CHRISTIAN FEASTS AND CUSTOMS
by Francis Weiser (1952)
Christmas Symbols and Customs #2
PLANTS AND FLOWERS
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, harmless popular customs which in themselves were not pagan, but natural, and could be given Christian interpretation.37
The plants used traditionally as Christmas decorations are mostly evergreens: first, because they were the only ones available in the winter season; second, because from ancient times evergreens have been symbolic of eternal life.
The Mistletoe •
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 nappiness, good fortune, fertility, and long life to the lovers who sealed and made known their engagement by a kiss beneath the sacred plant.38
After Britain was converted from paganism to Christianity, the bishops did not allow the mistletoe to be used in churches because 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.39
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 Christ-mas board Shall hang, to the honor of Christ the Lord: For He is the evergreen tree of Life. . . .40
The Holly •
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.41
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 super-stitiously 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.42
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.
The Ivy •
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.43
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.44
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.45 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.
The Rosemary •
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.46
The Cherry •
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 Christmas 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.47
The Poinsettia •
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.48
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 Saviour's birth.49
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 Egley. 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 1868.50
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.51
Present Custom •
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.52
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.
In early centuries, the story of the Nativity was dramatized in churches within the framework of so-called "miracle plays." These semidramatic services consisted in pious representations of the "mystery" of Christ's birth, accompanied by song, prayer, and other acts of devotion. (Mystery, in this connection, is the religious term for any episode of Christ's life related in the Gospels.) In those days, of course, books and pictures were not available to most of the common people, so these plays served not only as acts of worship, but also as a means of religious instruction. They soon became very popular in all Christian countries.53
There is a touching note of childlike piety and devotion in these early church plays, revealing the deeply religious manner in which plays were used to help in divine service. From such beginnings grew that bewildering number of mystery plays which flourished in all parts of Europe from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. As time went on, the plays became more elaborate and covered more details of the Biblical story. Fictional and legendary scenes were added, and the congregation was allowed to take part.54
As a natural, but "unfortunate, result of these changes, many abuses appeared, such as irreverence, comedy, improper behavior of clergy and laymen, sensational effects, and similar aberrations. The authorities of the Church protested against such scandal; but things had gone too far for correction and change. Under the pretext of tradition, the warnings and admonitions of the bishops were ignored or neglected. After all efforts had failed to restore the plays to their original character, the whole institution was gradually suppressed and finally forbidden during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and miracle plays were no longer performed in churches.55
This banishment, however, brought about an indirect blessing. In order to survive outside the church, the plays were purged of their abuses and were able to employ many dramatic effects that formerly had been impossible in church plays. There subsequently developed a rich growth of religious drama, which flourished up to the Reformation and continued to flourish long after in many countries.56 The schools of the Jesuit Fathers were centers of this drama movement until the order was suppressed in 1773."
The restoration of Christmas customs in the last century also brought about a revival of Nativity plays—not the long and tiresome seventeenth and eighteenth-century morality plays, but simple, devotional plays of an earlier type. In fact, these old plays, in simplified form and with certain restrictions, had never ceased to exist in some sections of Germany and Austria, even in churches.
It was from Germany that the Nativity pageant found its way into America. As far as is known, the first such play in this country was performed in the German Catholic church of the Holy Trinity in Boston, Massachusetts, on Christmas 1851.58 The children of the parish, dressed as Oriental shepherds, carrying bundles of food, linen, and other gifts, marched in solemn procession to the crib in front of the altar, singing Christmas carols.
They honored the Divine Child by offering their presents, reciting prayers, and chanting hymns. The parish, priest accepted the offerings, which were afterward distributed to the poor. The children in their Oriental costumes, their hands folded devoutly, left the church in a street procession after the service. This performance attracted such attention and admiration that it had to be repeated twice during Christmas week upon the urgent request of both Catholics and Protestants from all over the city who were anxious to witness the "new" pageant. This procession at Holy Trinity Church, Boston, has been held every year since then, though of late in simplified form, without costumes.
GIFTS AND GIFT-BRINGERS
Christmas Presents •
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.59 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.60
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.61
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.62
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 Christmas Gospel, a prayer before the crib, and the singing of a hymn nnite 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 Nino 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 Chrisikindel (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 Chrisikindel of the immigrants was adopted in the form of Kris Kringle by their fellow countrymen, but was identified with Santa Claus.63
Other Gift-Bringers •
In Rome and other cities of Italy an unusual 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.64
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 unkindness, 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.65
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, however, and thus held no special appeal to the affection of children. A similar figure is the Christmas Man of northern Germany (Knecht Ruppreckt).66
Santa Claus *
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.67 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.68
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.69 Behind the name Santa Claus actually stands the figure of the pagan Germanic god Thor (after whom Thursday is named). Some details 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-Imd" where he had his palace among icebergs. By our pagan forefathers 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.70
Here, then, is the true origin of our "Santa Glaus." 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.71
The fairy tale of Santa Claus will not be abolished easily, despite the efforts of well-meaning people72—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 disappointment 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.
To be continued
SO AGAIN WE SEE THE ADOPTIONS
AND ADDITIONS AND THE MADE UP
RELIGIOUS-ISM TO WORSHIP GOD AND
CHRIST THE WAY THAT SEEMS RIGHT
BUT THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER IS
WE ARE NOT GIVEN THE RIGHT TO
WORSHIP GOD THE WAY THAT SEEMS
RIGHT TO US. JESUS SAID "IN VAIN
DO YOU WORSHIP ME, TEACHING FOR
DOCTRINES THE COMMANDMENTS OF
MEN......YOU MAKE NULL AND VOID
THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD."
JESUS ALSO SAID PEOPLE ARE TO
WORSHIP GOD IN SPIRIT AND IN
TRUTH. AND TRUTH CHRIST SAID WAS
THE WORD OF GOD (JOHN 17:17).
NO WHERE IN GOD'S WORD ARE TO
TOLD TO BUILD A "CHRISTMASS" OF
HIS BIRTH. THIS WAS A ROMAN
CATHOLIC INVENTION AND ADOPTION
FROM THE PAGANS WHO WORSHIPPED
THE SUN AT THE SEASON OF LATE
DECEMBER INTO JANUARY 1ST.
ALL ADDITIONS ADDED THROUGH THE
CENTURIES TO THIS BASIC PAGAN
FESTIVAL, ARE THE IDEAS OF MEN.
WE NEED TO REMEMBER THAT FOR
ABOUT 400 YEARS EVEN THE ROMAN
CATHOLIC CHURCH KNEW NOTHING
ABOUT OBSERVING THE BIRTH OF
CHRIST. THAT ALONE SHOULD TELL
US THE TRUE CHURCH OF GOD NEVER
TAUGHT OR OBSERVED A DAY OR
SEASON FOR THE BIRTH OF JESUS.
WE ARE TOLD IN THE NEW
TESTAMENT TO OBSERVE HIS DEATH,
NOT HIS BIRTH AS A FESTIVAL.
CERTAINLY THERE IS NOTHING
WRONG ABOUT SINGING ABOUT JESUS'
BIRTH, JUST AS WE SING ABOUT ALL
OTHER ASPECTS OF HIS LIFE AND