Christmas Traditions

Comments (20)

advent ... angels ... boxing day ... candy canes ... christmas cards ...
december 25 as christmas day ... the christmas star ... christmas trees ...
holly ... manger ... mistletoe ... poinsettias ... santa claus (st. nicholas) ...
twelve days of christmas ... yule log ... .

The Christmas season begins with Advent, which means " the coming. " As early as 400 a.d. the Christian church set aside time for personal examination and repentance, a time to slow down and take stock of the things that matter most. The Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas. Christians prepare their hearts to celebrate Jesus' birth during this time.
The advent wreath is made of evergreen branches and holds four candles. These candles reflect the hope, joy, peace and love that Christ offers those who follow him. The first three are generally red or purple. Purple dyes were once very rare and so became associated with royalty; the purple candles symbolize the hope, peace and love that come from a relationship with Christ the King. The fourth candle is generally white, to reflect the purity of this King; Christians believe he never sinned.

Angel means messenger of God. Angels often came as messengers of important events in the Bible. They warned of danger in the Old Testament and shared God's plans in the New. The angel Gabriel told Mary and Joseph that they were going to have a baby and that they should name him Jesus. Other angels proclaimed Jesus' birth to shepherds outside Bethlehem. A crowd of angels sang the first Christmas carol - Gloria in excelsis Deo, which means Glory to God in the Highest. We place angels on top of our Christmas trees as a reminder of this.
The Bible says that angels rejoice whenever someone acknowledges God's authority over their life and admits they've failed to keep God's law. Scripture says that when people die who have become reconciled with God, angels will escort them into his presence.

Boxing Day
In English-speaking countries, the day following Christmas is called Boxing Day. This word comes from the custom in the Middle Ages in which churches would open the boxes in which people had placed gifts of money and distribute the contents to poor people in the neighborhood on the day after Christmas. The tradition continues today in many countries.

Candy Canes
When Christmas trees became popular at Christmas time, people needed decorations for them. Food items were popular, especially cookies and candy. Straight white sticks of candy came into use during the 17th Century.
Tradition says that in 1670, the music director the Cologne Cathedral passed out sugar sticks to keep his singers quiet during the Christmas Eve service. He had the candies bent to resemble shepherds' crooks. This also formed the letter J, which points back to Jesus.
It wasn't until the early 20th century that red stripes and peppermint flavor were added to candy canes. The peppermint flavor points to hyssop, a mint used in the Old Testament for purification. Hyssop was used to paint the Israelites' door frames with lamb's blood on the night of the first Passover. The red stripes point to the blood Jesus shed at the cross to win forgiveness for our sins.

Christmas Cards
In 1822 the postmaster of Washington, D.C. complained that he had to add 16 workers each season to deal with Christmas cards. He wanted a law that would limit the number of cards a person could send. " I don't know what we'll do if this keeps up, " he wrote.
Two billion Christmas cards are exchanged each year in the U.S. today.
The custom of sending cards probably began with English Christmas pieces. Grade-school students would write messages to their parents on sheets of paper that were decorated with holiday designs. These showed how well their handwriting had improved during the year.
Christmas cards extend the gift-giving season to the weeks before and after Christmas. A display of Christmas cards makes a bright and colorful decoration, and every card is a reminder of someone who cares for you.

December 25 as Christmas Day
Christmas celebrates the time when God sent his son to earth. The Bible gives no date for Jesus' birth, or even the year. Since the 4th century the church has accepted December 25 as the date. The original celebration of this event involved a simple church service, but over time a large number of traditions have been absorbed into the celebration.
Christmas was first celebrated in America in 1607. It was outlawed in Puritan-influenced New England into the 19th century and treated as a normal workday - children went to school and businesses were open regular hours. Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday, in 1836.
The use of the shortened form " Xmas " is nearly as old as the Christian church. It comes from the Greek letter chi (X), the first letter of Christ's name in Greek. This abbreviation was never intended to insult Christ or cheapen Christmas - it's simply a leftover influence of an ancient language.

The Christmas Star
We place a star on our Christmas tree today to symbolize the light God brought into the world. A star also guided the first worshippers to Christ: Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, " Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him " (Matthew 2:1 - 2).
No one but the Magi seem to have noticed this strange star, yet they followed it for many miles and quite some time. God invites people to follow him and change the course of their life to this day.

Christmas Trees
Tradition says that as Martin Luther was walking through the forest one Christmas Eve he was struck by the beauty of millions of stars glimmering through the evergreens. He brought one of the trees home and placed candles on all its branches to share that beauty with his family. Evergreen branches came to symbolize the everlasting life offered through belief in Jesus. These branches stayed green through long winters when other plants appeared dead and bare.
The Christmas tree custom soon became popular in other parts of Europe. Charles Dickens described a tree decorated with dolls, miniature furniture, small musical instruments, costume jewelry, toy guns and swords, fruit and candy.
Three years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, one of his employees introduced Christmas tree lights. Brightly lit trees soon began to appear across America. In 1923 Calvin Coolidge lit the first outdoor Christmas tree at the White House.

