of softer fiber." Slowly and relentlessly, the external observance of Christmas was extinguished. December 25 became a common workday, and business went on as usual. But in spite of these repressive measures many people still celebrated the day with festive meals and merriment in the privacy of their homes.
REVIVAL IN ENGLAND
When the old Christmas eventually re-turned with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it was actually a "new" Christmas. The spiritual aspect of the feast was now left mostly to the care of the ministers in the church service on Christmas Day. What was observed in the home consisted of a more shallow celebration in the form of various nonreligious amusements and of general reveling." Instead of the old carols in praise of the Child of Bethlehem, the English people observed Christmas with rollicking songs in praise of "plum pudding, goose, capon, minced pie and roast beef." " However, a spirit of good will to all and of generosity to the poor ennobled these more worldly celebrations of the great religious feast. Two famous descriptions of this kind of popular celebration are found in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and in Washington Irving's Sketch Book.
The singing of hymns and carols, which had been suppressed by the Puritans, found only a slow and restricted revival in England. Even as late as 1823, an English collector of Christmas lore, William Hone (1842), wrote in his Ancient Mysteries that carols were considered as "something past" and had no place in the nineteenth century." Meanwhile, a few religious carols had been written and soon became favorites among the English-speaking people. The most famous of these are "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" (Nahum Tate, 1715) and "Hark the herald angels sing" (Charles Wesley, 1788).
CHRISTMAS IN AMERICA
To the North American continent the Christmas celebration was brought by the missionaries and settlers from the various European nations. The Spaniards established it in their possessions in the sixteenth century, the French in Canada in the seventeenth century. The feast was celebrated with all the splendor of liturgical solemnity and with the traditional customs of the respective nationalities in Florida, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, in Canada, and in the territory of the present State of Michigan.
In the colonies of New England, however, the unfortunate and misdirected zeal of the Puritans against Christmas persisted far into the nineteenth century. Christmas remained outlawed until the second half of the last century.
The Pilgrim fathers worked as usual on their first Christmas Day in America (1620), although they observed the most rigid Sabbath rest on the preceding day, which was Sunday. December 25 until 1856 was a common workday in Boston, and those who refused to go to work on Christmas Day were often dis-missed. In New England, factory owners would change the starting hours on Christmas Day to five o'clock in order that workers who wanted to attend a church service would have to forego it or else be dismissed for being late for work. As late as 1870, classes were held in the public schools of Boston on Christ-mas Day, and any pupil who stayed at home to observe the feast was gravely punished, even shamed by public dismissal.
It was not until immigrants from Ireland and from continental Europe arrived in large numbers toward the middle of the last century that Christmas in America began to flourish. The Germans brought the Christmas tree. They were soon joined by the Irish, who contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of putting lights in the windows. All Catholic immigrants, of course, brought the crib, their native carols and hymns, the three Masses on Christmas Day, and the religious obligation of attending Mass and abstaining from work on the Feast of the Nativity."
Very soon their neighbors, charmed by these unusual but at-tractive innovations, followed their example and made many of these customs their own. For some years, however, many clergy-men continued to warn their congregations against celebrating Christmas with these "new" customs. But eventually a powerful surge of enthusiasm from people of all faiths swept resistance away. New Englanders especially were so won over by this friendly, charming way of celebrating Christmas that a revival of deeper and richer observance followed in many of their churches. One by one, the best of the old traditions were lovingly studied, revived, and became again common practice. Catholics and Protestants co-operated, uniting in a sincere effort to restore the beauties of a truly Christian celebration of the Nativity."
The original Latin names for Christmas are: Festum Nativitatis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi ( the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ) and the shorter form, Dies Natal is Domini ( the Birthday of Our Lord).
From these Latin names most nations obtained their popular terms for the Christmas feast: It Natale in Italy, La Nacidad in Spain, Natal in Portugal, Nadal in southern France, Nadolig in Wales ( and probably the Gaelic Nollaig, as well). The Greek Genethlia means "Nativity," as do the names for Christmas in Hungarian (Karticsony) and in most of the Slavic languages: Boze Narodzenie (God's Birth) in Polish; Rozhdestvo Khrista (Christ's Birth) in Russian and Ukrainian. The French word Noel can be explained as either coming from the Latin natalis (birthday) or from the word nowel which means "news." In an old English Christmas verse the angel says: I come from hevin to tell The best nowellis that ever befell. It is possible that both explanations are right. Noel and nowel may be words of different origin that have become identical in meaning because they are pronounced the same.'"
The English word Christmas is based on the same pattern as the old names for other feast days in the liturgical year, such as Michaelmas, Martinmas, Candlemas. The first men-tion of the name, "Christcs Maesse," dates from the year 1038. It means "the Mass of Christ." The English nation (as did all Christian nations at the time) acknowledged the Sacrifice of the Mass as the most important part of the Christmas celebration. For instance, the word in the Dutch language was Kersmis (the Mass of Christ); the old Dutch form is Kerstes-misse or Kersmisse, the German, Christmesse.
The German word for Christmas, Weihnacht or, in the plural form, Weihnachten, means "the blessed (or holy) night." Similar terms meaning "the holy night" are used in some Slavic languages (Czech, Slovak, Yugoslavian). The Lithuanian word Kaledos is derived from the verb Kaledoti (to beg, to pray) and has the meaning "Day of Prayer."
The origin of the word yule is disputed. Some scholars say it comes from the old Germanic word Jol (Iul, Giul), meaning a turning wheel (in this instance the sun wheel rising after the winter solstice). A better explanation, however, might be the Anglo-Saxon word geol (feast). Since the greatest popular feast in pre-Christian times was the celebration of the winter solstice, the whole month of December was called geola ( feast month). This name was preserved in the English and German languages, and later applied to the Feast of Christmas: Yule in English, and Jul in German."
When this greeting was originally used, the word merry did not mean "joyful, hilarious, gay," as it does today. In those days it meant "blessed, peaceful, pleasant," ex-pressing spiritual joys rather than earthly happiness. It was thus used in the famous phrase "Merry England."
The well-known carol "God rest you merry, gentlemen" is an excellent example of the original meaning of merry. The position of the comma clearly shows the true meaning (that the word is not an adjective describing "gentlemen"), and therefore is not "God rest you, joyful gentlemen," but "God rest you peacefully, gentlemen."
THE VIGIL OF CHRISTMAS
The Mass of December 24 is not the original vigil Mass of the feast, but was inserted later, during the fifth century. The actual vigil Mass, following the night service of prayer, was the midnight Mass at St. Mary Major, which is now the first Mass of Christmas Day. Another unusual feature of this Mass is its joyful and festive character. Unlike the other vigils, in which the penitential note is stressed, the Mass of the Christmas vigil is jubilant, filled with holy joy. That the vestments are of penitential color appears almost an incongruity when one studies the Mass text.
The spirit of this joyful and jubilant vigil has asserted itself in the observance of the faithful through all the past centuries. In the countries of central Europe people just could not see how this day should be as strict and painful a fast as other fast days of penitential character. While gladly keeping abstinence from meat all through the day, they felt justified in reducing the strict-ness of fasting as to the amount of food. Thus a legitimate custom of "joyful fast" (jeiunium gaudiosum) was established in such countries for this one day of the year.
