Christmas Customs

An Introduction

Have you ever wondered about the origin of that jolly old elf we call "Santa"? Is he really Saint Nicholas? Maybe you've been wondering whether the Christmas tree is really an ancient Christian symbol of eternal life.

Year after year, the celebration of Christmas brings to our minds the birth of the Saviour of the world. We commemorate with joy the journey of Our Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph to the town of Bethlehem and the vision of the myriad angels appearing to the shepherds who are watching over their sheep. The angel's message tells of the Long-Expected One: "Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy; for this day is born to you a Saviour." We see the child lying in the manger. In our imaginations we also picture the three Magi, who have come to worship the Christ, the King of Kings.

At midnight Mass throughout the world, altars glow with the light of candles, and the joyful hymns of Christmas sing of the mystery of Bethlehem. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we adore once again the same Presence of Christ who was born 2,000 years ago in a humble stable. Millions of people throughout the world kneel to receive this same Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

This is truly a "Catholic" Christmas. The feast of Christmas, however, has come to be universally observed with many and varied customs and celebrations. This has not always been the case. For example, in the early history of the United States, where Catholics were ridiculed and hated, the celebration of the birth of Christ was forbidden by law. It may be helpful for us to look at the history of this feast, the Catholic customs and practices, and some of the customs that have their roots in our pagan past.

History of the Feast

You might be surprised to know the feast of Christmas was not celebrated at all for the first three centuries of the Catholic Church. This is surprising when we see with what solemnity it is celebrated today. The fact is, the feast of our Saviour's birth was not given the same importance then as it is now. There is no mention of this celebration in the early Church, not even in the oldest lists of feasts.

It seems Epiphany, which commemorates the day Christ was manifested to the gentile world, was the major feast around the celebration of the birth of ChriSaint Where the Nativity was celebrated in the Church, it was generally combined with this feast of the visitation of the Magi.

The day we honor Christ's birth is not of pagan origin as some wrongly believe. In the middle of the fourth century, Catholics of the Latin rite began celebrating the festival of Christmas on the 25th of December, as ancient tradition assigned this as the true date of Christ's birth. In the beginning, this was not, however, universally accepted. Saint Clement of Alexandria, for instance, quotes some who placed it on the twentieth of April or the twentieth of May.

The actual birth of Christ is now celebrated continously, as it were, from December 25th to January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany. The celebration of Our Lord's Nativity continues in a minor key until February 2nd, on which day is held the feast of the presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem.

The Vigil of Christmas

The vigil which preceeded Christmas was always solemnly kept in the Church until recent times. At one time nearly all the greater feasts of the Church were celebrated with a vigil the night before. It consisted in the recitation of the Divine Office at stated hours and the faithful were encouraged to be present at these services. Catholics were also required to fast and abstain the night before. After Vatican II, almost the entire system of fasting and abstinence was eliminated, but it used to be that the vigil of Christmas was one of the few days where a dispensation for working people and their familied to use meat was not in force. It was a day of fasting for some, and of abstinence for all, unless grave reasons prevented it. Traditional Catholics should keep up this practice in the family.

The Name of Christmas

Why do we call this day Christmas? This shows us the Catholic origins of this feast . Christmas is "Christ's Mass." How many of the non-Catholics who celebrate this holiday realize it is a Catholic feast and the very name "Christmas" refers to the central act of worship in the Catholic Church.

The name of Christmas came to us about the year 1038. In the early English of that time it was written as "Christes Maesse"; about a hundred years later it became "Crist-messe"; finally it became "Christmas." Nearly all other languages refer to a word meaning "birthday." In Latin we say, Dies Natalis; in Italian, Il Natale; and the French have given us softened Latin, Noel.

A Catholic Custom

Aside from the celebration of Mass, there are other customs associated with a Catholic Christmas. The Nativity scene (or Christmas creche) is one of the most interesting, and Catholic, of all the decorations of Christmas. In the creche we usually represent the Divine Child Jesus, Our Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, sheep, cattle, etc. Credit for introducing this wonderful tradition is given to Saint Francis of Assisi.

Saint Francis spent the Christmas of 1223 at Grecchio in the valley of Rieti. He told his friends,"I would make a memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with bodily eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by." At the midnight Mass at which Saint Francis was deacon and preached on the Christmas mystery, the peasants came and beheld the lovely Nativity scene. The custom of making a Christmas creche may have been known before this time, but it was the use of the creche by Saint Francis and the Franciscan Order which popularized this devotion throughout the world.

The Nativity scene is sometimes artistic, often common, and occassionally gaudy. Wherever you find a crib, it points to the ever present reality of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

The point must be made that the Church has always encouraged visible signs to teach us religious truths. Statues impress upon us, more forcibly than mere words, mystical realities. It is interesting to see Protestants, who have long criticized the Catholic Church for its use of statues, now taking up the practice of erecting Nativity figures.

