The Meaning of Christmas

As the holidays are approaching I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the significance of the traditions that we follow to make the holidays even more meaningful. I was thinking about all of the different traditions that we observe and wondered if people (in general) knew why….tradition for tradition’s sake….is that all? Christmas Trees, wreaths, mistletoe, holly and ivy, St. Nicholas (Santa Claus), The Yule Log…..What’s it all about? What do these things have to do with the birth of Christ? Well, actually nothing….but still we observe–so we might as well know why we do the things we do. There are so many positive aspects to the traditions that we follow so it would be good to know what they are. So–how did it all begin?

This is what I have learned:
[from: http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-christmas-trees
Daniel Parkinson: http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/; http://www.stnicholascenter.org/; http://www.holytrinitynewrochelle.org]

The origin of Christmas differs as the precise date of the birth of Jesus is much debated. Christmas, literally meaning the Mass of Christ, is a traditional holiday in the Christian calendar. The festival of Christmas takes place on 25th December, every year to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is also celebrated as a secular holiday throughout the world, including countries with small Christian populations like India. Various theories of the origin of Christmas exist that give a clear insight into the celebration of Christmas.

The Roots Of Christmas
Christmas is from Christes Maesse, which means Christ Mass. It is referred that during the 4th century, the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 was gradually adopted by most Eastern churches. In Jerusalem, opposition to Christmas lasted longer as according to them the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ is unknown. It is said that December 17-24th was the period of Saturnalia, a well-known festival in pagan, Rome. December 25th was the birthday of Mithra, the Iranian god of light.

The Acceptation
Though the true origin of Christmas is filled with controversy and compromise, today, Christmas has turned out to be one of the most popular festivals that fills joy, happiness and love in people’s lives. The festival of Christmas has absorbed various customs and traditions of the world and 25th December has emerged as the most important day for Christians, irrespective of its roots. It is taken as a day that reflects the power, glory and salvation of Jesus Christ and his message of hope to the world.

How It All Got Started
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return. The ancient Egyptians worshiped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm plants which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death. Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder. Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans. It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims’ second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern observance continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy. In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived. By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling. The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

The 25th of December is associated with the birth of Christ and the celebration of the nativity, but it is also an amalgamation of pagan festivals and traditions dating back before the birth of Christ. To our ancestors the shortest day (21st December) marked the lowest ebb of the year, but it also marked the day when the sun was reborn, gradually growing in strength to the Midsummer Solstice. Many ancient standing stones, stone circles and other monuments are aligned with the winter sunrise on the 21st of December—and are correspondingly aligned to the Midsummer sunrise, highlighting the importance placed on these two dates.

John Leech Yule was the traditional name for the celebrations around the 25th; the festival lasted for twelve days, which are now the twelve days of Christmas. The origin of the word Yule seems to originate from the Anglo Saxon word for sun and light. Most likely regarding the rebirth of the sun from the shortest day. In many places fires or candles were kindled to burn through the twelve days that marked the festivities. Another fire tradition was that of the Yule log, lit from the remains of last year’s log at sunset on the 25th of December. The Yule log was often of Oak or Ash, and the burned remains of it were thought to guard a home against fire and lightning. The ashes were also sprinkled on the surrounding fields to ensure good luck for the coming year’s harvest. The largest remaining part of the log was kept safe to kindle next year’s fire. Fraser in his book ‘The Golden Bough’ suggests that Midwinter was a major fire festival in ancient times, and it is highly probable that the Yule Log was a remnant of that tradition. Many of the symbols of Christmas echo its aspect of rebirth and hope in darkness. Holly was thought to be important because it retains its greenery right through the winter months, and as such is a symbol of summer life in the winter starkness. Holly was the male symbol of this greenery, and Ivy was the feminine, the two often placed together as a symbol of fertility/reproduction at the dark end of the year. There was also a belief that evergreen plants and trees were refuges for the woodland spirits through the winter months. Mistletoe is another plant associated with Christmas; sacred to the druids, its importance can be traced back to Celtic times, although the original reason for their significance is now largely forgotten. In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality), possibly due to a resemblance between the berries and semen. According to Pliny the Elder, the Celts considered it a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison.

The 25th of December was also reputed to be the birthday of the Roman god Mithras and the Greek hero Dionysus. Mithras was known as the unconquered sun, hence his association with the solstice time. Early Christianity adopted the 25th as Christ’s birthday around the 3rd or 4th century AD, as the early scriptures do not record the day of Christ’s birth. This is generally accepted to have been a way of amalgamating Christmas with the older festival of the sun, which was still being observed by the Pagan community. Today Christmas has many other associations and traditions dating back through the centuries, and stemming from different cultures and influences. It has always been a time for celebration and merry making at the dark end of the year.

Father Christmas or Santa Claus is based on St Nicholas who is the patron saint of children, canonized after resurrecting three boys after they had been murdered. He was associated with the giving of gifts to the poor and needy, and was widely famed for his generosity. Over the centuries his image became amalgamated with other archetypes to become Father Christmas. The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time, the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: The Meaning Behind The Song
The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days between Christmas Day, Dec. 25th, the birth of Jesus, and the Epiphany, Jan. 6th, the day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi (Wise Men) and the revelation of Christ as the light of the world. The Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” may sound silly and contrived to many of us. But it actually had its origins in religious symbolism – and with a serious purpose. It dates from a time of religious persecution. The song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was written as a kind of secret catechism that could be sung in public without fear of arrest – a learning or memory aid to Christians in fact. The song can be taken at two levels of interpretation – the surface meaning, or the hidden meaning known only to the Christians involved. Each element is a code word for a religious truth.

1.The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus.
 2. The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments.
 3. Three French hens stand for faith, hope and love.
 4. The four calling birds are the four Gospels.
 5. The five gold rings recall the Hebrew Torah (Law), or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy 6. The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation.
 7. The seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
 8. The eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes.
 [the Eight sayings of Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The word is from the Latin beatus, meaning “blessed,” and each of the Beatitudes begins with the word blessed. They include “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” ] 9. Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. 
10. The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.
 11. Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful Apostles.
 12. Twelve drummers drumming symbolize the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed.

The “true love” in the song refers to God Himself. The “me” receiving the gifts is every Christian So that “silly” song we sing at Christmas time has more meaning than we thought. Who knew…..?

So, as we can see the Christmas holiday has various origins and stems from many different traditions. Even though the evergreen tree, wreaths, the Yule log, mistletoe, etc. don’t really have anything to do with the birth of Jesus I believe that it is good thing to take all of the positive aspects of the holidays and focus on them since many of the “pagan” traditions give acknowledgment to the earth, to the sun, and to life itself. Pagan—or earth-based traditions help us connect to the earth and remind us of our interdependent relationship with the planet. It is quite a shame that this holiday—which is set aside for remembering the birth of Christ has become so commercialized and wrought with so many elements of greed (just the opposite of what Jesus taught). If we can remember the magnanimous spirit of St. Nicholas–and the celebration of the end of the dark season–and the joy of having evergreen trees to bring life into our homes–and what to speak of the gift of Jesus’ birth then we can truly make the most of this holiday season and give it due justice. Feasting and gift giving are wonderful things but when we focus on the getting instead of the giving, the real meaning is lost. When we remember the true meaning of the holiday we can alleviate the stress that comes along with the expectations of its commercial propaganda. Let us remember that it is a wonderful time of year to give to those who are less fortunate and to honor the memory of Jesus by showing real love and compassion to all. So to make this holiday truly meaningful let us put into practice such wonderful qualities and bring the true memory of Jesus to life. Let us share the gift of love and remember those who paved the way to Truth and Light….

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