A lot of people are concerned about our holidays. They say Christmas and Easter are so commercialized that we have taken the religious significance out of the celebrations. But is that really right? Or has the religious significance always been there and we simply fail to see it. If we take a closer look at the symbols of Christmas we might be surprised to find Christ everywhere.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
“Then shall all the trees of the forest exalt before the Lord, for He comes to rule the earth.” Psalm 96:12
The tradition of the Christmas tree was brought to this country by German-speaking immigrants. The tree is an “evergreen” and is one of the few trees that does not die (lose its leaves) in winter. For this reason, it is a symbol of everlasting life, the precious gift from Jesus to all believers. Recently our Holy Father gave instructions that a Christmas tree be displayed in St. Peter’s Square during the Holy Season celebrating the birth of Christ, who is our Life.
Lord, as we decorate our tree and gaze upon its special beauty, let it remind us of your victory on the “tree of the cross” and of your gift of everlasting life.
THE DATE OF CHRISTMAS
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Luke 2:1-2
The idea to celebrate Christmas on December 25th originated in the 4th century. The Catholic Church wanted to eclipse the festivities of a rival pagan religion that threatened Christianity’s existence. On December 25th, the Romans celebrated the birthday of their sun god. Although it was not popular, or even proper, to celebrate people’s birthdays in those times, church leaders decided that in order to compete with the pagan celebration, they would themselves order a festival in celebration of the birth of Christ. Although the actual season of Jesus’ birth is thought to be the spring, the date of December 25th was chosen as the official birthday celebration to compete head on with the rival pagan celebration.
Jesus was, in fact, born in the spring. How do we know this? A couple of clues are given to us in Scripture. Mary and Joseph, when they could not find a place to stay, stayed in a cave. They placed Jesus in a manger. A manger, by the way, is simply the feed trough of the animals -- not a wooden building that we see in nativity scenes. It may, in fact, simply been a place carved out of rock.
At night, shepherds took their flocks into caves and someone slept at the entrance. This was to protect the sheep from wandering off and from wild animals. But during birthing season, caves were not really the place to keep the flock. So during that time, the flocks stayed in the fields. Therefore, the fact that Mary and Joseph found an empty cave tells us it was birthing season for the sheep, which is spring. Additionally, we are told that the angels found the shepherds sleeping in the fields. This is a second clue that Jesus was born in the spring.
Lord, help us to know you not just one or two holidays, but every day of the year.
THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE
“I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness, but he shall possess the light of life.” John 8:12
Candles have long been part of the tradition of the Church. At Baptism the parents of the child are handed a small white candle and told: “receive the Light of Christ, may you keep the flame of faith burning brightly in this child who is a new creation.” The candles we burn brightly at Christmas remind us of our own Baptism and our own adoption as God’s children. They equally symbolize Christ who is our Light in the darkness. Our prayers symbolically rise to heaven with the smoke from the candles.
O God, as we light the festive candles of Christmas, let them remind us of our own Baptism when we became your children. Let their light proclaim that faith in You still burns brightly in our hearts.
“The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child was.” Matthew 2:2
One of the most popular symbols of Christmas is the star. Many people top their tree with a star or place a star that is brightly lit over their homes. It was the star which led the Magi to the humble crib of the new born King. The magi were the first non-Jewish people to visit Christ and they represented all people outside the nation of Israel. The star can remind us that we are invited to come to Christ and to offer our gifts and talents to Him. In a sense, the Christmas Star is God’s invitation to offer ourselves to the Father of all people and nations and to adore Him.
O God, it is your desire that all people come to know and love You. Through our prayers and example let us lead them to You. Help us to know that You are always there for us, and that your invitation to love is ever present.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2:2
There were three gifts brought by the Magi to the baby Jesus. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was the most precious of all metals which symbolized the preciousness of the child. Frankincense was a type of incense which was used by the priestly class in the temples and symbolized the baby as the high priest of all humanity. Myrrh was a valuable and aromatic spice. It comes from a large bush with a thin bark. It appears when the bark is pierced and turns red, symbolizing the blood which will be shed when the side of Jesus is pierced. The gifts brought by the Magi were later sold to pay for Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ escape to Egypt.
Lord, God, remind us to be gracious in our gift giving and never let us forget your gift to us, the gift of your only Son who gave Himself for us. May we remember during this holiday season to give of ourselves to others.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” Luke 2:9-10
An angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the good news that a savior had been born who is the Messiah and Lord. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14) Angels play an important role in the Christmas story and the story of our salvation. An angel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would bear a child. An angel appeared to Joseph to assure him of Mary’s faithfulness. An angel appeared to Joseph to tell him to flee to Egypt. Angels are truly a part of the Christmas story.
