You are here

Christmas Traditions

Christmas Traditions
John Sawoski’s 1997 World Wide Web Christmas Special
Wondering where Christmas trees, Christmas cards and waiting up for Santa Claus came from? Is Catholicism a “pagan” religion because it has absorbed non-Christian cultural expressions? Here’s an interesting article from the December 1996 issue of Immaculata Magazine
by Fr. Jude Winkler, OFM Conv.



Christmas is a time for memories and traditions The very sight of a Christmas tree or the sound of a carol can bring a smile to our face. Yet, most of us are troubled by the over-commercialization of this holy feast. Whereas one previously would not see Christmas displays in stores until the day after Thanksgiving, one now often sees them shortly after Labor Day.

How can we recoup the true meaning of Christmas? One of the things we can do is examine our Christmas traditions and ask why we do certain things. These traditions are signs that are supposed to Point to the deeper mystery, the mystery of God’s love for us seen in the birth of the Babe of Bethlehem.

Yet, sometimes we stop at their surface meaning and only speak of how “cute” they are. If we go a bit deeper into their origin and meaning, we will be able to see how profound their meaning can be for us, and we might be able to recapture some of the true meaning of Christmas.

The Date of Christmas

We celebrate Christmas on December 25 each year. Most of us just assume that this was the actual day on which Jesus was born. But this is not the case.

In the Gospel of Luke, we hear that the shepherds were watching their sheep in the fields near Bethlehem. Shepherds would do that in only one season of the year, the spring. That was the season when the ewes gave birth to their lambs, and the shepherds had to be on watch to assist any sheep that was in distress.

This would seem to indicate that Jesus was born sometime during the spring, probably in March. We do not celebrate Christmas in March for a couple of reasons. First, it seems as if no one in the early Church really knew exactly when Jesus was born. People of his times did not celebrate birthdays as we do today; it just was not important.

But as the Faith grew, Christians throughout the Roman Empire wanted to find a day on which every-one could celebrate the birth of Jesus. This was complicated by the fact that it was illegal to be a Christian in those days. The pagans of Rome had a feast around December 25 on which they celebrated the birth of the sun. The shortest day of the year is December 22, and by the 25th one can see the days lengthening (thus, the idea that the sun is bring reborn). Christians decided to use this feast as a fixed date for their celebration of the birth of the true light of the world, Jesus. Thus, they would be celebrating when everyone else was already celebrating and they would not stand out and get in trouble.

This idea that the date of Christmas is somewhat relative can actually be a good meditation for us. It means that we should not isolate the so-called Christmas spirit within a one week period of time. We should always be ready to be filled with the joy of the birth of the child of Bethlehem.


The Christmas Tree

Another of the great traditions of Christmas is the use of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree was first used in Germany in the eighth century AD. St. Boniface, an English priest, had traveled to Germany to convert the pagan tribes there. One day he went into the forest and cut down their sacred oak trees. The Germans were scandalized at what he had done, but he placated them by offering them a small evergreen tree as a sign of their faith. The evergreen never loses its leaves, so it is a sign of the everlasting life that Jesus offers each one of us.

This reminder that the Christmas tree has a deeper meaning could be used in our own family. We could begin and end our Christmas tree decoration sessions with a prayer to make that time sacred so that it does not become just one more chore to accomplish.

The Christmas Crib

Another beautiful Christmas custom is the Christmas crib. In the Gospel of Luke we hear how there was no room in the inn for the Holy Family, so they were forced to stay in a cave where the animals were kept.

In the 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi wanted to celebrate the fact that Jesus would be born in such humble conditions. He gathered his friars and the townsfolk of a small town named Greccio in a cave where they celebrated their Christmas midnight Mass. They even brought animals to re-enact what had happened at the first Christmas, but no one brought a child to play the baby Jesus.