A custom that reaches back to the early centuries of Christianity is the celebration of three Masses on the Feast of the Nativity. It was originally reserved to the pope alone, and did not become universal until the end of the first millennium when the papal books of ceremonies had been adopted by the Frankish Church.
The first Mass originally was connected with the vigil service at the chapel of the manger in the church of St. Mary Major in Rome. There Pope Sixtus III (440) had erected an oratory with a manger, which was considered a faithful replica of the crib at Bethlehem. The pope celebrated the Holy Sacrifice about midnight, in the presence of a small crowd, since the chapel could not hold many people.
The public and official celebration of the feast was held on Christmas Day at the church of St. Peter, where immense crowds attended the pope's Mass and received Communion. This was the third Mass as it appears in today's Missals. Under Pope Gregory VII (1085) the place of this Mass was changed from St. Peter's to St. Mary Major, because that church was nearer to the Lateran Palace (where the popes lived).
In the fifth century, the popes started the custom of visiting at dawn, between these two services, the palace church of the Byzantine governor. There they conducted a service in honor of Saint Anastasia, a highly venerated martyr whose body had been transferred from Constantinople about 465 and rested in this church which bore her name. The whole Byzantine colony in Rome gathered at their church on Christmas Day for this solemn visit of the Holy Father. In later centuries, when the power and prestige of the East Roman Empire waned, the popular devotion of Saint Anastasia declined. The Station in her honor was still kept, however, and has been retained in Missals up to the present day. Instead of the original Mass in honor of Saint Anastasia, another Mass of the Nativity was substituted, in which the saint is now merely commemorated. This is the second one of the three Masses on Christmas Day.
As the texts of the Roman Missal show, the first Mass honors the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, the second celebrates His incarnation and birth into the world, the third His birth, through love and grace, in the hearts of men. According to the contents of the respective Gospels, people came to call the first Mass "Angels Mass," the second "Shepherds Mass," and the third "Mass of the Divine Word.
There are no special liturgical ceremonies other than the three Masses on Christmas Day. The feast, however, is usually celebrated with great splendor and solemnity in all churches. The color of the liturgical vestments is white, in token of its joyful and consoling character.
The first Mass is usually said at midnight on Christmas because of the traditional belief that Christ was born at that hour. There is, of course, no historical evidence to uphold this pious belief, which has its source in the following text from the Book of Wisdom (18, 14-15):
For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from Thy royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction.
As the context shows, these words refer to the slaying of the first-born in Egypt; but the medieval theologians applied it as a prophetical reference to the Incarnation of the Divine Word. A beautiful Latin hymn of the fourth century, "Quando noctis medium," expresses this common belief in our Lord's birth at midnight:
When the midnight, dark and still,
Wrapped in silence vale and hill:
God the Son, through Virgin's birth,
Following the Father's will,
Started life as Man on earth.
In the liturgy of the Church, midnight is not assigned as the official time for the first Mass. It is merely prescribed that it be said in nocte ( during the night). Hence in some places the first Mass is celebrated before dawn, at four or five in the morning. During earlier centuries (400-1200) the Roman regulations prescribed that the first Mass should be celebrated ad galli cantum (when the cock crows), which was about three o'clock in the morning." A relic of this custom is found among the Spanish-speaking people, who even today call the midnight Mass Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Cock).
The sacred character of the night from December 24 to 25 has been acknowledged from ancient times by the term "Holy Night." Popular traditions of the Middle Ages ascribed to this night a hallowed and mysterious note of celebration and wondrous goodness. A spirit of peace and adoration was thought to prevail over the whole world, and nature was pictured as taking part in this joyful observance. Many of these legends are still alive today and form a charming part of the folklore of Christmas.
The cattle in the stables fall on their knees at midnight on Christmas; so do the deer in the forest." The bees awake from sleep and hum a beautiful symphony of praise to the Divine Child; but only those can hear it who are dear to the Lord." The birds sing all night at Christmas; their voices become sweeter and more melodious, and even the sparrows sing like nightingales. In the Orient there is a legend that during Holy Night all trees and plants, especially those on the banks of the Jordan, bow in reverence toward Bethlehem.
On Christmas Eve the water in wells and fountains is blessed by God with great healing powers and heavenly sweetness. Mysterious bells are heard pealing joyfully from the depths of deserted mines, and cheerful lights may be seen blinking at the bottom of lonely shafts and caves.
Other legends tell of how animals talk like humans at mid-night. Their favorite language seemed to be Latin. In an old French mystery play the cock crows with a piercing voice, "Christi's natus est" (Christ is born); the ox moos, "Ubi?" (Where?); the lamb answers, "Bethlehem"; and the ass brays, "Eamusf" (Let us go! )." In central Europe the animals in the stable are said to gossip about the public and hidden faults of those who listen in on their conversation.
One of the oldest Christian legends is the charming story related by Saint Gregory of Tours (594) in his Libri Miraculorum (Book of Miracles) concerning the well of the Magi near Bethlehem. The people of Bethlehem made a practice of going there during Christmas week, bending over the opening of the well, and covering themselves and the opening with blankets or cloaks to shut out the light of day. Then, as they peered into the dark well, the star of Bethlehem, according to this pious legend, could be seen moving slowly across the water—but only by those who were pure of heart.
Another legend inspired the popular belief that the power of malignant spirits, of ghosts and witches, was entirely suspended during the Christmas season. The mystical presence of the Christ Child made them powerless; no harm could be done to men or beasts or homes. Shakespeare has made this legend immortal by these familiar lines from Act I, Scene 1 of Hamlet:
“Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, no witch has power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.”
It was an old and comforting belief that the gates of Paradise were open on Christmas at midnight, so that any person dying at that hour could enter Heaven at once." Another legend considered every child born on Christmas especially blessed and fortunate. In addition to other gifts and privileges, such children were said to have the power of seeing spirits, and even of commanding them.
There is the lovely medieval legend of the "Christmas angel." Every year—so the story goes—the Blessed Virgin Mary selects a number of angels and sends them out from Heaven into various parts of the world. Each angel awakens a little child from its first sleep and carries it to Paradise to sing a carol to the Christ Child. When the children afterward tell of their beautiful errand, some people will say it was just a dream; but those who know better will assure you that these children are chosen by God to be blessed with unusual favors."
In many European countries, especially in central and northern Europe, the family celebration takes place on the evening of December 24. The common features of this celebration are a festive meal in the evening, at which, besides various native dishes, fish is the main fare, because, according to canon law, Christmas Eve is a day of fast and abstinence among all Catholic populations. Later in the evening the family gathers to enter the festively decorated room where the Christ-mas tree and the presents are ready. The small children believe that the Christ Child, accompanied by angels, has decorated the tree and brought the gifts. A sign is given with a little bell, the doors fly open, and the whole family enters the room. Standing or kneeling in front of the Christmas crib, which is usually set up under the tree, they pray and sing Christmas hymns. Then they wish each other a blessed feast and proceed to open their gift packages.
