Copyright 2001, Michael McCann with The Business Cafe. All Rights Reserved.
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As a child growing up in America, I wondered about many of the traditions my relatives engaged in around the Christmas holidays. Shopping for a Christmas tree, lighting Advent candles and passing nativity scenes where there were real live animals in the cold of winter were among the many customs I wanted someone to explain to me. Sit back and relax. Here is a brief background on eleven holiday customs you can share with your family and friends this season.
The Christmas Tree
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, pine trees were used in Europe as part of the miracle plays performed in front of cathedrals at Christmas time. The plays detailed the birth and fall of humanity, its salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ and Christ's promise of redemption. The pine trees, decorated with apples, symbolized the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
Though such plays were later banned by the church, the tradition of this Paradise Tree, or Paradeisbaum, was kept alive in individual homes. People began to decorate the tree with wafers to represent the Eucharist; later these wafers evolved into cookies, cakes and fruit.
As early as 1710, German immigrants from the upper Rhine area may have set up the first Christmas tree in the United States, and certainly the custom was strengthened by the wave of German immigration that started around 1830. This German custom in turn probably sprang from two sources: the Paradise trees of the medieval miracle plays, and the decorated wooden pyramid known as the Weihnachtspyramide.
In ancient times holly was thought to be magical because of its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit in winter. Some believed it contained a syrup that cured coughs; others hung it over their beds to produce good dreams. Holly was a popular Saturnalia gift among the Romans. The Romans later brought holly to England, where it was also considered sacred. In medieval times, holly, along with ivy, became the subject of many Christmas songs. Some of these songs gave the holly and ivy sexual identities (holly is male, ivy female), while other, more religious songs and poems portray the holly berry as a symbol of Christ.
In pagan times ivy was closely associated with Bacchus, the god of wine, and played a big part in all festivals in which he was featured. English tavern keepers eventually adopted ivy as a symbol and featured it on their signs.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on oak and other non-evergreen trees. Although other greenery was also used in pagan festivals, mistletoe was actually worshipped.
Both Druids and Romans considered the plant sacred, as a healing plant and a charm against evil. Mistletoe was thought to be the connection between earth and the heavens, because it grew without roots, as if by magic. Mistletoe was also considered a symbol of peace; warring soldiers who found themselves under mistletoe quickly put down their weapons and made a temporary truce. In a related custom, ancient Britons hung mistletoe in their doorways to keep evil away. Those who entered the house safely were given a welcome kiss. While the custom of kissing under the mistletoe lost popularity in most other countries, it remained popular in England and the United States.
The Advent Wreath
The season of Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas. A season of preparation, it is a solemn time to make ready for the coming of Christ and Christmas. As a way to mark the coming of Christmas, the church will use an Advent Wreath containing five candles. On the first Sunday of Advent one candle is lit; on the second, two, and so on. Finally on Christmas Eve the fifth candle is lit, representing Christ, the light of the world.
The first nativity scene was created at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in 10th century Rome. The custom was soon popular at other churches, each one constructing ornate mangers with gold, silver, jewels and precious stones. Though popular among high society, such opulence was far removed from the original circumstances of Christ's birth, as well as being inaccessible to the poorer masses.
We owe the crèche to St. Francis of Assisi, who revised the gaudier displays of his time. In 1224, St. Francis of Assisi sought to remedy these problems by creating the first manger scene that was true to the Biblical account of Christ's birth. Called a crèche, the scene that St. Francis set up for the village of Greccio was made up of hay, carved figures and live animals, capturing for the uneducated people of the town more of the spirit and the story of Christ's birth than any splendid art treasure.
The popularity of St. Francis's crèche spread throughout the world. In Italy it is called a presepio; in Germany, a Krippe. It is a naciemiento in Spain and Latin America, a jeslicky in the Czech Republic, a pesebre in Brazil, and a portal in Costa Rica.
This German name for the Christ Child originally referred directly to the Holy Infant Jesus himself, who was said to bring gifts to children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Pennsylvania Dutch region on Christmas Eve. (Other forms of the name are Christkindli and Christkindlein.)
Later the name came to stand for the embodiment of the Child's spirit, in angelic form, who brought the gifts in his place. Veiled in white, with gold wings upon his shoulders, he arrives secretly, often through an open window; when he is through with his work, he rings a bell to notify all that the presents have arrived. Over the years the name has evolved to Kris Kringle, but contrary to popular belief, the Christkind is not another form of Santa Claus.
