Earlier this month I was involved with my family in one of our favorite Christmas traditions – that of decorating the tree. Through the years, people in the varied congregations I have served and numerous friends of other churches have given our family ornaments as gifts. Trimming the tree becomes like a family reunion as we remember each family by the ornament they gave and the joy they have brought to our lives.
No event observed during this year has as much tradition and meaning to the entire family as advent and Christmas. Yet how many of these customs are observed without the background knowledge of how they came into being or why they are a part of this glorious season?
Let us look behind many of our holiday customs to see their source and their spiritual significance. “Let us go even unto Bethlehem …” preparing our hearts in meaningful ways for Christmas, renewing the spirit of wonder, hope and adoration in our own lives.
The traditional period of Christmastide lasts until Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, and some argue festivities can and should be held over to the days immediately following Christmas Day. If more churches and organizations delayed their programs and parties until after Christmas Day, the days of preparations would certainly be more tranquil. We might well do better to begin the twelve days of Christmas with Dec. 25.
Simplifying our lives at Christmas is a responsibility each of us faces, if we would have time to prepare our spirit. This is a time when parents should share more and not less time with their children. We owe it to those we love to be relaxed and happy, not tired and irritable. Most of our Christmas customs come from England, Holland or Germany. The first celebration of Christmas in England was said to have been in 521 A.D.
Lights and candles have been used for centuries at Christmas to express joy in the celebration and to signify the coming of the Light. Placing candles in the window is a custom brought to this country from Germany. If candles appeared in the window, it assured a passing stranger, weary or in need, of a welcome.
Fruitcakes and plum puddings, with their right ingredients, were at one time considered symbolic of the gifts of the Wise Men. Nuts and fruits were often presented as gifts in biblical days.
What would Christmas be without carols and music? Most of the carols we sing today are English or European in origin, and Americans take delight in the universality of the Christmas spirit by joining our hearts with countries through the use of their songs. Several of our carols are entirely American, including a variety of spirituals.
The first Christmas carol written on the American continent was probably an Indian song in the language of the Hurons of lower Canada. An American carol is the popular “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” written in Wayland, Mass., in 1849.
At least one Christmas carol was written on Christmas Day. The words for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” came from the pen of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Dec. 25, 1863, only six months after the Battle of Gettysburg. Longfellow’s son had been injured in the battle, and it’s easy to see why he felt that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Christmas cards originated with the English, though German bakers did make large cookies with frosted greetings and sent them to special customers. The first Christmas greeting card was probably made in the 1840s.
The Christmas tree had its origin in Germany. The tree is to many a symbol of Christ, the tree of light, who freely offers to all his gift of light and life. The custom of decorating trees goes back to the Paradise Play of medieval days. Dec. 24 was kept as Adam and Eve Day, and dramas were presented to commemorate the event. They were usually preceded by a parade through the street with players carrying the tree.
The evergreen has long been a symbol of immortality. A live tree speaks of the continuing life that is in Christ which he passes on to his followers. When strung with lights, it is a reminder of the “Light of the World.”
In Italy the custom of hanging the tree with fruit has continued. We call the trees and leaves decorated with fruit “Della Robia style” because of the artist who created so many nativity porcelains which included fruit and evergreens.
All over the world where people keep Christmas, they have customs that bring happiness and play deep significance in the greater meaning of the day. Here in America we have the tradition of many lands and cultures. From the combinations have come new traditions, now entirely our own.
Traditions and customs help us to remember. Yet, if necessary, we could have Christmas with no decorations, no gaily trimmed trees, no sounds of carols and no nativity scenes. To keep it Christmas is a matter of the heart! Let’s keep it now and through the new year to come!
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.