The Slavic people, and also the Lithuanians, have a touching and impressive custom which resembles the Agape (love meal) of the early Christians in apostolic times. At the beginning of the vigilia (the meatless Christmas Eve dinner) the father of the family solemnly breaks wafers (Oplatki) and distributes them, kissing each member of the household and wishing them a joyful feast. In many places these wafers are blessed before-hand by the priest.
Another custom practiced among the Slavic people and other nations of Europe (among them Hungarians and Lithuanians) is the placing of straw under the tablecloth and the bedding of small children on straw or hay during Holy Night, in memory of the Lord's reclining on straw and hay in the manger.
A very old and practical tradition made it obligatory on Christ-mas Eve to see that the house was thoroughly cleaned, borrowed articles returned, all tools laid aside, no lint allowed "to remain on rock or wheel," no unfinished work exposed to sight, and no task started that could not be finished by nightfall.
It was a widespread practice to be especially kind to animals at Christmas and to allow them to share in the joy of the feast. This tradition is still alive in northern and central Europe and in Scandinavia. People put out sheafs of grain for the birds and give their farm animals extra fodder on Christmas Eve." This custom was begun by Saint Francis of Assisi (1226). He ad-monished the farmers to give their oxen and asses extra corn and hay at Christmas, "for reverence of the Son of God, whom on such a night the blessed Virgin Mary did lay down in the stall between the ox and the ass." All creation, said he, should rejoice at Christmas, and the dumb creatures had no other means of doing so than by enjoying more comfort and better food. "If I could see the Emperor," he said, "I would implore him to issue a general decree that all people who are able to do so, shall throw grain and corn upon the streets, so that on this great feast day the birds might have enough to eat, especially our sisters, the larks."
An inspiring and colorful sight are the Christmas fires burned on the peaks of the Alps. Like flaming stars they hang in the dark heavens during Holy Night, burning brightly, as the farmers from around the mountainsides walk through the winter night down into the valley for midnight Mass. Each per-son carries a lantern, swinging it to and fro; the night seems alive with hundreds of glowworms converging toward the great light at the foot of the mountain—the parish church.
In some sections of England, Ireland, and Scotland, a quaint and unusually interesting custom was practiced in medieval times. One hour before midnight the big bell of the church would begin to toll its slow and solemn message of mourning, and it would thus continue for the whole hour, as if tolling for a funeral. But at the moment of midnight, just as the clock struck twelve, all the bells would suddenly ring out in a merry peal of Christmas joy. This tolling from eleven to twelve was called "the Devil's funeral," for according to the old legend, the Devil died when Christ was born.
Another custom connected with midnight Mass is the ringing of church bells during the solemn service of Vespers, which is held in many places directly before the midnight service." In America, chimes and carillons accompany or replace the bells in many churches, ringing out the tunes of familiar carols, especially the joyous invitation "O come, all ye faithful.
In Austria, Bavaria, and other countries of central Europe, carols are played from the church towers before midnight Mass; the tunes of traditional Christmas songs ring out through the stillness of the winter night, clear and peaceful, creating an un-forgettable impression.
In the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the statue of the Divine Child is placed on the altar after the first Mass and then carried in procession to the crypt, where it is laid on the silver star that marks what is believed to be the actual spot of the Lord's birth. The Gospel of Saint Luke is sung, and when the deacon comes to the words "she laid him in a manger," the statue is lifted from the floor and placed in the rock-hewn crib next to the star." A similar custom used to be observed in sections of central Europe, where the figure of the Christ Child was solemnly placed in the crib after the first Mass, while the people in church sang their ancient carols.
Among the French people it is an old custom to hold a joyful family gathering and a traditional meal (reveillon) directly after midnight Mass. In Spain people promenade on the streets after the midnight Mass with torches, tambourines, and guitars, singing and greeting each other.
Christmas Symbols and Customs
The Child in the manger and various other representations of the story of Bethlehem have been used in church services from the first centuries. The earliest-known picture is the Nativity scene ( about A.D. 380) that served as a wall decoration in the burial chamber of a Christian family in St. Sebastian's Catacombs, Rome, discovered in 1877.
The crib in its present form and its use outside the church is credited to Saint Francis of Assisi. He made the Christmas crib popular through his famous celebration at Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve 1223, with a Bethlehem scene including live animals. His biographer, Thomas de Celano, writes:
"It should be recorded and held in reverent memory what Blessed Francis did near the town of Greccio, on the feast day of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, three years before his glorious death. In that town lived a certain man by the name of John (Messer Gio-vanni Velitta) who stood in high esteem, and whose life was even better than his reputation. Blessed Francis loved him with a special affection because, being very noble and much honored, he despised the nobility of the flesh and strove after the nobility of the soul. Blessed Francis often saw this man. He now called him about two weeks before Christmas and said to him: "If you desire that we should celebrate this year's Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem, and how He was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how He was bedded in the manger on hay, between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes." When that good and faithful man had heard this, he de-parted quickly and prepared in the above mentioned place every-thing that the Saint had told him. The joyful day approached. The brethren [Franciscan friars] were called from many communities. The men and women of the neighbor-hood, as best they could, prepared candles and torches to brighten the night. Finally the Saint of God arrived, found everything pre-pared, saw it and rejoiced. The crib was made ready, hay was brought, the ox and ass were led to the spot. . . . Greccio became a new Bethlehem. The night was made radiant like the day, filling men and animals with joy. The crowds drew near and rejoiced in the novelty of the celebration. Their voices resounded from the woods, and the rocky cliff echoed the jubilant outburst. As they sang in praise of God the whole night rang with exultation. The Saint of God stood before the crib, overcome with devotion and wondrous joy. A solemn Mass was sung at the crib. The Saint dressed in deacon's vestments, for a deacon he was [out of humility, St. Francis never became a priest, remaining a deacon all his life], sang the gospel. Then he preached a delightful sermon to the people who stood around him, speaking about the nativity of the poor King and the humble town of Bethlehem. . . . And when-ever he mentioned the Child of Bethlehem or the name of Jesus, he seemed to lick his lips as if he would happily taste and swallow the sweetness of that word.”
The animals in the crib—usually an ass and an ox—although not mentioned in the Bible, are traditionally now part of the picture.' Saint Francis was following tradition when he had these animals placed near the manger. As early as the fourth century they were represented in pictures of the Nativity. The custom originated because of two passages in the Old Testament that were applied to the birth of Christ: the words of Isaiah ( I, 3), "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel hath not known me and my people hath not understood"; and the verse of Habakkuk (3, 2) in the Itala version, "In the midst of two animals Thou shalt become known."
THE CRIB IN FOLKLORE
Since the time of Saint Francis, the Christmas crib has been a familiar sight in churches and homes all over the world. Farmers in the mountain provinces of central Europe spend the long winter evenings of Advent repairing and enlarging their beautiful cribs, which are sometimes made up of hundreds of figures, filling a whole room.