During the Mass, Francis proclaimed the Gospel and his love for Jesus flamed so much that legend says that people in the crowd actually saw him reach down and pick up the baby Jesus who came to life in his arms. Ever since then, the friars have encouraged people to set up manger scenes as part of their Christmas celebration.

The Christmas Season

Christmas was always considered to be too important a feast to celebrate on only one day. The Church has always given the really important feasts an eight day period called an octave during which the celebration would continue.

During the Middle Ages, this period was signaled in a different way. Early in the fall the serfs — the common workers at a castle—would cut down a huge tree and soak the log in water for weeks on end. On Christmas Eve they would light a small fire under the log that they would keep burning until the log was totally consumed. As long as there was part of the log which had not burned, the serfs could continue their celebration of the Christmas feast. This log came to be known as the Yule Log.

Christmas Foods

Special foods have always been a part of the Christmas celebration. People bake cookies and cakes, turkeys and hams, etc. In certain cultures, there are special foods just for this sea-son. In Italy there is a raisin bread cake that people exchange as a Christmas present called pannetone. In Poland, people exchange pieces of bread called oplatek to signify their willingness to for-give whatever wrong might have been committed throughout the year.

This might be a good reminder as we prepare for our Christmas feasts — that we should make our Christmas meal a time of forgiveness. Also, we should invite those to our meals with whom we need to make peace, as well as those who most need our love (for instance, some relative in a nursing home).


Santa Claus

The Santa Claus tradition dates back to the fourth century AD. It is based upon the generosity of St. Nicholas of Smyrna (a city in today’s Turkey). He was famous for aiding those who had no one else to help them.

When the Dutch colonized New York, they brought with them a devotion to St. Nicholas whom they affectionately called Sinter Klaus. They pictured him dressed like a Dutch planter: a little overweight, having a white beard, and wearing a great red overcoat. This figure eventually developed into the Santa Claus we know today.

The problem with the idea of Santa Claus is that our children often receive too many presents on Christmas Day. They evaluate Christmas by how much they receive and not by how much they share. Some parents and grandparents address this problem by buying one or two Presents for the child (or at most three, the number that Jesus received from the Magi). The rest of the money that might have been used for presents goes to the poor in the child’s name, teaching the children an important lesson about sharing their riches with those who have none.

Christmas Cards

The same could be said about our Christmas cards. The first true Christmas card was printed by Henry Cole in England in 1843. The first Christmas card printed in the U.S. was printed in Boston in 1875, and the idea of sending someone a Christmas card became an immediate success.

Today billions of cards are printed and mailed. They often become just one more thing to do before we can relax on Christmas Day. If we use them carefully, they could become a type of apostolate, a reaching out to those who are in need of our love. Jesus’ rule of thumb is important here, for he tells us that we should share our goods with those who cannot repay us, and not only with those who are sure to respond to our generosity with equal generosity (in this case, sending us a card in return). We might consider putting people on our Christmas card list with whom we have either been fighting (as a way of making up), or those who are lonely and in need of an outreach of our love.

Christmas Angels

In recent years, angels have become very popular, and Christmas is a time of angels. The angels proclaimed the good news of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, and they sang “glory to God in the highest” to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Today many decorations, such as the ornament at the top of our Christmas tree and the candle holders on our table, are based upon this image.

The angels invite us to that same Christmas celebration, but like the shepherds we have to be ready to leave what we are doing to travel to the crib. One last piece of Christmas advice is that we not become so busy in our Christmas preparations that we lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of Jesus. We should take the time to stop what we are doing, even if just for a minute or two, to meditate on what that means for us. We should bring our children up to the crib scene in our church and invite them to think about the birth of Jesus. These are memories that they will al-ways hold dear for the rest of their lives.

And most of all, we should remember that Jesus is born for us because he loves us. Christmas is a time to remember a love that is so powerful and profound that we, like the angels, feel like singing to the very heavens.

It is a common accusation by Protestant Christians, in particular Fundamentalists: Roman Catholicism is a “pagan” religion because it has absorbed non-Christian elements into its devotional and cultural life. Deco-rating Christmas trees, coloring eggs at Easter, using incense and religious vestments are some examples cited.