Early followers of Christ decorated their homes with holly to avoid being persecuted by members of a popular Roman god, which used holly in their celebrations. As their numbers increased, holly lost its pagan association. The sharply pointed leaves came to symbolize the thorns Christ wore when he was killed, and the red berries drops of his blood. Followers of Christ believe the blood he shed on the cross can bring peace between them and God.
The bright colors of the holly made it a natural symbol of rebirth and life in the drab winters of northern Europe. The English put a sprig of holly on their bedposts to bring sweet dreams, which explains " decking the halls with boughs of holly. "

In 1219, Francis of Assisi visited Bethlehem and was struck by the simplicity of Christ's birth place. The contrast between Jesus' humble beginnings and the church's lavish celebrations of his birth made him rethink some of his beliefs. He began to emphasize the humanity and humility of Christ. Four years later he created a rustic stable scene for his Christmas Eve service.
People who follow Jesus believe that it was God's plan for a young couple, far from home, to give birth to the Son of God in a crude manger to show that Jesus came as a humble, poor person and not as a strong, rich king. " Jesus, being in very nature God, made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6 - 8)."

The small berries of the mistletoe plant became an early symbol of the eternal life God offers. Even when the forests it grew in were covered with snow, the mistletoe continued to bloom and offer its medicine to anyone who needed it. Families often decorated their doorways with small sprigs of the plant.
Until the introduction of the Christmas tree, mistletoe was the main piece of greenery at Christmas time. This decoration was made with evergreen boughs, holly and ivy. Apples and pears or ribbons and ornaments hung from it, with lighted candles and a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the center.
The custom of kissing under a bit of mistletoe originated in England. Couples kissed beneath its leaves to reaffirm their marriage commitment. One berry was plucked from the sprig after each kiss. The bare sprigs were kept as a testimony to the couples' vows.

Poinsettias originally came to the United States from Mexico. Legend has it that the poinsettia originated through a miracle: having nothing to offer Christ on his birthday, a poor child gathered weeds into a bouquet. As he approached the altar, the weeds changed into the bright red blooms of the poinsettia. These colorful leaves became known as Flowers of the Holy Night and represent the Star of Bethlehem that the wise men followed.
Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought the poinsettia to the United States in 1829. The plant was soon renamed in his honor. By the time of his death, the poinsettia's flaming red color had established its connection with Christmas. Today it's the most popular flowering potted plant in the U.S.

Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey in 280 a.d. At 19 he became a priest. After his death his habit of leaving gifts at the homes of needy families caused his reputation to spread around the world.
The most famous story about St. Nicholas tells how he helped three sisters who couldn't afford the dowries they needed to get married. When the first daughter was ready to marry Nicholas tossed a bag of gold into her family's house at night. He did the same for the second daughter. When the third girl prepared to marry, her father decided to find out who had been so generous to his children. He saw Nicholas drop the third bag down the chimney. Nicholas begged him to keep the secret, but the news got out. After that, whenever anyone received an unexpected gift, they thanked Nicholas.
Long before other symbols became a part of the common Christmas traditions, stockings were hung in anticipation of the arrival of St. Nicholas. The original Christmas stockings were everyday socks that people wore. They hung them by their fireplaces in the hope that St. Nick would fill them with treats. Decorated stockings replaced these in the 20th century.

Saint Nicholas became known more commonly as Santa Claus as his name was translated into other languages. In Europe he made his rounds in red and white bishop's robes, including a twin-peaked miter and crooked staff. He was followed by a plodding donkey that carried his gifts. He passed these out on his birthday, December 6. His gifts were modest by today's standards: fruit, nuts and hard candies.
Santa put on weight when he came to America. The original St. Nicholas was a tall, slender, elegant bishop. In 1809 Washington Irving described him as a plump and jolly Dutchman.
On Christmas Eve, 1822, a theology professor named Clement Clarke Moore published a poem commonly known by its first line, " Twas the night before Christmas ... . " Moore gave Santa Claus eight reindeer and dressed him in brown fur. Between 1863 and 1886, Harper's Weekly ran a series of engravings by Thomas Nast. From these images came Santa's workshop, Santa reading letters and Santa checking his list twice. A department store in Massachusetts was the first to hire someone to play Santa, a Scottish immigrant with a white beard and hearty laugh. By the early 20th Century, stores all across America were hiring Santas.

Giving gifts at Christmas reflects the gift that God gave in Jesus. The tradition of exchanging gifts further developed with the gifts the wise men brought Jesus: On coming to the house, the Magi saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Twelve Days of Christmas
The 12 days of Christmas are the days between Christmas and Epiphany, on January 6. Each day was traditionally noted by generous giving. In the past, there was a tradition of giving gifts throughout the 12 days, rather than passing them all out on Christmas.
Epiphany is the traditional end of the Christmas holiday and is the date on which many people take down their Christmas tree and decorations. It commemorates the day when the wise men first saw the glory of God's son.
Although the origins of the song " The Twelve Days of Christmas " are not known, it possibly began as a game for the Epiphany season in which the leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse and so on until one of the players made a mistake. This player would then have to pay a penalty, such as a offering up a sweet.
" The Twelve Days of Christmas " is unique among Christmas carols in being entirely about getting gifts and having nothing else to do with the season.

Yule Log
The yule log was a large log used as the foundation for holiday fires. As recently as the 19th century, bringing the yule log in was as much a part of the Christmas festivities as putting up a tree. Families carved a heavy oak block, then placed it on the floor of their hearth. It glowed throughout the Christmas season under the flames of household fires, casting light into the early darkness of northern Europe.