Among the German sects that kept the custom of Christmas cribs even after the Reformation were the Herrenhuter, usually called Moravians. One small group of Moravian missionaries came to America and founded the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Eve 1741.5 The inhabitants of Bethlehem, and later those of other Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania, brought with them the custom of the crib. They called it putz (from the German putzen: decorate) and included not only the scene of the Nativity, but, in addition, all the charming details of a German Krippe (crib): dozens, sometimes hundreds, of figures, fanciful landscaping, waterfalls, houses and fences, bridges, fountains, villages, gardens, and groves. The custom of putzing and putz visiting has been preserved among them up to this day.'
From the early centuries of Christianity it has been a religious practice to represent Christ the Lord by a burning candle, a custom still preserved in the liturgy of the Church—the Easter candle, for instance.
This symbolism of the liturgy was adopted by the faithful quite early. At Christmas, a large candle symbolizing the Lord used to be set up in homes on the eve of the feast. It was kept burning through Holy Night, and was lit, thereafter, every night during the holy season.
The custom of the Christmas candle is still kept in its original form in some countries. In Ireland, the mother or the father of the household lights a large holly-bedecked candle on Christ-mas Eve while the entire family prays for all its dear ones, both living and departed.8 Among the Slavic nations (Poles, Ukrainians, Russians) the large Christmas candle is put on the table after it has been blessed by the priest in church. The Ukrainians do not use candlesticks, but stick the candle in a loaf of bread.
In many sections of South America the candle is placed in a paper lantern with Christmas symbols and pictures of the Nativity decorating its sides. In England and France the Christmas
light often consisted of three individual candles molded together at the base, in honor of the Holy Trinity. In Germany the Christ-mas candle used to be placed on top of a wooden pole decorated with evergreens (Lichtstock), or many smaller candles were distributed on the shelves of a wooden structure made in the form of a pyramid, adorned with fir twigs or laurel and draped with glittering tinsel (Weihnachtspyramide).9 During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this pyramid was gradually replaced by the Christmas tree. In some sections of Germany, however, the Christmas pyramid has remained a traditional custom."
LIGHTS IN THE WINDOWS
The custom of placing lighted candles in the windows at Christmas is of Irish origin. During the second half of the last century it was promoted by the carolers' groups in the Beacon Hill section of Boston. This tradition quickly spread to other cities and helped to establish a general custom in the United States."
THE YULE LOG
At a time when coal and other modern heating fuels were unknown, the firewood to be burned during Holy Night and on Christmas assumed special significance. A huge log was selected and brought to the house with great ceremony in preparation for the festival. It was called the "Christmas log" or "Yule log," and was burned on the open hearth during the holy season. This custom became a tradition in most European countries, including the Latin nations." In Italy the log was called ceppo; this name was later applied also to wooden structures (pyramids) that carried the Christmas lights.
In spite of modern heating, the Yule log has survived in many homes as an old and cherished Christmas tradition. Its origin is disputed. Some scholars trace it back to pre-Christian times, when the Germanic tribes used to burn large wooden logs during the Yule season. There is no historical evidence, however, that the custom of the "Christmas log" existed before the sixteenth century.
In some places the log was the whole trunk of a tree, carefully selected on the preceding Feast of Candlemas and stored away to dry out during the summer." Many popular customs and ceremonies were connected with the Yule log.
Many writers derive the origin of the Christmas tree from the ancient Yule tree or from other light and fire customs of pre-Christian times." These explanations, however, are based on mere guesswork and do not agree with the historical facts. It is true that people used to put up evergreen trees in their homes at Yule time, both in pre-Christian centuries and later, to reassure themselves that nature's life was not altogether dead under winter's ice and snow, and that spring would come again. The little evergreen tree in the home, staying bravely alive through the period of nature's "death," was a cheerful token and symbol of this assurance. The Yule tree had no direct pagan connotation, and never acquired any Christian religious meaning in later times. Decorations are alien to its symbolism, for its whole significance consists in remaining alive and green during the winter.
Yule trees may still be found in some sections of central Europe, standing side by side with the Christmas tree in the homes of rural districts. Their symbolism has remained entirely separate and sharply distinguished from that of the Christmas tree. In fact, there is the general custom of putting up fir trees, without any decorations, in halls and even churches at Christmas time. These fir trees are not, of course, "Christmas trees"; but they are used at Christmas to make homes and halls and churches look more cheerful than at other times. They—and not the decorated Christmas tree—are the true descendants of the ancient Yule trees.
Surprising as it may seem, the use of Christmas trees is a fairly recent custom in all countries outside of Germany, and even in Germany it attained its immense popularity as recently as the beginning of the last century. It is completely Christian in origin. Historians have never been able to connect it with ancient Germanic or Asiatic mythology. Its origin is due to a combination of two medieval religious symbols: the Paradise tree and the previously described Christmas light.
THE PARADISE TREE
From the eleventh century on, religious plays used to be performed in churches or in the open in front of churches. One of the most popular of these "mystery plays," as they were called, was the Paradise play. It represented the creation of man, the sin of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from Paradise. This play closed with a consoling promise of the coming Savior and of His Incarnation. For this reason the Paradise play was a favorite pageant in Advent.
The Garden of Eden was indicated by a fir tree hung with apples, from which Eve broke the fruit and gave it to Adam to eat. This "Paradise tree" attracted the attention of all, especially the children, since it was the only object on the stage.
During the fifteenth century the mystery plays were gradually forbidden because abuses had crept in. The people, however, did not want to miss the Paradise tree. Since they could no longer see it in church, they started putting it up in their homes once a year, in honor of Adam and Eve on their feast day, which was December 24. The Latin Church has never officially celebrated Adam and Eve as saints, but the Eastern Churches do so, and from the East the custom came into Europe of keeping their feast. Thus, on December 24 one could see the Paradise tree in the homes of the faithful in various sections of Europe. It was a fir tree hung with red apples.
Under the influence of medieval religious "mystery" pictures, the Paradise tree stood not only for the "Tree of Sin" but also for the "Tree of Life" (Genesis 2, 9). As such, it bore, besides the apples (fruit of sin), wafers representing the Holy Eucharist (fruit of Life).23 These wafers were later replaced by little pieces of pastry and candy representing the sweet fruit of Christ's redemption.
THE CHRISTMAS LIGHT
The very same day on which people in western Germany had the Paradise tree in their homes (December 24), another custom was kept from ancient times in all Christian countries. It was the "Christmas light," a symbol for our Lord, the Light of the
world that started shining at Bethlehem. This Christmas candle had been inspired by the liturgical usage of a burning candle to represent Christ. On Christmas Eve the large, decorated candle was lit while the whole family knelt in prayer, and was then kept burning through Holy Night.
