Christmas Traditions - What's Behind Them?
Do You Know What’s Behind Them?
by Jane L. Fryar
Fiddler on the Roof, among the most beloved musicals of the 20th century, explores the idea of survival in a rapidly changing world. While life may feel as precarious as a “fiddler on the roof,” we can count on two things to pull us through—a sense of joyfulness and our traditions, or so the show’s philosophy goes. In fact, one of the musical’s signature songs carries the title “Tradition.”
We hang traditions on the Christmas season like ornaments on the Christmas tree. If we remain mindful of the meaning they were meant to carry, traditions can enhance our celebration of the Savior’s birth.
Still, no tradition can fully capture the joy of the Incarnation: God became a true human being. He invaded our planet as a tiny baby, born in Bethlehem—a baby who would grow up to die for your sins and mine. A baby who was born to save the world! As you give gifts, decorate trees, and spend time with friends and family, may the Holy Spirit fill your heart with joy—joy that lasts!
Here are a few of the historical details behind common Christmas traditions. Perhaps they will help enhance your celebration of our Savior’s birthday.
Was Jesus Born on December 25th?
Scholars doubt that Jesus was born in December for several reasons. Luke tells us that shepherds were out in the fields at night, watching their flocks. This usually happened only in springtime, during the lambing season. Knowing this custom leads us to place Jesus’ birth in spring rather than winter.
According to Old Testament law, the Passover lamb had to be a year old. Thus, the lambs slaughtered for one Passover festival were those born during the prior year’s festival. This led to a Jewish legend that the Passover Lamb—Messiah—would be born during the Passover festival. Passover always occurs in Abib, the first month of the Jewish calendar, our March or April.
Christians, then, likely came to celebrate Jesus’ birth in December for reasons other than historical accuracy. Their reason? They were counteracting the influences of paganism.
Ancient peoples throughout the Northern Hemisphere celebrated rebirth festivals during the winter solstice, around December 22nd. They would light bonfires to welcome back the sun god as the days began to lengthen ever so slightly during the dead of winter. Roman Emperor Aurelian even proclaimed Mithraism—worship of the invincible sun god—the official state religion in the early 300s. The Mithraic cult, which had originated in Persia, threatened Christianity. In order to fight the Mithraic festival and other pagan midwinter festivals, churches throughout Europe began to observe “Christ’s Mass” on December 25th.
By a.d. 337, the celebration of Christmas on December 25th had been firmly established. In that year, Emperor Constantine was baptized on Christmas Day. By a.d. 354, Bishop Liberius of Rome was encouraging Christians to celebrate Christ’s birth in the dead of winter.
Why Christmas Trees?
The influence of paganism also helps to explain why Christians decorate with evergreen trees and also with holly, ivy, and mistletoe. All had been used to celebrate midwinter solstice festivals. Because these plants stay green throughout the winter, they came to symbolize the hope and new life of spring.
In the Middle Ages, the Eastern Church observed the feast day for Adam and Eve on December 24th. To celebrate, they presented paradise plays. Apples, symbolic of sin, were hung on fir trees as scenery for these plays. After God banished Adam and Eve from Eden in the script, he followed up immediately with the promise to send a Savior—just as Genesis 3:15 records.
Abuses led the church to put an end to paradise plays, but not before families across the former Roman Empire adopted the idea of bringing paradise trees into their homes on December 24th.
Germans hung fruits and nuts on the tree to symbolize sin. They also hung wafers as reminders of Holy Communion. Some families cut the wafers into shapes—stars, bells, angels, and crosses. As the tradition developed, families added small gifts—wooden dolls, candies, and the like. Today, we place Christmas gifts under the tree rather than on it, but the association of Christmas gifts with Christmas trees is nearly universal.
People in different countries decorate their trees in ways that celebrate their culture. The Japanese decorate Christmas trees with origami figures of cranes. Brightly painted wood figures appear on Christmas trees in Sweden.
Many German legends promoted the popularity of the Christmas tree. In the eighth century, St. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans, prevented a group of pagans from sacrificing a young boy under an oak tree. Boniface supposedly felled the oak tree, and a fir tree grew up in its place. He taught that this tree symbolized the Christ Child. Still another legend says that reformer Dr. Martin Luther brought a fir tree into his home and placed lighted candles on it to show his wife and children the beauty of stars in the night sky at Bethlehem.
What About Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus)?
While traditions vary from culture to culture, most Christians (and those who grow up in a predominately Christian culture) give gifts at Christmastime. This tradition probably stems back to the Magi who came to worship the Christ Child and to give him gifts—not because it was his birthday, but because he was a king and they wanted to pay him homage.
Santa Claus, St. Nick, Father Christmas, and Father Frost are all similar figures, all playing varying roles in various cultures. The original St. Nicholas was born in a.d. 270 in Patara, Turkey. He was widely known for his generosity and benevolence. According to legend, he left a Christmastime gift of gold coins for three girls who needed money for their wedding dowries. One legend says he threw the coins through the window, and they landed in the stockings drying by the fire.
The liturgical plays of the Middle Ages often included St. Nicholas as a main character, and as time went on, he became the patron saint of both Russia and Greece. The Dutch called him Sinterklass. Dutch immigrants brought the tradition of a gift-bearing saint to the New World. The poem “The Night before Christmas,” engravings of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly, and the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” all helped to promote Santa’s red suit and other family traditions in many parts of North America.
How Will You Celebrate?
No matter which Christmas traditions you observe, be sure to ask the Holy Spirit to help you see past the glitter of the tree into the branches of the tree. Let those branches remind you of the tree of the cross—the tree on which Christ died to pay the price for your sins and the sins of the whole world. As you light Christmas candles and Advent wreaths, remember that you are celebrating Jesus, the Light of the World, who dissolved sin’s darkness for all time.
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