HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
Christmas Tree—by Elesha Coffman in Christian History
Riga, Latvia, claims to have been the site of the first decorated evergreen, which was displayed in the town market in 1510. Why Latvia? Riga’s Web site offers this explanation:
“In the 7th century a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, went to Germany to teach the Word of God. He did many good works there, and spent much time in Thuringia, an area which was to become the cradle of the Christmas Decoration Industry.
“Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the Fir Tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The converted people began to revere the Fir tree as God’s Tree, as they had previously revered the Oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity.
“The first decorated tree was at Riga in Latvia, in 1510.”
The monk was Boniface (680-754), but he worked almost exclusively in Germany, so I’m not sure of the Latvian connection. The Riga story also makes no mention of what the 1510 tree was decorated with.
The person more commonly credited with bedecking the first Christmas tree is Martin Luther (1483-1546). Supposedly, while he was walking outside one night, he was so inspired by the stars twinkling through the trees that he cut down a tree and decorated it with candles, to recreate the outdoor effect. No contemporary record of this event exists, so it may never have happened, but if it did, that makes candles the most traditional ornament of all. (Note: Christian History does not recommend exposing trees to open flame.)
Christmas greenery–by Elesha Coffman Christian History
The wreath seems to represent a convergence of two lines of tradition. On one side, it’s probably related to circlets worn on the head. In cultures of the ancient Persian Empire, nobles wore diadems of fabric and sometimes jewels, and Greeks rewarded Olympic victors and other high achievers with laurel crowns. It’s unclear how such headgear was transformed into wall decor, but perhaps people just hung their crowns up as souvenirs. Neither Christmas nor Advent wreaths are worn as headbands, though for the Swedish festival of St. Lucia, on December 13, the family’s eldest daughter wears a headpiece decorated with greenery and nine lighted candles.
Though early Roman Christians used laurel in their Christmas decorations because it symbolized victory, glory, and cleansing from guilt, Europeans largely favored evergreens. This shows the modern wreath’s other heritage: German and Celtic solstice festivities. In cold, northern climates, people latched onto anything that represented light and life against darkness and despair. As a result, their favorite winter symbols included torches (analagous to Advent candles) and plants that stayed green all year. A wreath with burning candles, then, is related to the Yule log—a good-luck charm held over from the 12-day Norse winter festival of Jol. Christmas candles may also be related to Hanukkah candles, as both of the nearly concurrent observances celebrate holy light.
Though wreaths have no direct connection to Christ’s crown, holly does. European Christians in the Middle Ages said that its prickly leaves and red berries represented thorns and drops of blood. Some also believed that the cross was made of holly, though others believed it was made of oak. Holly used in Christmas decorations was often kept after the holiday for protection—against witchcraft in England and against lightning in Germany.
Decorative mistletoe, too, usually lasted beyond the Christmas season, until Candlemas (February 2) or even until the next year, when a new sprig took its place. The kissing tradition stems from an old Scandanavian custom whereby enemies who met under mistletoe in the forest would lay down their weapons and maintain a truce until the next day. Mistletoe is usually excluded from church decorations, for the obvious reason, but also because the plant was worshiped by Druids, who believed it could cure all diseases.
Perhaps the only Christmas plant without pagan superstitions attached to is the poinsettia. Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the American ambassador to Mexico, brought the flower to this country in 1829. Mexicans call it the “flower of Holy Night” because its red bracts (they’re not petals) make a shape like the Star of Bethlehem. According to a Mexican legend, long ago a poor boy was afraid to enter the church on Christmas Eve because he had no gift to bring the baby Jesus. In prayer, the boy told God that he really wanted to bring a gift but could not afford one. When the boy opened his eyes, a poinsettia bloomed at his feet. He joyfully brought the plant inside, an act that might relate to the practice in many churches of decking the altar with poinsettias.
Why December 25? By by Elesha Coffman Christian History.
It’s very tough for us North Americans to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging to Bethlehem in anything but, as Christina Rosetti memorably described it, “the bleak mid-winter,” surrounded by “snow on snow on snow.” To us, Christmas and December are inseparable. But for the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn’t in December—or on the calendar anywhere.
If observed at all, the celebration of Christ’s birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church’s earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Origen (c.185-c.254) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.
Not all of Origen’s contemporaries agreed that Christ’s birthday shouldn’t be celebrated, and some began to speculate on the date (actual records were apparently long lost). Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ’s birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day.
The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen’s concern about pagan gods and the church’s identification of God’s son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.
Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ’s birth and his baptism. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25, celebrating Christ’s birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6. Incidentally, the Western church does celebrate Epiphany on January 6, but as the arrival date of the Magi rather than as the date of Christ’s baptism.
Another wrinkle was added in the sixteenth century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most—but not all—of the Christian world now agrees on the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date.
The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday. “It’s just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow,” naysayers argue. But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted in 320, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”
Santa Claus—by Ted Olson—Christian History
December 6 marks Saint Nicholas Day, and I thought I’d mark the beginning of the Christmas season by telling the story of Santa Claus’s namesake. But before I do, I should remark that, historically speaking, there’s not much we really know about Nicholas. Though he’s one of the most popular saints in the Greek and Latin churches, his existence isn’t attested by any historical document. All we can say is that he was probably the bishop of Myra (near modern Finike, Turkey) sometime in the 300s.