In western Germany this Christmas light—in form of many smaller candles—used to be placed on the shelves or steps of a wooden structure in the shape of a pyramid. Besides the candles, this "Christmas Pyramid" also bore decorations of evergreen twigs, glass balls, tinsel, and the "star of Bethlehem" on its top.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
During the sixteenth century the people in western Germany, on the left bank of the Rhine, began to combine the two symbols they had in their homes on December 24—the Paradise tree with the Christmas light. Was not the Paradise tree itself a beautiful, live pyramid? Why not transfer the decorations from the lifeless wooden pyramid to the tree? This is exactly what they did. They took first the glass balls and tinsel from the wooden pyramid and put them on the Paradise tree (which already bore apples and sweets ). The "star of Bethlehem" was transferred from the pyramid to the top of the tree; and the Christmas crib, which had been standing at the foot of the pyramid, was now put under the tree. During the seventeenth century the lights were also transferred to the tree. Thus our modern Christmas tree came into being; its particular features are all clearly explained as they developed through the combination of the two above-mentioned customs." These findings of modem research are confirmed by many traditional facts, like the custom found in sections of Bavaria where fir branches and little trees, decorated with lights, apples, and tinsel, are still called Paradeis.28 Another confirmation is the fact that the "fruits" on the Christmas tree traditionally are of round shape (apples, oranges, nuts, glass balls ), thus retaining the symbolism of the fruit of the Paradise tree.
SPREAD OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE
It now seems quite certain that the original home of the Christmas tree was the left bank of the upper Rhine in Germany, where this transformation took place.27 The first mention of the tree as it is now known (but still without lights) dates from 1521 in German Alsace." A more de-tailed description is given in a manuscript from Strasbourg of 1605.29 At that time the tree was widely accepted in those parts.
The first news of candles on the Christmas tree dates from the seventeenth century." In the course of the following centuries it slowly became popular, first in southern Germany, then also in the north and east." It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, that it spread rapidly and grew into a general German custom, which was soon accepted also by the Slavic people of eastern Europe.
The Christmas tree was introduced into France in 1837 when Princess Helen of Mecklenburg brought it to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. It went to England around the middle of the last century when Prince Albert of Saxony, the husband of Queen Victoria, had a
tree set up at Windsor Castle in 1841. From the royal court the fashion spread, first among the nobility, then among the people in general, until by the second half of the last century it was very much a part of the English Christmas celebration.
The tree arrived in America as a cherished companion of the German immigrants. The first wave of German immigration, about 1700, brought thousands of Protestant farmers from the Rhine provinces, the Palatinate, who, after much suffering and many adventures in the colony of New York, finally settled in western Pennsylvania. The descendants of these early immigrants still inhabit the Lebanon valley and keep most of their ancient customs.
The second wave of German immigration began about 1830. These people, made up of both Catholic and Protestant groups, settled in New York, New England, and on the farms of Ohio and Wisconsin, and other parts of America. Through them the Christmas tree was brought to the attention of their neighbors, and soon became a much admired and familiar sight in all the churches of German settlements and in the homes of German-Americans.
In spite of the official suppression of Christmas in New Eng-land, the custom of the Christmas tree spread. The fact that royalty in England had adopted it did much to make it fashion-able in the homes of Americans of English descent.
The tree, which in 1850 had been called "a new German toy" by Charles Dickens, was termed "old-fashioned" by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 when, on December 22 of that year, speaking to reporters about the Christmas celebration at the White House, he said, "And we shall have an old-fashioned Christmas tree for the grandchildren upstairs."
America has added one new feature to the traditional use of the tree. It was in Boston that the custom originated (in 1912), of setting up lighted trees in public places. This custom spread rapidly all over the country and found its way to Europe after World War I, where it became quite general shortly before World War II.
Innumerable are the legends connected with the origin and symbolism of the Christmas tree. Those legends which purport to explain its origin are, of course, merely etiological; they give a fictional explanation of origin for an already existing custom. Thus the "origin" of the tree is sometimes ascribed to Saint Boniface or Saint Ansgar or to the Christ Child Himself. Among Protestants a legend attributes the origin of the Christmas tree to Martin Luther. There is, of course, no historical basis for any of these legends.
THE "FIRST" TREE IN AMERICA
Many places in the United States claim the honor of having had the "first" Christmas tree in America. Such claims can never be truly substantiated, be-cause it will remain impossible to prove that there was no Christ-mas tree in any other place before. As a matter of fact, German immigrants, especially those from the upper Rhine, are most likely to have set up the first Christmas trees in America as early as 1700. They lived in settlements of their own, and thus their trees probably did not come to the knowledge of their fellow citizens of other nationalities. It is reported that the Hessian soldiers in George Washington's army used Christmas trees."
Considering the historical facts, the meaning and message of the Christmas tree appear completely and deeply religious. It stands in the home at Christmas time as a symbol and reminder that Christ is the "Tree of Life" and the "Light of the World." Its many individual lights might be explained to the children as symbols of His divine and human traits and virtues. The glittering decorations indicate His great glory. The fact that it is evergreen is an ancient symbol of eternity.
In keeping with this historical symbolism, the decorations of the Christmas tree should remain appropriate and traditional. Silly "decorations" of modern manufacture which disturb the dignified aspect of the tree should not be used. Sensational features like "swirling" candles, animal figures, and dolls do not fit its purpose and meaning. In radiant beauty and quiet solemnity it should proclaim in the Christian home the very message of holy liturgy that has inspired its origin: Lumen Christi—the Light of Christ.
The custom of decorating homes on festive days is world-wide. It is neither pagan nor Christian in itself, but, rather, a natural expression of joy mingled with solemnity. It has been practiced in all parts of the world for thousands of years. After the time of the persecutions the Church soon approved and accepted the practice of decorating both the house of God and the Christian home with plants and flowers on the Feast of the Lord's Nativity. Pope Saint Gregory I (604) in a letter to Saint Augustine of Canterbury advised him to permit, and even to encourage, harm-less popular customs which in themselves were not pagan, but natural, and could be given Christian interpretation.
The plants used traditionally as Christmas decorations are mostly evergreens: first, because they were the only ones avail-able in the winter season; second, because from ancient times evergreens have been symbolic of eternal life.
The mistletoe was a sacred plant in the pagan religion of the Druids in Britain. It was believed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities: the power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, giving fertility to humans and animals, protecting from witchcraft, banning evil spirits, bringing good luck and great blessings. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting, and keep a truce until the following day. From this old custom grew the practice of suspending mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace to all comers. A kiss under the mistletoe was interpreted as a sincere pledge of love and a promise of marriage, and, at the same time, it was an omen of happiness, good fortune, fertility, and long life to the lovers who sealed and made known their engagement by a kiss beneath the sacred plant.
After Britain was converted from paganism to Christianity, the bishops did not allow the mistletoe to be used in churches be-cause it had been the main symbol of a pagan religion. Even to this day mistletoe is rarely used as a decoration for altars. There was, however, one exception. At the Cathedral of York at one period before the Reformation a large bundle of mistletoe was brought into the sanctuary each year at Christmas and solemnly placed on the altar by a priest. In this rite the plant that the Druids had called "All-heal" was used as a symbol of Christ, the Divine Healer of nations.
