by Francis Weiser (1952)

Christmas Symbols and Customs #1


Origin *

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 1877.1

 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 Giovanni 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 bom 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 departed quickly and prepared in the above mentioned place everything 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 neighborhood, as best they could, prepared candles and torches to brighten the night. Finally the Saint of God arrived, found everything prepared, 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 whenever 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.2

The animals in the crib—usually an ass and an ox—although, not mentioned in the Bible, are traditionally now part of the picture.3 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. (1, 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 Habakcuk (3:2) in the Itala version, "In the midst of two animals Thou shalt become known."

The Crib in Folklobe • 

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.4

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.6


Christmas Candle • 

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.7

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 fights a large holly-bedecked candle on Christmas 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 fight often consisted of three individual candles molded together at the base, in honor of the Holy Trinity. In Germany the Christmas 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).s 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.10

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.11

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.12 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.13 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 o£ a tree, carefully selected on the preceding Feast of Candlemas and stored away to dry out during the summer.14 Many popular customs and ceremonies were connected with the Yule log. The unburned parts were put aside and preserved because the new log o£ next year had to be kindled with wood from the old one.15


Yule Teees *

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.16 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.17

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.18 Its origin is due to a combination of two medieval religious symbols: the Paradise tree and the previously described Christmas light.19

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 Saviour and of His Incarnation. For this reason the Paradise play was a favorite pageant in Advent.20

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.21

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.22

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 luturgical 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,2i

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.26 These findings of modern 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.26 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.28 A more detailed 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.30 In the course of the following centuries it slowly became popular, first in southern Germany, then also in the north and east.31 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.32

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.33

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 Shine 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.34

In spite of the official suppression of Christmas in New "England, the custom of the Christmas tree spread. The fact that royalty in England had adopted it did much to make it fashionable 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." 35

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.

Legends • 

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 bad the "first" Christmas tree in America. Such claims can never be truly substantiated, because it will remain impossible to prove that there was no Christmas 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.36

Symbolism • 

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 manufactore 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 Christie-the Light of Christ.


To be continued





























Keith Hunt