Lord, let your angels guide us through this holiday season. May their faithful devotion be a model for us and in our faithfulness to you.
“I come to proclaim good news to you, tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people.” Luke 2:10
School bells call children to classrooms and church bells call millions of people to worship. Bells alert people to important happenings, saying: “listen, take notice!” Bells are also a favorite symbol of Christmas. “Silver Bells,” “The Bells of St. Mary,” and the little bell on the Christmas tree in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” are all part of our Christmas tradition. The bells of Christmas have a special meaning, for they sing out: “your Savior is at hand, your freedom from sin is here!” What a joyous message, what a beautiful sound!
O God, life can be hectic and filled with noise. Often it is difficult to hear your gentle call. Quiet our minds and strengthen our hearts so that we may hear and respond to Your loving call in our lives.
SANTA CLAUS also known as SAINT NICHOLAS
“In giving alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Keep your deeds of mercy secret.” Matthew 6:3-4
Santa Claus seems to overshadow the true meaning of Christmas and there’s a sad irony in this since he is really Saint Nicholas. “Nicholas” in German is “Klaus,” just as “Santa” is “Saint” in European languages. He was generous to the poor and always gave gifts secretly, we are told. In imitation of him, anonymous gift-giving at Christmas time began. In his life, Saint Nicholas reflected God’s gift of grace to all. Today, this beautiful tradition has been grossly commercialized. All is not lost however, if we take the time to explain the Christian origin of this great historic figure we call Santa Claus.
Heavenly Father, teach us to give cheerfully and freely. Let our gifts come from the heart and not from a sense of false pride. Make us aware that the greatest gift we can give is our love, our time and our patience. St. Nicholas, pray for us.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is laid up for me the crown which the Lord will award to me on that day, and not only to me but to all who have loved his appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:7
In ancient Rome and Greece, athletes and heros were rewarded with wreaths as trophies in sports or military battle. “To the victory goes the crown” meant that the winners received a wreath and were paraded before the people. Christ’s victory over evil on the cross is also symbolized by a wreath. As Christians, we are reminded of the crown He wore, how He was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem for all to see and how He struggled with sin and death on the cross.
O God, help us see in the Christmas wreath the victory Christ won for us. When we are discouraged and need forgiveness, remind us that Jesus is ready to defend us and give us a crown of victory with Him forever.
THE CANDY CANE
“The shepherds said to one another: Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2:15
On that sacred night when Jesus was born, in a stable near the hillsides of Bethlehem, some shepherds were invited by the Angel to go and see the newborn Messiah of Israel. After Mary and Joseph, they were the first people on earth to adore this Infant Savior. Their crooked shepherd staffs have been memorialized in the candy canes which decorate our Christmas trees and fill the stockings of children.
O God, your angel announced the joyful news of the newborn King to humble shepherds. As we enjoy these symbols of the shepherd’s staff, let our hearts be humble enough to receive your gift of love and rejoice in your message of peace to all people of good will.
“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:3
Poinsettias are native to Mexico. They were named after America’s first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett. He brought the plants to America in 1828. The Mexicans in the eighteenth century thought the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem. Thus the Poinsettia became associated with the Christmas season. The actual flower of the poinsettia is small and yellow. But surrounding the flower are large, bright red leaves, often mistaken for petals.
Lord, may the light you have given to the world never cease to shine brightly in the hearts of your children.
“I myself am the living bread which has come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he will live forever.” John 6:51
Decorating the Christmas tree with ornaments comes from an old European custom when ornaments were made from cookies and bread. These were hung on the tree in thanks for “our daily bread.” They meant a special Christmas treat for the children, too. Through the years these edible decorations began to be made of carved wood and blown glass. The tradition of edible decorations is still carried on when we give and share special Christmas breads and foods, like fruitcake, with friends and relatives.
Father, we thank you for our daily bread which feeds our bodies. We especially thank You for Jesus who is the spiritual food who has come down from heaven. Nourished by Him may we be strengthened for our journey in life as we prepare for the life to come in heaven.
“Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again. Each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:22-23
We often use apples to stuff children’s Christmas stockings and to hang on our Christmas tree as decorations. Yet few of us realize that the apple also has a Christian meaning. It stands for the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden of Paradise and therefore, the first sin and the sin of all humanity. Although the apple recalls this sad event, it also reminds us of the happy outcome -- the good news that Christ is the new Adam who saved us from sin. The Church sings: “O happy fault which merited such a Redeemer!”
O God our Creator, like our first parents Adam and Eve, we are weak and have sinned. You have given us hope, however, by sending us Your only Son who was born in a stable and died on the cross, so that we might be made new again.