The people of England then adopted the mistletoe as a decoration for their homes at Christmas. Its old, pagan religious meaning was soon forgotten, but some of the other meanings and customs have survived: the kiss under the mistletoe; the token of good will and friendship; the omen of happiness and good luck and the new religious significance:
The mistletoe bough at our Christmas board
Shall hang, to the honor of Christ the Lord:
For He is the evergreen tree of Life. . . .
- To the early Christians in northern Europe this plant was a symbol of the burning thorn bush of Moses and the flaming love for God that filled Mary's heart. Its prickly points and red berries, resembling drops of blood, also reminded the faithful that the Divine Child was born to wear a crown of thorns.
When the earth turns brown and cold, the holly, with its shiny green leaves and bright red berries, seems to lend itself naturally to Christmas decoration. Its appearance in the homes of old England opened the season of feasting and good cheer. Today holly is not only hung at doors and windows, on tables and walls, but its green leaves and red berries have become the universal symbol of Christmas, adorning greeting cards, gift tags and labels, gift boxes, and wrapping paper at Christmas time.
Medieval superstition in England endowed holly with a special power against witchcraft; unmarried women were told to fasten a sprig of holly to their beds at Christmas to guard them throughout the year from being turned into witches by the Evil One. In Germany, branches of holly that had been used as Christmas decoration in church were brought home and superstitiously kept as charms against lightning. Another superstition claimed that holly brought good luck to men, and that ivy brought it to women. The holly, therefore, is always referred to as "he," while the ivy is the distaff plant.
In the United States the native holly has almost disappeared because of the selfishness of careless holly hunters at Christmas time. What is used here now is the European variety, with larger leaves and berries, which is commercially grown by farmers in this country. The California holly (Toyon) grows along the Pacific coast and has extra-brilliant flaming-red-colored berries, which are placed in Christmas wreaths of evergreen for decorations.
In pagan Rome the ivy was the badge of the wine god Bacchus, and was displayed as a symbol of unrestrained drinking and feasting. For this reason it was later banished from Christian homes. The old tradition in England ruled that ivy should be banned from the inside of homes and should be allowed to grow only on the outside. Accordingly, the use of ivy as a Christmas decoration was opposed by most people in medieval England. On the continent of Europe it was hardly ever used for that purpose. But a symbolism of human weakness clinging to divine strength was frequently ascribed to the ivy, and this prompted some poets in old England to defend ivy as a decoration at Christmas time.
The delicate little ground ivy, "which groweth in a sweet and shadowed place," was at all times a favorite plant of the English home; it used to be kept in pots and displayed around the house not only at Christmas, but all year round as well. Many of the pioneer settlers coming to the shores of the New World brought pots of such ground ivy with them. Today it is a popular indoor as well as outdoor plant in most parts of America.
THE LAUREL (BAY)
As an ancient symbol of triumph, the laurel is aptly used for Christmas decorations, to proclaim the victory over sin and death that Christ's birth signifies. It was greatly cherished as a Christmas plant in bygone centuries. In fact, laurel was the first plant used as Christmas decoration; the early Christians at Rome adorned their homes with it in celebration of the nativity of Christ.
The modern custom of hanging laurel wreaths on the outside of doors as a friendly greeting to our fellow men comes from an old Roman practice. The wreath was their symbol of victory, glory, joy, and celebration." The Christmas wreath seems to have been introduced to the United States by immigrants from England and Ireland, and gradually became part of the American Christmas scene.
This delicate plant has been connected with Christmas since time immemorial. According to an old legend, it was honored by God in reward for the humble service that it offered to Mary and her Child. On the way to Egypt, so the charming story goes, Mary washed the tiny garments of Jesus and spread them over a rosemary bush to dry in the sun. Since then the rosemary has delighted man by its delicate fragrance.
In other medieval legends this plant is pictured as a great protection and help against evil spirits, especially if it has been used in church as a decoration on Christmas Day.
It is customary among the Czechs and Slovaks, and also in Austria and some other sections of central Europe, to break a branch off a cherry tree on Saint Barbara's Day (December 4), place it in a pot of water in the kitchen and keep it in warm air. The twig would then burst into blossom at Christ-mas time, and made a very festive decoration. Such cherry branches, brought to flowering at Christmas, were considered omens of good luck—for instance, the girl who had tended the twig would find a good husband within the year if she succeeded in producing the bloom exactly on Christmas Eve."
This native plant of Central America is now widely used in churches and homes at Christmas, because the flaming star of its red bracts resembles the star of Bethlehem. The poinsettia was named for Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1851), who served as United States ambassador to Mexico. Upon his return, in 1829, he brought this flower with him to his home in South Carolina, where it flourished.
The people of Mexico call the poinsettia the "flower of Holy Night." A charming Mexican legend explains its origin: On a Christmas Eve, long ago, a poor little boy went to church in great sadness because he had no gift to bring to the Holy Child. He dared not enter the church, and, kneeling humbly on the ground outside the house of God, prayed fervently and assured our Lord, with tears, how much he desired to offer Him some lovely present. "But I am very poor and dread to approach You with empty hands." When he finally rose from his knees, he saw springing up at his feet a green plant with gorgeous blooms of dazzling red. His prayer had been answered; he broke some of the beautiful twigs from the plant and joyously entered the church to lay his gift at the feet of the Christ Child. Since then the plant has spread over the whole country; it blooms every year at Christmas time with such glorious abandon that men are filled with the true holiday spirit at the mere sight of the Christmas flower, symbolic of the Savior’s birth."
In the middle of the nineteenth century, when postal rates became cheaper, people began to send written greetings and good wishes to their relatives and friends before the Feast of Christmas. It is claimed that the first Christmas greeting card was engraved in 1842 by a sixteen-year-old London artist, William Maw Eglcy. Some years later, special cards were privately printed in Britain by a few individuals who designed them for their personal use. It was many years before the manufacture and sale of cards was commercialized. By 1860 they were on the market, and were quite common by about 1868.
In America, the printing of Christmas cards was introduced by the Boston lithographer Louis Prang, a native of Breslau, Germany. Prang offered them to the public for sale in 1875. Since the present popular designs of Christmas symbols were not yet known in the United States, he adorned his cards with Killarney roses, daisies, geraniums, apple blossoms, and similar floral motives. These first American Christmas cards, like all other products of Prang's lithographic art, are still famous among collectors because of their exquisite design and craftsmanship."
Within the last few decades, the sending of Christmas cards has become more a burden of social amenity than a token of affection. At present, two billion greeting cards are mailed annually at Christmas in the United States—an average of fifty cards per family. Though many of the modern cards do not have appropriate Christmas designs, there is a tendency of late to return to the genuine spiritual tone of the season.
It is interesting to note that traditional Christmas cards show wintry landscapes, with ice and snow, even in countries of the Southern Hemisphere ( South America, Australia, Africa ), where December is the warmest month of the year.
Christmas is the season for exchanging presents. It is not difficult to understand why people should be filled with good will on the Christ Child's birthday. "As long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me" (Matthew 25, 40).
The practice of giving presents was also an old Roman custom, called strenae. On New Year's Day the people of ancient Rome exchanged gifts of sweet pastry, lamps, precious stones, and coins of gold or silver, as tokens of their good wishes for a happy year.” This custom and even its name (etrennes) have been preserved among the French people to the present day. In most countries, however, the present-giving has become a part of the actual Christmas celebration.