The real stable of Bethlehem was a cave which served as a humble shed to shelter animals. If you travel to Bethlehem, you can see the small grotto where our Divine Saviour was born. The common "barn-like" stables we see in crib scenes are sometimes quite lovely, but not very accurate.

In our churches, the creche is a special object of devotion. When you find the Nativity scene, you always find wide-eyed children gazing on the splendor of the representation of that most holy of nights. Our Holy Church reminds us that we should kneel and meditate before the Nativity, filled with a sense of the awe which enraptured the shepherds in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Before the image of the Divine Infant, we offer ourselves to Christ, Who was born for the salvation of the world.

Christmas Carols

The singing of Christmas songs can be dated back as far as the fourth century. The liturgy of the Church has given rise to the greatest music of the western world, and so it was only natural that the Church would write music for Christmas when it began celebrating the feast. In the Middle Ages carols followed the Gregorian tradition, but with the dawn of the Italian Renaissance the music became lighter and more joyful in nature; much like the carols of today. The Church's Christmas music was written in Latin. Many popular vernacular carols we know of are translations of this ancient Christmas music. The French, German, and Italian Catholics have given us many beautiful carols as well. During the penal days of England (1558-1829), Catholics wrote "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as a symbolic means to secretly teach their children the Faith.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

This catechism song was used by English Catholics in the years 1558-1829 to help Catholic children learn and remember the the tenets of their faith during a time when Mass, sacraments, or regular catechism lessons from a priest were forbidden by an act of Parliament and were punishable by imprisonment or death.

The "true love" in the song refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the gifts is every baptized person. The "partridge in the pear tree" is Christ and is symbolic of a mother partridge who will do all in her power to decoy predators from her nestlings. From this mother partridge symbol, English children learned to understand the sacrifice of Christ as they could liken it to the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."

The other symbols of the song are:

The Yule-log, Wreaths, and Christmas Trees

The Yule-log and Christmas tree, common elements in the Christmas celebrations around the world, go back to the days of the pagan Norsemen. The ancient Norse would celebrate the Winter solstice. Part of the celebration was the burning of the Yule-log during the month of Jol (December). This was to help the dying earth regain strength and to give rebirth to the sun. The log was cut from the red oak and burned on Christmas Eve and sometimes Christmas Day. The Yule-log, therefore, is related to the sun worship of the Norsemen.

The Norsemen also used evergreen trees and wreaths to decorate their homes during the month of Jol. It was the month of darkness and the evergreen was a symbol of life beyond the darkness of winter.

During the Middle Ages, when mystery plays were popular, the evergreen tree received new life as a new symbol. During the plays about Adam and Eve, which took place on December 24th, a tree was needed to symbolize the tree in the Garden of Eden. The evergreen was a natual choice for a garden tree during this winter festival, and it was decorated with apples symbolizing the forbidden fruit. People gradually began setting up these "Paradise trees" in their homes on Christmas Eve, often with little figures of Adam and Eve and the serpent under it. Gradually, small wafers symbolizing the Blessed Sacrament were put on the tree. Still later, paper roses were added to symbolize the Blessed Mother.

The Catholic Church historically banned the festive use of evergreens by Christians because of the pagan association with the pre-Christian use of the trees. After the Protestant Revolt of the 16th century, the Lutherans wanted to claim a Christmas tradition of their own. The result was the legend of Martin Luther putting lights on the Christmas tree to teach his son that Christ was the light of the world.

No, Virginia, There is No Santa Claus

It was also Norse mythology which gave us Santa Claus, that mysterious benefactor of children. He existed long before Catholicism had attributed his virtues to Saint Nicholas. In Norse mythology, the god Woden rode through the sky in a chariot pulled by flying goats. Sound familiar? He was said to descend upon the earth each winter between December 25th and January 6th to bless mankind.

The Morality of the Santa Lie

Is telling children there really is a Santa a lie? Yes, it is; and lying is a sin. As Catholic moral theology teaches us, a jocose lie is truly a lie if the person hearing it believes it to be true. Certainly children really DO believe in Santa when their parents tell them this mysterious man brings them presents on Christmas. Do not fool yourself! Santa is not Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas is in heaven and he certainly does not visit the homes of Christians on the night before Christmas. Traditional Catholic parents should not tell their children there is a Santa. We must not commit willful venial sins in the name of the "spirit of Santa."

A Conclusion

Catholics know the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass is the most important aspect of this day, while the Christmas creche is our dearest Christmas custom. We have come to see that although many of our domestic Christmas customs are pagan in origin, they have been christianized, at least so far as they promote a spirit of Christ-like love of our neighbor. Many other Christmas customs have come and gone, but the living reality of the joy and wonder of the Incarnation will always continue.

Have a Blessed and Holy Christmas!

Salve Regina Catholic Books