One of the blessings of the years our family spent in Indonesia was that we lived as a Christian minority. The blessing in this became evident at the time of major Christian holidays, like Christmas. There were no cultural distractions to have to explain or avoid. Rather, Christmas was what we made it. We could introduce our own traditions and values without having the distractions from the society around us.
Today we live in America once again and are confronted with all of the Christmas traditions that go with the holiday season. Perhaps like me, you’ve wondered where all of these traditions came from. Here’s some background to help with giving some new (old?) meaning to these seasonal traditions.
December 25 – The Day of Jesus’ Birth
In ancient times birthdays were celebrated only by kings and royalty. It was not customary to record the specific date of an individual’s birth. Being unsure of the exact date of Jesus’ birth, many dates began to be observed as Christianity spread from country to country.
Bishop Hippolytus calculated the birth of Jesus to be December 25 in 235 AD. Emperor Constantine ordered the celebration of Christmas in 320 AD. Since 400 AD Christendom has accepted this date as the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.
Christmas was first celebrated in America in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. In 1836 Alabama became the first state to establish Christmas as a legal holiday. Colorado recognized Christmas as a state holiday in 1861.
St. Nicholas or Santa Claus
Nicholas was born and raised in Turkey in 280 AD. When Nicholas reached age 19 he entered the priesthood. He became known as the ‘patron saint of children’ because of his habit of leaving unidentified gifts at the homes of needy families. This mysterious donor is called “Father Christmas” in England.
Introduced as “Sinterklass” to America by the Dutch as the patron saint of their colonies or as the English and French said, “Saneta Claas.” In 1809 Washington Irving portrayed a jolly fellow who rode in a sleigh pulled by reindeer; a far cry from the original St. Nicholas. The giving spirit of St. Nicholas should inspire us all.
A candy maker in Indiana wanted to make a candy to celebrate the birth of Jesus, so he made the Christmas Candy Cane. He incorporated several symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus.
He began with a stick of pure white, hard candy. He chose white to symbolize the purity and Virgin Birth of Jesus. He made it in the “J” shape for the name of Jesus. The shape is also that of a shepherd’s staff, to remind us that the Bible calls Jesus the Good Shepherd. The red stripe is to remind us of the blood Christ shed for us when he died on a cross.
Until the Middle Ages there was no congregational singing in Christian churches. Trained choirs sang chants and monotonous songs. After the Christmas services, the church members would often gather in the streets to sing songs about the birth of Jesus, called ‘carola.’ Martin Luther introduced congregational singing to the churches.
“Silent Night” is the most popular Christmas carol. Written on Christmas eve in Obendorf, Austria in 1818 by a priest as he walked in the snow house-to-house inviting his members to the service that evening. Returning to his church, the priest asked the organist to write the melody to the lyrics he had composed on his walk. Sung for the first time at the service that evening, it was sung to guitar as the church organ was broken!
This tradition was borrowed from the non-Christian people of northern Europe and given a new meaning. These people would bring evergreens into their homes during the winter months to remind them of the hope of the coming spring.
Christians adapted this custom and added that the evergreen symbolizes the everlasting life offered through belief in Jesus as our Savior. Trees were set up on Christmas and decorated with lights (candles) to symbolize that Jesus was born on a beautiful, starry night in Bethlehem. Tradition says that Martin Luther was the first to add lights to the decorated tree.
Creche or Manger Scene
Until the 13th century, those that celebrated Christmas generally overlooked the lowly conditions of Jesus’ birth. In 1219, St. Francis of Assisi visited Bethlehem where he was struck by the simplicity of Christ’s birthplace. He was dismayed by the contrast of Jesus’ humble beginnings and the lavish church celebrations of his birth.
St. Francis created a rustic stable scene for midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1223. He used live animals and people portrayed Mary and Joseph, shepherds and the angels.
Long before Christmas trees were a part of the common Christmas traditions, stockings were hung in anticipation of the arrival of St. Nicholas. English immigrants brought this custom with them to America.
The original Christmas stockings that were hung were those worn for everyday apparel. They were hung with the hopes of being filled with treats from the visit of St. Nick.
What traditions are a part of your Christmas celebrations? What values are you communicating as you celebrate? Perhaps you can lead your family or your friends in remembering the true reason for the season as you reflect upon some of these established traditions. MERRY CHRISTMAS!