In Germany the packages of Christmas gifts were called "Christ bundles." They contained candy, sugar plums, cakes, apples, nuts, dolls, and toys; useful things like clothes, caps, mittens, stockings, shoes and slippers; and things "that belong to teaching, obedience and discipline," such as ABC tables, paper, pencils, books; and the "Christ rod." This rod, attached to the bundle, was a pointed reminder for good behavior.
Another form of presenting gifts was the old German custom of the "Christmas ship," in which bundles for the children were stored away. This was adopted in England to some extent, but never attained general popularity, though special carols for the occasion were sung in both countries.
A popular Christmas custom in Britain is "boxing" on the feast of Saint Stephen, December 26. It originated because in medieval times the priests would empty the alms boxes in all churches on the day after Christmas and distribute the gifts to the poor of the parish. In imitation of this practice, workers, apprentices, and servants kept their own personal "boxes," made of earthenware, in which they stored savings and donations throughout the year. At Christmas came the last and greatest flow of coins, collected from patrons, customers, and friends. Then, on the day after Christmas, the box was broken and the money counted. This custom was eventually called "boxing" (giving and accepting presents). Each present is a box, and the day of present-giving is Boxing Day.
A similar custom prevailed in Holland and some parts of Germany, where children were taught to save their pennies in a pig-shaped earthenware box. This box was not to be opened until Christmas, and consequently was called the "feast pig."
THE CHRIST CHILD
In most European countries the Child Jesus is the gift-bringer. The children believe He comes with angels in the evening, trimming the tree and putting the presents under it. Sometimes the Divine Child was impersonated by a girl dressed in white, but this custom was never widespread. The general practice has the Christ Child arrive unseen by the children; helped by the parents, He prepares the tree and distributes the gifts. When everything is ready, a little bell is rung and the anxious children enter the room where all the presents are spread out before their shining eyes. But the Child Jesus, with His angels, has already left for some other home. The reading of the Christ-mas Gospel, a prayer before the crib, and the singing of a hymn unite the whole family in the Christmas spirit before the gifts are opened in the late evening of December 24.
This custom still survives in some parts of Germany, Austria, and other countries of central Europe, as well as in France, French Canada, Spain, Central and South America. In Spain and Spanish-speaking countries the Child Jesus (el Niiio Jesus) brings the Christmas gifts for the children during Holy Night. Since the crib has been set up for nine days with an empty manger, the children are familiar with it. On Christmas morning, however, they find the Holy Child in the crib and the gifts arranged in front of it.
The German name of the Christ Child is Christkind, commonly used in its diminutive form Christkindel (both i's are short). When German immigration to New York and other eastern cities of the United States increased after the middle of the last century, the word Christkindel of the immigrants was adopted in the form of Kris Kringle by their fellow countrymen, but was identified with Santa Claus.
In Rome and other cities of Italy an un-usual figure impersonates the gift-bringer for children. It is the "Lady Befana" ( or Bufana ), a sort of fairy queen. The day she distributes presents is January 6 (Epiphany ), when the children roam the streets, happily blow their paper trumpets, and receive the gifts that Lady Befana has provided for them. The name comes from the word epiphany.
The gift-bringer in Russia is a legendary old woman called Babushka (Grandmother). She is said to have misdirected the Magi when they inquired their way to Bethlehem. According to another version she refused hospitality to the Holy Family on its way to Egypt. Whatever her fault, she repented of her un-kindness, and to make reparation for her sin she now goes about the world on Christmas Eve looking for the Christ Child and distributing gifts to children.
After 1660 the custom originated in England of impersonating the spirit of the feast by a figure called "Father Christmas." This legendary Christmas man was pictured as a heavily bearded, fur-clad, friendly individual, symbolizing and bestowing the mood of merry celebration. He did not usually bring the presents, how-ever, and thus held no special appeal to the affection of children. A similar figure is the Christmas Man of northern Germany (Knecht Rupprecht)."
After the Reformation, the feast and veneration of Saint Nicholas, the patron of little children, were abolished in many countries. Soon people in those countries forgot the saint who had once been so dear to them. Only here and there a trace of him would linger on, as, for example, in the pageant of the "Boy Bishop" in England, and in the name Pelznickel (Fur Nicholas ), which many people in western Germany gave to their Christmas Man (Pels-nichol now among the Pennsylvania Dutch).
When the Dutch came to America and established the colony of New Amsterdam, their children enjoyed the traditional "visit of Saint Nicholas" on December 5, for the Dutch had kept this ancient Catholic custom even after the Reformation." Later, when England took over the colony and it became New York, the kindly figure of Sinter Klaas (pronounced like Santa Claus) soon aroused among the English children the desire of having such a heavenly visitor come to their homes, too.
The English settlers were glad and willing to comply with the anxious wish of their children. However, the figure of a Catholic saint and bishop was not acceptable in their eyes, especially since many of them were Presbyterians, to whom a bishop was repugnant. In addition, they did not celebrate the feasts of saints according to the ancient Catholic calendar.
The dilemma was solved by transferring the visit of the mysterious man whom the Dutch called Santa Claus from December 5 to Christmas, and by introducing a radical change in the figure itself. It was not merely a "disguise," but the ancient saint was completely replaced by an entirely different character. Behind the name Santa Claus actually stands the figure of the pagan Germanic god Thor (after whom Thursday is named). Some de-tails about Thor from ancient German mythology will show the origin of the modern Santa Claus tale:
Thor was the god of the peasants and the common people. He was represented as an elderly man, jovial and friendly, of heavy build, with a long white beard. His element was the fire, his color red. The rumble and roar of thunder were said to be caused by the rolling of his chariot, for he alone among the gods never rode on horseback but drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats (called Cracker and Gnasher). He was fighting the giants of ice and snow, and thus became the Yule-god. He was said to live in the "North-land" where he had his palace among icebergs. By our pagan fore-fathers he was considered as the cheerful and friendly god, never harming the humans but rather helping and protecting them. The fireplace in every home was especially sacred to him, and he was said to come down through the chimney into his element, the fire.
Here, then, is the true origin of our "Santa Claus." It certainly was a stroke of genius that produced such a charming and attractive figure for our children from the withered pages of pagan mythology. With the Christian saint whose name he still bears, however, this Santa Claus has really nothing to do.
The fairy tale of Santa Claus will not be abolished easily, despite the efforts of well-meaning people "—nor does it seem necessary. Children do like fairy tales, and Santa Claus is one of the most charming of them. Parents can use it without harm provided they apply some safeguards to avoid an undue over-stressing of the Santa Claus figure. The descriptions of great dis-appointment and psychological conflicts occurring when children find out that there is no Santa Claus apply only to families where parents have misled their children in the first place by allowing Santa to take the central place instead of Christ, Whose birthday is the only reason for the feast.