That said, there are of course many legends about Nicholas, and since these have influenced people throughout history, and they likely illustrate something about the historical man, they are fair game for a publication, like ours, devoted to Christian history.
Supposedly, Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in Patara, Lycia. His parents died, and he inherited a considerable sum of money, but he kept none of it. In the most famous story about his life, he threw bags of gold through the windows of three girls about to be forced into lives of prostitution. At least that’s the most common version of the story; there are others, including an excessively grim one where the three girls are beheaded by an innkeeper and pickled in a tub of brine until Nicholas resurrects them.
After a couple of miracles (he’s sometimes called Nicholas the Wonder-Worker) performed while he was still a boy, Nicholas was chosen by the people of Myra to be their new bishop. But it wasn’t long before Diocletian and Maximian began their persecutions of Christians, and the new bishop was imprisoned.
When Constantine became emperor, Nicholas was released with countless others and returned to his preaching only to find a new threat: Arianism. According to one biographer (writing five centuries after Nicholas’s death), “Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison.” Other biographers claim Nicholas attacked the heresy of Arius (who denied the full divinity of Christ) in a much more personal way—he traveled to the Council of Nicea and slapped Arius in the face! As the story goes (and this should be taken as fantasy because there are pretty good records of the council, and Nicholas isn’t mentioned), the other bishops at Nicea were shocked at such rude behavior and relieved him as bishop. But then Jesus and Mary appeared next to him, and they quickly recanted.
That’s the questionable legend of Nicholas. But not the end of the story. Even by the reign of Justinian (d. 565), Nicholas was famous, and the emperor dedicated a church in Constantinople to him. By the 900s, a Greek wrote, “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection.” The West became even more interested when his “relics” were taken from Myra to Bari, Italy, on May 9, 1087. He’s said to have been represented by medieval artists more frequently than any saint but Mary, and nearly 400 churches were dedicated in his honor in England alone during the late Middle Ages.
With such a popularity, his legends inevitably became intertwined with others. In Germanic countries, it sometimes became hard to tell where the legend of Nicholas began and that of Woden (or Odin) ended. Somewhere along the line, probably tied to the gold-giving story, people began giving presents in his name on his feast day. When the Reformation came along, his following disappeared in all the Protestant countries except Holland, where his legend continued as Sinterklass. Martin Luther, for example, replaced this bearer of gifts with the Christ Child, or, in German, Christkindl. Over the years, that became repronounced Kriss Kringle, and ironically is now considered another name for Santa Claus.
Christmas Carols—by Elesha Coffman–Christian History
The American Civil War sparked revival on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Between 100,000 and 200,000 Union soldiers reportedly converted to Christ, as did approximately 150,000 Confederates. Many soldiers’ quarters featured chapels, and it was during this conflict that military chaplains became common. During the fall of 1863 and the winter of 1864 alone, some 7,000 of Robert E. Lee’s troops became Christians.
The same era saw a flurry of hymn-writing and carol-writing, especially in the North. In 1849, with the Mexican-American war just over and smaller skirmishes (between settlers and American Indians and between slavery-supporters and abolitionists) igniting across the frontier, Edmund Hamilton Sears expressed a longing for peace in “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” Sears, a New Englander, was not directly involved in these battles, but as a pastor and Christian journalist, he had cause to comment on them.
As scholar Alfred Edward Bailey noted in his 1950 classic The Gospel in Hymns, Sears’s carol specifically emphasizes the social significance of the Christmas angels’ message. Sears writes of a “weary world,” with “sad and lowly plains” where “Babel sounds” echo. He laments “two thousand years of wrong” and the fact that “man, at war with man, hears not / the love song which they [the angels] bring.” The carol’s last stanza anticipates the day “when peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendors fling.”
Instead of peace, the 15 years following Sears’s song saw unprecedented strife. The ravages of the war directly inspired another carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which was penned by Maine native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1862. The sadness of this song reflects Longfellow’s grief over the 1861 death of his second wife (burned to death at home when candles ignited her clothing), his bitter opposition to the war, and the sorrow of his son Charles having been gravely injured in battle. The poet’s staunch Yankee views also show through in the original version of the text, from which three particularly partisan stanzas were dropped when the poem was set to music in 1872.
The excised stanzas include such lines as “Then from each black, accursed mouth / The cannon thundered in the South” and “It was as if an earthquake rent / The hearth-stones of a continent.” Retained, however, were the following two poignant passages:
“‘There is not peace on earth,’ I said
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men”
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep,
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.'”
Another carol to come out of Civil War experience is “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” by Phillips Brooks. A pastor in Philadelphia during the war, Brooks also ministered to Union soldiers. He called the Emancipation Proclamation “the greatest and most glorious thing our land has ever seen.”
Debate over the date when Brooks his poem continues to this day, and it touches on how closely related the song is to the war and its aftermath. One theory holds that Brooks wrote the text in 1868 and that the stillness in Bethlehem mirrors the stillness in Philadelphia, where a generation of young men had been wiped out. More likely Brooks wrote the text in 1865, during a Christmastime visit to the Holy Land, and he was merely describing Bethlehem as he saw it. At any rate, the words were not set to music until 1868, after which the carol was sung annually by the children’s choir at Brooks’s church. Few people outside the parish knew of the carol until it suddenly appeared in newspapers about a decade later.
If Brooks had visited Bethlehem today, of course, he would have written a very different carol. Thankfully, the “hopes and fears” of even this tragic year are “met” in Jesus Christ.