“Blessed is he whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever.” Psalm 146:5-6
Red and green are the colors most used at Christmas time. In the tradition of the Church, these colors have special meaning. Red symbolizes the blood of Christ and the martyrs who loved God and remained faithful to Him. Green is the color of hope and has always been a sign of life and growth in nature. Love and hope are very much part of the Christmas story, for God became human to prove His deep love for us and give us hope of eternal life.
O God, we rejoice in your love which is always faithful. Through the gift of Your Son and the witness of His life, You have given hope to our lives. Strengthen us with this hope and deepen our love for You so that we may be witnesses of your Gospel to others.
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew. 1:23
People often complain that they have taken Christ out of Christmas. But we must remember where Xmas comes from. That abbreviation for Christmas is of Greek origin. The word for Christ in Greek is Xristos. During the 16th century, Europeans began using the first initial of Christ’s name, “X” in place of the word Christ in Christmas as a shorthand form of the word. Although the early Christians understood that “X” stood for Christ’s name, later Christians who did not understand the Greek language mistook “Xmas” as a sign of disrespect. But the Christians were using it in the highest respect, even making an “X” on their graves. We should not be too worried about Xmas. Christ is still there.
Lord, help us to know you in all that we do, in all that we say, in everyone that we meet.
“They made a crown of thorns and placed it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. Kneeling before him they mocked him, saying: Hail King of the Jews!” Matthew 27:29-30
Garlands and sprigs of holly are used to adorn our homes, churches and public places. The colorful green leaves and red berries bring an air of festivity, yet they bear a deeper message than simple decoration. Long ago, the sharp thorns of the red berries reminded Christians of the suffering for which the Infant Messiah was destined. They saw in the thorns the crown which would pierce His head. The berries reminded them of the blood He would shed.
Loving Father, when Jesus was born you kept your promise to send us a Messiah. By his message of hope and sacrifice of love, He saved us from our sins. We kneel before the Christmas manger to thank You for the gift of Jesus your Son.
CHRISTMAS THE NATIVITY SCENE
“God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
The word we hear and see often through this season is “Christmas.” But few people are aware of its origin. It is a combination of two Latin words: Christus and missus. These two words mean: Christ is sent. Sent where? Into the world by the loving Father who wishes to give His children the most precious gift of all -- His only Son. The first nativity scene was constructed by St. Francis in the year 1223. His nativity, however, consisted of live animals, people and a real baby.
O God our Father, we thank You for the gift of your Son Jesus, whom You sent into the world to give us light in our darkness and hope in our weakness. Strengthen us now that we may share your life with others, both in this world and in the world to come.
THE HISTORY OF THE NATIVITY SCENE
The word "Christmas" comes from a combination of two Latin words: Christus and missus. These two words mean: Christ is sent. In the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel that we learn of the birth of Jesus. "Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged." (Luke 2:7)
The origin of the words
Jesus was born in a place that animals were kept, most likely a cave. Nativity scene (presepio in Italian) comes from the Latin word praesepire which means "to enclose, to hedge, or to fence." Also known as the "creche" in French, meaning "crib" or "manger," it has many names in various countries. In Spanish it is El Beléén ("Bethlehem"). In the Philippines, it is called a Belen (due to Spanish Influence). In Poland it is known as szopka, from Polish for "small crib". In Dutch, kerststal refers to the stable in which Jesus was born. In Scandinavia, julkrubba (Swedish) and julekrybbe (Norwegian and Danish) are made from the words for "yule" and "manger." In Russian and Ukrainian culture, it is vertep, a type of portable Christmas puppet theater.
The word "manger," in strict usage, although today also used for the nativity scene actually refers to the trough or open box used for livestock feed in which the infant Jesus rests. It is also interesting to note that the word "eat" in English is "manger" in French.
From the earliest days of the Church, the faithful would paint scenes of the birth of Christ. Some can even be found in the catacombs. The earliest representation of the Nativity can be seen in a fresco found in the catacombs of St Priscilla, 2nd century AD, portraying the Mother and Child, the Three Wise Men and Saint Joseph or perhaps the prophet Isaiah, and above a star with eight points. Later scenes of the Nativity and the Epiphany began to appear in churches.
The term prescepio is thought to have been used for the first time with regard to St Mary Major’s Basilica on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, known since the 7th century as "Sancta Maria ad praesepe" because according to tradition it was here the that the relics of the Cradle of Jesus were brought.
The first nativity scene was created at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in 10th century in the city of Rome. This local tradition soon became popular at many other Churches across Italy and abroad, with each Church constructing decorative mangers with gold, silver, jewels, and precious gems. The nativity scene at that time had no figures inside, it was just an empty scene of the birth place.