In charity, but in fact, this attitude misinterprets history and is unscriptural. It disregards the way the Holy Spirit has guided the Church in accomplishing the command of Jesus in Mark 16: 15, to “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH from her earliest days understood the need to adapt herself to the customs of the peoples she was evangelizing, to become “all things to all men” as St. Paul tells us, “so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). For example, she soon abandoned Saturday as the day of celebrating the Eucharist in favor of Sunday morning (see Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2, Rev 1:10). The primary reason for the shift was to honor the “Lord’s Day”-Sunday-the day that Jesus was raised from the dead. But the change also made Christianity’s outward signs, its non-essential “accidentals,” more in keeping with the cultural habits of non-Jewish converts. The Roman world marked weekly time beginning on Sunday. It was easier for them to accept the practice of public worship on this “first” day of the week rather than the alien Jewish custom of Saturday Sabbath worship. At the same time, the substance of the Eucharist was not compromised-regardless of the day of celebration it is the “body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27) that was being consecrated and received.

This evangelical principle of inculturation, of Christianizing or “baptizing” cultural customs and making them her own, has been used successfully by centuries of Catholic missionaries. The Jesuits in Africa, for instance, incorporated into liturgical music the feet stamping, hand clapping and drumming of the African tribes. Hindu Indians had a shadowy understanding of a tri-partite deity, a starting point for Jesuit missionaries to teach the full revelation of the Trinity.

This process of adaptation is natural and has a double effect, says Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Mission of the Redeemer (1991): “Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures, and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community.” By translating and giving new symbolism to the positive elements of ethnic expression-language, art, architecture—that are not incompatible with the Gospel, the Church better communicates her message, becoming “a more intelligible … and a more effective instrument of mission.”

THIS EVANGELICAL TECHNIQUE is foreshadowed by Paul in his preaching to the Athenian Greeks in Acts 17. The Athenians loved to debate the latest philosophies and theologies such as Epicurianism and Stoicism. They built temples to many foreign gods, even erecting a shrine “to an unknown god” for fear of offending one they had not yet heard of.

Paul could have scoffed at or condemned this regional superstition. Instead, he made good use of it. Wise as a serpent, Paul first Praised the piety of the Creeks. Noting their thoroughness in worshipping what they did not know, he then pulled a master stroke. It was Paul who would I reveal to them this unknown god: it was God the Father, “who made the world and everything in it.” “We want to hear you again on this subject,” replied the itchy-eared Athenians. They invited Paul to speak again and some of them were converted.

Cultural sensitivity is practiced with fruitful effects in Acts 15. At a meeting of Christian leaders at the Council of Jerusalem (the prototype of future Catholic ecumenical councils) former Pharisees insisted that the “Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

But Peter, the spiritual leader of the apostles, disagreed. “It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved,” said Peter, not by following Jewish religious ritual. James the Apostle confirmed Peter’s declaration. “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” he said. Instead, Gentile proselytes would only be required to abstain from food offered at Pagan temples, from sexual immorality and from the meat of strangled animals. The prudence of not burdening converts with alien initiation rites contributed tremendously to the rapid acceptance and expansion of the new religion. Surely, this is an example of the Holy Spirit guiding the fledgling Church “in all things” as Jesus promised Jn 14:26).

INCIDENTALLY, A LETTER proclaiming the verdict was authored by the Jerusalem Council and sent to the distant Christian communities. It claimed binding and divinely-inspired authority, insisting the decision “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Thus the correspondence became the first encyclical letter, formulating “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1) to meet the new problems of the expanding Church, problems not specifically addressed by the oral instructions of Jesus.

by Fr. Jude Winkler, OFM Conv.

imageBack to John Sawoski’s Christmas Home Page. If you have another window already open to John Sawoski’s Christmas Home Page, simply close this window.

To Immaculata Magazine