The Lord of Misrule and the Mummers
The Lord of Misrule played a major part in the Christmas festivities of medieval England. This figure was the leader of many holiday activities, but he also had real power, and his whims had to be obeyed by all, even the king. The Lord of Misrule was a strictly secular figure, appointed by the king and the nobility to reign over the twelve days of Christmas. The man chosen for this position, however, was generally wise enough not to abuse his power when dealing with the nobility. Much of the custom surrounding the Lord of Misrule and the mummers had parallels with the Roman Saturnalia, during which masters and slaves changed places.
Out on the streets among the common people, the Lord of Misrule was head of the mummers, a traveling band of rowdy players who roamed the streets in costume performing plays and songs. Though they stuck to the streets for the most part, the
mummers were sometimes known to barge into churches and disrupt the service, an act that did not sit well with church officials.
The mummers, roving street carousers that they were, offered just about anything that would win the attention of passersby. The classic mummer's play has a number of variations, but it always focuses on the death and revival of one of the principals.
Like carolers, mummers would often perform in exchange for gifts, though their performances were often disruptive and sacrilegious. When the Puritans came to power, they did away with the Lord of Misrule and his companions. Though the restored monarchy reinstated most of the Christmas traditions outlawed by the Puritans, the Lord of Misrule remained an outlaw. He and the mummers never again enjoyed the freedom and popularity they had had in medieval England.
The most popular Christmas Mass for Roman Catholics is the midnight Mass, a tradition that began in the early 400s. Midnight Mass is important because tradition holds that Christ was born at midnight.
In Spanish and Latin countries, the midnight Mass is referred to as the Mass of the Rooster, after the legend that says the only time a rooster ever crowed at midnight was at the moment of Christ's birth. The Polish midnight Mass is called Mass Pasterka (Mass of the Shepherds), in commemoration of the shepherds present in accounts of the first Christmas.
The Legend of the Poinsettia
The legend of the plant we now associate so strongly with Christmas arose years ago in Mexico, where it was traditional to leave gifts on an altar for Jesus on Christmas Eve. As the story goes, among a group of worshippers one night was a poor boy that had no present. Upset by his inability to provide a gift, the boy knelt outside the church window and prayed. In the spot, where he knelt there sprung a beautiful plant with vibrant red leaves. In Mexico this plant is called "the Flower of the Holy Night."
The first American ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829), Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, was impressed by the vibrant plant Mexicans called "the Flower of the Holy Night." He brought it to America, where it was subsequently renamed in his honor. Today, Encitas, California, is called the poinsettia capital of the world because of the large number of poinsettias found there.
The Yule Log
The tradition of the Yule log has very deep pagan roots. Celts, Teutons and Druids burned the massive logs in winter ceremonies in celebration of the sun. The selection of each season's Yule log was of the highest importance and surrounded by ceremony, as the log was to start the celebration fires and last for the duration of the winter festival.
In the Christian era, the log was often cut on February 2nd (Candlemas Day), then set outside to dry during the late spring and summer; sometimes it was soaked in spices and decorated with greenery. Often a piece of the previous year's log was used to light the new log. In Scandinavia this saved piece had the additional significance of representing goodwill from Thor. Scandinavians believed that Thor's lightning bolt would not strike burnt wood and that their houses were safe from lightning as long as they had this Yule brand.
When Christianity emerged in Europe, the Yule log remained popular in England and Scandinavia. In order to justify this pagan ritual, church officials gave it a new significance, that of the light that came from Heaven when Christ was born. The log was lit on Christmas Eve and left burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas.
In some parts, of France the Yule log was presented as the source of children's gifts. The log was covered with cloth and brought into the house, where the children whacked it with sticks, beseeching it to bring forth presents. When no presents came, the children were sent outside to confess the sins they had committed that year; when they returned, the log was uncovered, surrounded by gifts.
In the American south, plantation slaves always tried to select the biggest possible Yule log. As long as the log burned, the slaves had to be paid for any work they did.
Changes brought by the Industrial Revolution finally made the Yule log impractical. Few had the time or space for the preparations it required, and the small fireplaces of the city could not accommodate such a massive piece of wood.
If you have any customs or stories about Christmas that you wish to share with me, please e-mail me, Michael McCann, at . In the meantime, happy holidays to you and your family and I'll keep the Yule logs burning.
All comments should be directed to Michael McCann at