Catholic Christmas Traditions

from various sources

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Saint Boniface and The Christmas Tree

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

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

 

The Paradise Tree

There is a very old and charming European custom of decorating a fir tree with apples and small white wafers representing the Holy Eucharist. These wafers were later replaced by little pieces of pastry cut in the shapes of stars, angels, hearts, flowers, and bells. Eventually other cookies were introduced bearing the shapes of men, birds, roosters and other animals.

In the Middle Ages, about the 11th century, religious theater was born. One of the most popular plays, the German mystery play, concerned Adam and Eve, their fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden--from the Early Paradise. The Garden of Eden was represented by a fir tree hung with apples. It represented both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Discernment of Good and Evil which stood in the center of Paradise. The play ended with the prophecy of a coming Savior, and for this reason, this particular play was often enacted during Advent.

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

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

 

A Viking Story

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

 

The Legend of the Pine Tree

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

 

What is the origin of Christmas cards?

The Christmas card is a Victorian creation, which began as a kind of stationery. The first card was produced by Sir Henry Cole who worked for the British Postal Service, and an artist he hired named John Horsley. This early card was a depiction of a Christmas scene framed in three panels. In the center panel was a homey table scene: children, parents and grandparents seated and some raising their glasses for a toast. On either side were panels depicting acts of Christmas charity: to the left, feeding the hungry; to the right, clothing the naked. Underneath appears the now familiar phrase "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You." Actually cards were preceded by "Christmas Pieces" written by school boys in England as greetings to their parents and as proof of their progress in the art of writing.

 

Advent Wreaths

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

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

 

Saint Luke gave us the Christmas Story

Saint Luke is the evangelist, poet, artist, and cantor of the Holy Infancy of the Savior of Mankind. While Luke did not invent the Christmas narrative, he did give us the story of Christmas. For it was Luke and only Luke who searched out and found and preserved a birth story "too humble for prouder historians to touch." The Gospel of Luke has been described by Renan as the most beautiful book in the world, and the opening chapters the most beautiful of all.

The first two chapters of Luke give us the Christmas story. He is the only Evangelist to provide certain information about the conception, infancy, and childhood of Jesus. The events that Luke alone describes include the Annunciation, the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel that Mary had been chosen to be the mother of Christ. These words of Luke are the basis for the "Hail Mary" and the Angelus (Latin for angel). Luke also gives the only Gospel account of the Visitation. One of the most beautiful prayers, the Magnificat, appears in this passage. He is the only Evangelist to describe the presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple according to Jewish custom.

These five events that Luke describes, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple make up the joyful mysteries of the Rosary. It is widely held that one of the people Luke interviewed, perhaps at greater length than any other witness, may have been Mary!, the Mother of Christ.

It was the "beloved physician" who could describe motherhood in all the holiness of our Christmas narratives. It was "he" who had given all his being to the service of others, and who was never to hold a child of his own in his arms, who set down the raptured words: "My soul doth magnify the Lord". Of all four Evangelists, it is Luke who best reveals Jesus the man, friend always of the poor and the downtrodden, comforting even the despairing thief crucified beside Him.

Saint Luke was never married, and lived to be 84 years old. He is venerated as a martyr. According to tradition, he was a skilled artist, and several pictures of Our Blessed Lady, are attributed to his brush. His feast day is celebrated on Oct 18.

 

The "O" Antiphons - A Christmas Novena

A novena is a nine days' prayer said as a preparation for some particular feast, or in order to obtain some special favor. The model and the first of all novenas was that made in the Cenacle, after the Ascension of our Lord, by the Apostles and Blessed Virgin in preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The earliest ecclesiastical novena of which there is record is the Christmas novena, which commemorates the nine months during which the Christ-child was carried in the womb of His Mother. This Novena begins on December 16, ending on December 24.

December 16: "O Shepherd that rulest Israel, Thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep, come to guide and comfort us." (Follow with Our Father, Hail Mary and the Glory Be);

December 17: "O Wisdom that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, that reachest from one end to another, and orderest all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence!" (Our Father, etc.)

December 18: "O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!" (Our Father, etc.)

December 19: "O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry." (Our Father, etc.)

December 20: "O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death." (Our Father,etc.)

December 21: "O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Son of Justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!" (Our Father, etc.)

December 22: "O King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Corner-stone, that makest of two one, come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!" (Our Father, etc.)

December 23: "O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!" (Our Father, etc.)

December 24: "O Thou that sittest upon the cherubim, God of hosts, come, show Thy face, and we shall be saved. " (Our Father, etc.)

(My very old prayer book, dated 1925, states in small print under this Novena: "Indulgence of 300 days, each day....Pius VIII, July 9, 1830)

 

Saint Barbara and the Holy Helpers

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There is a group of fourteen saints known as the "Fourteen Auxiliary Saints" (or Holy Helpers). During times of illness or death, mankind turns to God with prayers and petitions. This was especially true during the 14th century when a plague epidemic caused sudden and painful death throughout Europe. Because death occurred so suddenly, many people missed receiving the final sacraments. In fear, the living sought the intercession of saints known individually for helping with different symptoms of the plague. (Legend has the parents of Saint Nicholas dying from the plague). Thus devotion was established to a group known as the Holy Helpers.

One of these Holy Helpers is Saint Barbara, whose feast is celebrated on December 4. She is often depicted by her tower (in which she was kept prisoner) and the ciborium surmounted by the Sacred Host. She was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. An elaborate legend has her the daughter of a pagan who resisted her father's demands that she marry. She lived in a tower, and during the absence of her father, had three windows built into a bathhouse he was having constructed, to explain the Trinity.

Saint Barbara is invoked against lightning and sudden death. She is the patroness of miners, artillery men, builders, architects, and is also invoked by young unmarried girls to pick the right husband for them. On December 4, unmarried members of the household go into the orchard to cut twigs from the cherry trees, and place them into water. There is an old belief that whoever's cherry twig blossoms on Christmas Day can expect to marry in the following year!

 

The Christmas Rose

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

 

The Legend of Rosemary

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

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

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

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

 

Christmas Gifts

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

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

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

 

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas is actually a catechism song.

Between the years 1558-1829, English Catholics were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Without regular Mass, Sacraments, or Catechism lessons from the priest, there was little parents could do to help their children learn and remember all out their faith. This song was created to keep the Catholic faith in their lives, even though hidden for the time.

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

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

The other symbols continue the symbolism:

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 2 turtle doves----the Old and New Testaments;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 3 French hens--Faith, Hope and Charity;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 4 calling birds---the Four Gospels;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 5 golden rings---the first five books of the Old Testament, which give the history of man's fall from grace;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 6 geese a laying-the six days of creation;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 7 swans a swimming-seven gifts of the Holy Spirit;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 8 maids a milking-the eight Beatitudes;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 9 ladies dancing--nine choirs of angels;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 10 lords a leaping-the Ten Commandments;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 11 pipers piping--the eleven faithful Apostles;
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) 12 drummers drumming-the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed

 

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