Christmas: A Time of Celebration and Tradition
Christmas trees, wreaths, mistletoe, gifts, garland, carols, candles, stars, and bells. These are symbols of Christmas we have known since childhood. Yet they are more than the glitter and fluff of an increasingly commercial holiday. They are direct, symbolic reminders of the true meaning and spirit of the season. Perhaps one reason we tend to forget the true meaning of Christmas is that we fail to remember–and to pass on to our children–the significance of these symbols.
We should be aware of the origins and meanings of a few of these traditions, not so we can wax eloquent at the upcoming holiday parties, but so we can better understand these special weeks of every year. With a better understanding, we may carry the spirit of the season to far flung reaches of the calendar.
Our modern celebration of Christmas is a grand mixture of Christian and pagan customs and ceremonies. The very date of the holiday has more to do with ancient European winter festivals and Roman celebrations than it does the exact birth date of Christ. It should be remembered that for at least the first several hundred years after the crucifixion of Christ, His physical birth was considered of minor importance relative to His baptism and–most significantly–resurrection. The first recorded celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 is in Rome in 354 A.D. Prior to that time, the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated on January 6 and coincided with the supposed date of Christ’s Baptism as well as the feast of the Epiphany or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
The Christmas tree
One obvious question is, “Where did the custom of a ‘Christmas tree’ originate?” It certainly is not mentioned in the Bible. The earliest roots (pun intended) trace back to the Roman custom of decorating buildings with laurel and evergreen trees on the first day of January. This custom was later incorporated into the Christian traditions wherein the evergreen tree symbolizes the eternal life promised by Christ. Later, apparently during the Middle Ages, an additional European belief arose that apple and other fruit trees burst into bloom on Christmas eve. By this time the idea that all evergreen plants–holly, spruce, pine, mistletoe, etc.–were magically symbolic of the eternal life promised by Christ was broadly accepted.
The ideas of evergreens symbolizing Christ and the magical flowering of fruit trees at Christmas eventually merged to produce a brightly decorated evergreen tree. The earliest use of the Christmas tree in the modern sense was in Germany in 1700 or so. Trees were decorated with candles, apples, brightly colored paper roses, and glittering ornaments of gold- or silver-colored nuts and fruits. These early trees were patiently and elaborately decorated behind closed doors and, on Christmas Eve, the tree was revealed in all its glory. This act served as a reminder of the revelation of Christ as the Son of God.
On first consideration, the holiday use of greenery would appear to be a way to carry the symbol of the Christmas tree throughout the home–across the mantle, around the doors, along the banister, trimming the windows, and more. However, decorating homes with evergreens during winter is an ancient European custom, perhaps 2000 years older than the Christmas tree as we know it. During the brown, drab winter months, garland was brought into the home as a reminder of the promise of spring and the continuity of the seasons. Only later did this promise of continued life on earth become a symbol of God’s promise of life after death.
A circle of evergreen boughs has been an end-of-the-year custom for centuries. “Yule,” as in Yuletide and Yule log, means “wheel” in old Anglo-Saxon. The wreath symbolizes the wheel of the year, the continuing cycle of life on earth. A wreath is garland with an added symbol of eternity. Wreaths, for centuries a symbol of continued life and prosperity, is now a Christian reminder of continued spiritual life.
The tradition of mistletoe at Yuletide comes to us from the Druids, ancient mystics of what is now England. Each winter a white-robed Druid climbed a sacred oak and harvested mistletoe with a golden sickle. Mistletoe was believed to have remarkable healing powers and the ability to shield a person from misfortune. In addition, it was believed to assure fertility, and it was from this belief that “kissing under the mistletoe” arose.
The giving of gifts at Christmas is a well-established tradition that is connected to three ideas. Obviously and foremost in the Christian mind, gifts are in remembrance of the gifts of the wise men to the Christ child. In addition, gift giving during the New Year festival, especially gifts of tasty, sweet morsels, is a tradition passed down from ancient Rome. Lastly, the incorporation of St. Nicholas, the gift giver, into our holiday tradition more firmly entrenched the custom. It would now be difficult to imagine Christmas without the exchanging of presents.
Maybe one reason we have lost so much of the true spirit of this special holiday is that we have become observers rather than celebrants; audience rather than performers. Christmas is not a ballet to be viewed but a dance to be joined to the fullest.
Perhaps Christmas can be made more meaningful if you take a few minutes during this busy season and do the following. At some moment, while observing a tree, a gift, a wreath, sprig of holly, or other symbol of Christmas, stop and consider its true message. Then consider that the same message was spoken to your parents and their parents and their parents and on back generation before generation. As you stand there, whether alone in the darkness or in the midst of an office party, consider those past generations, their hopes, fears, and dreams. These are the true ghosts of Christmas. Christmas, more than any other season, is a time to immerse ourselves in these spirits. Not merely to dwell on things past, but to let ourselves understand who we are. Then, renewed with a confidence of who we are meant to be and a clearer picture of our role in family and community, we may re-enter, fully, into the celebration of all things Christmas.
Christmas Traditions Around the World, and how to say “Merry Christmas” in every major language.