BREADS AND CAKES
In most countries the Christmas cakes, which were baked on the eve of the feast and eaten during the season, were said to bring special blessings of good luck and health.3 In Ireland, England, and Scotland cakes were baked on Christ-mas Eve for every member of the household. These were usually circular in shape and flavored with caraway seeds. The Irish people have a Gaelic name for Christmas Eve, Oidhche na ceapairi, which means "Night of Cakes." In Germany and France, Christmas cakes were often adorned with the figure of the Holy Child, made of sugar. The Greek Christmas cakes had a cross on top, and one such cake was left on the table during Holy Night in the hope that Christ Himself would come and eat it. The Christmas loaf (Pain calendeau) is still made in southern France; it is quartered crosswise and is eaten only after the first quarter has been given to some poor person. In central and eastern Germany a special bread (Christstollen) is made of wheat flour, butter, sugar, almond, and raisins.
Slavic people (Poles, Russians, Slovaks) and other nations of eastern Europe prepare, in addition to their Christmas loaves, thin wafers of white flour which are blessed by the priest and eaten, often with syrup or honey, before the main meal on Christ-mas Eve. The Lithuanians call these wafers "bread of the angels," the Poles oplatki ( offerings ). Various scenes of the Nativity are imprinted on them, and the head of the household distributes them among his family, as a symbol of love and peace. In Russia, Saint Nicholas (Kolya ) puts wheat cakes on the window sills during Holy Night. Among the nations of central Europe fruit bread (Kletzenbrot) and fruitcake are favorite Christmas dishes. In France and French Canada housewives bake a large batch of small round loaves (pain d'habitant) in honor of the feast.
SWEETS AND PASTRIES
Even more abundant and varied are the many forms of Christmas pastries, cookies, and sweets that have survived to the present and, in some countries, as a substitute for the ancient cakes. In Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and other regions of central Europe, the Christmas pastry Weih-nachtsgeback has various forms, different in shape and composition. Christmas tree pastry (Christbaumgeback) is made of a white dough and cut in the shape of stars, angels, flowers, and animals. It was, and still is, hung on the tree and eaten by the children when the tree is taken down. The honey pastry (Honig-backwerk) is made of flour, honey, ginger and other spices, and is a favorite Christmas dish all over Germany as Lebkuchen, Pfefferkuchen, Pfefferniisse. Another pastry, baked very hard, is the South German Springerte, cookies rectangular in shape with pictures, such as flowers, animals, dancing figures, and many Christmas symbols stamped on them.
The Scandinavians bake their Christmas pastry in the form of a boar or he goat (Juleber, Julgat). It is served at Christmas with the other dishes but not eaten until January 19, the feast day of Saint Canute ( Martyr, King of Denmark, died 1086). A familiar Spanish Christmas sweet is the dukes de almendra, a pastry made of sugar, flour, egg white, and almonds. Similar almond pastries are used during this season in Portugal and Italy. Central and South American people enjoy an unusual pastry, buriuctos, baked of white flour, very crisp and brittle, and eaten with syrup or honey. In Venezuela the hallaca is the national Christmas dish. It is a pie of chopped meat wrapped in a crust of corn pastry. The French and French Canadians have dough-nuts (beignes) made of a special dough, also fruitcake and white cream fudge (sucre a la creme), and a cake of whole wheat, brown sugar, and dates (carreaux aux dattes). The Lithuanian people eat little balls of hard and dry pastry (Kukuliai) which are softened in plain water.
Christmas, among Latin Catholics and all Eastern Rites, still is, preceded by a day of fasting and abstinence, in preparation for the Lord's nativity. But on Christmas Day, ever since the feast was established, a great dinner was held. Naturally in the course of time each nation developed its own treasured customs in connection with the Christmas meal.
THE FESTIVE MEAL
The traditional American Christmas meal is English in origin, although the English "Christmas bird" (usually goose or capon) was supplanted by turkey and cranberry sauce. The boisterous Christmas dinners of the English nobility and gentry in ancient times, with many guests and gluttonous eating and drinking, have never found their way into the New World and have long since disappeared in Britain.
The typical English Christmas dinner in medieval times, in castle and manor, started with the serving of the boar's head, which was brought in solemn procession by the chief cook, accompanied by waiters, pages, and minstrels to the tune of the old carol, "The boar's head in hand I bear." Then followed other courses in bewildering variety: roast boar, beef, pork, venison, lamb, capon, goose, duck, swan, pigeon, and others.
Among the common people, a large bird was the standard fare at Christmas dinners: goose, capon, bustard, or chicken; and, after 1530, turkey, which had been brought from Mexico to Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century and was soon domesticated in Spain, France, and England.' It was this traditional festive meal of the common people which set the style of the American turkey dinners at Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Mince pie on the Christmas table is an old English custom.' When the Puritans in New England tried to supplant Christmas with Thanksgiving (and almost succeeded for a time), they also transferred the English Christmas dinner of "a bird" and mince pie to their new feast day.
The British had various kinds of "minced pie" long before it became a part of the Christmas meal. The Christmas pie originated when the Crusaders, returning from the Holy Land, brought along all sorts of Oriental spices, and the Feast of the Lord's Nativity came to be celebrated with a pie containing the spices from His native land.
A Christmas mince pie of the seventeenth century, according to Robert Herrick, was filled with beef tongues, chopped chicken, eggs, raisins, orange and lemon peelings, sugar, and various spices. In this recipe it is not difficult to recognize the basic pattern of modern mince pie.
Before the Reformation, in honor of the Savior’s humble birth, the mince pies were made in oblong form, representing the manger; and sometimes, in the slight depression on top of the pie was placed a little figure of the Child Jesus. Thus the pie was served as an object of devotion as well as a part of the feast." The "baby" was removed and the "manger" was eaten by the children. This custom was suppressed by the Puritans when they came to power in the seventeenth century; and the pie was hence-forth made in circular shape."
A national Christmas dish in England was, and with variations still is, the famous plum pudding. It was bound up in a cloth, boiled on Christmas morning, and served with great ceremony, often saturated with alcohol and set aflame while being borne into the dining room. The name dates from the end of the seventeenth century. Before that time it was called "hackin" because its ingredients were hacked or chopped before being mixed into the pie."
Christmas has always been a favorite occasion for drinking, especially so in recent times, when hard liquor often replaces the sweet ciders and light wines of more temperate days. The Latin nations enjoyed, and still do, their customary wine with the Christmas meal. In northern Europe, beer was a favorite drink; in England, ale.
A Christmas drink peculiar to the English was the "wassail," always served in a large bowl. The word comes from the Old Saxon and used to be a drinker's greeting (Was haile: Your Health). It usually consisted of ale, roasted apples, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, and was drunk while hot. From this custom of drinking the wassail, the English derived the word wassailing for any kind of Christmas revels accompanied by drinking.
It was not until the eighteenth century that the mild wassail drink was gradually supplanted by a punch made of stronger spirits. The punch bowl finally replaced the wassail bowl and is now a popular feature of the Christmas celebration in many homes. Another traditional English drink was "Lamb's wool," made of ale and the juice of roasted apples, heated, and spiced with nutmeg.