By the thirteenth century, St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226) was concerned that people were forgetting the humble, poor birth of Jesus with the precious metals and gems they were using in the scenes. In the year 1223, in a small cave at a monastery in Greccio (near Assisi) in Italy, Francis decided that he would remedy these ornate misrepresentations, by creating a manger scene that was true to the Biblical account of Christ's birth in all its impoverished glory. Some accounts state he used statues or costumed people, but Thomas of Celano, the biographer of Francis tells how he only used a straw-filled manger or feeding trough set between a real ox and donkey. According to Thomas, it was beautiful in its simplicity with the manger acting as the altar for the Christmas Mass. St. Francis asked for and got permission from Pope Honorius III to hold a special celebration during Christmas. St. Francis of Assisi's creation was called a creche. Despite what his biographer says, tradition continues to state that he used live humans and animals in his set. Because of Francis, the idea of the nativity scene soon spread.
Eventually churches began to erect nativity scenes, still empty of figures. Eventually puppets were added along with liturgical drama. But the productions began to degenerate and become heathen, so the Council of Trier (Germany) strongly encouraged the placement of static figures in the scene instead of puppets. By the 1300s, figures were made of wood, marble and terra cotta. There were even mechanical ones – only one which survives today in Steyr, Austria. Nativity scenes became popular among rich households and gradually extended to all social classes. The Council of Trent in 1563 encouraged the nativity scene as an expression of piety. Additionally, it helped to counteract the "Christmas tree" which was popular among Protestants. Eventually, large statues were replaced by figurines. Inexpensive, clay, plaster and paper-mache were used to satisfy demand.
A nativity scene or creche traditionally includes two animals: an ox and a donkey. These were the two animals participating in St. Francis' creche because he wanted to allude to Isaiah 1:3 which states "The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand." The ox represents the people of Israel and the donkey represents the Gentiles. The rest of the players represent different time periods. Although modern people tend to put them all together, in many countries they add and remove the characters based on the day. This can become a daunting task.
The creche should remain empty, except for the ox and the donkey, until Christmas eve. Many of today’s scenes depict a cow, but an ox is more accurate. Then Mary and Joseph are added on Christmas eve. At midnight, Jesus is added along with the angel. On Christmas day, the shepherds arrive, minus the sheep who are still in the meadows. Sheep actually do not belong in the scene at all unless some of the shepherds brought a couple with them when they arrive. The Bethelem star should replace the angel. The Magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) can be represented apart from the scene depicting them on their way. But not until January 6th (Three Kings Day) do the Magi appear and by that time the shepherds are gone. More accurately, the Holy Family are now in a house and no longer in the cave. The creche is traditionally put up, especially in Latin America, on December 16th. It should stay up until February 2nd, which is the end of Epiphany (Little Christmas) and is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
The shepherds in the scene represent those who are least worthy of the gift of being the first to behold the child. In Jewish culture, shepherding was one of six professions forbidden for a Jew to enter into. Pharisees would never consider doing business with a shepherd. They would buy wool and milk, but never from the shepherd himself. Shepherds weren’t even allowed to give testimony in court. In fact, shepherds were not permitted to enter places of worship. They could not go into the temple or synagogue. The reason for this prohibition was that they were ritually unclean since they were walking in the droppings of sheep. Also, they were considered trespassers because they would graze their sheep without respect for property lines. Jews considered them dirty, disgusting liars and thieves with one foot in hell. And the irony is that this is who God sent his Hallelujah chorus to announce the baby Jesus!
The shepherds were in the field at the time because it was birthing season for the sheep. If it were not, the sheep would have been in the cave because that is where they kept them at night. But birthing season would be too messy for the cave. Birthing season was in the spring. So, we know that Christ was born in the spring. Therefore the nativity scene would be more accurate without the snow.
In the nativity scene, the Magi are sometimes accompanied by a camel. They arrive on January 6th bearing three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These three gifts are rich with symbolism. Gold was the most precious of all metals which symbolized the preciousness of the child. Frankincense was a type of incense which was used by the priestly caste in the temples and symbolized the baby as the high priest of all humanity. And finally, myrrh was a valuable and aromatic spice that appears when the thin bark of the bush is pierced. It oozes out and turns red, symbolizing the blood which will be shed by Christ. It was also used to make an oil used for anointing and soothing, and for preparing a corpse for burial. And the faithful women will use it to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
While nativity scenes were always popular in Catholic traditions, more and more Protestants are adding nativity scenes to their Christmas decorations. They now see the value of having a creche in the home to remind us the reason we are celebrating the season.