On Saturday many will hear Christmas carols being sung at Mass. Some
may even hear them from people singing them on the streets. We'll see holly
and poinsettia's in people's home and the ever present evergreen, both the
Christmas tree and around the house in wreaths or boughs. We'll see candles
in windows and candy canes given to children. But do we think of where we
got those traditions? What purpose do they, or did they, serve? These
little traditions act as a sign, a symbol for us. A reminder of something
greater. And often, came about in response to abuses, heresies, and
The date of Christmas was set on December 25th to act as a reminder of Christ.
The winter solstice was a primary pagan holiday, the longest night of the
year. Even in pagan Rome, it was a key date for Christianity's 'approved'
rival, Mithra. Why December 25th? Because after this time, the Sun gets
stronger, brighter, higher, restoring light and life to a 'dead world.' So
the Church set December 25th as the date to celebrate the Lord's birth, not
because that's when He was born, but rather to illustrate that "In Him was
life, and the Life was the light of men. The Light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it....The true Light that enlightens every
man was coming into the world" (John 1:4-5; 9). So, though the date may have
been of pagan origins, it was used to bring the light of Christ to all men.
And indeed, it has overcome the darkness of paganism, pantheism, and atheism.
It has overcome the spirit of the world.
The Christmas tree even has pagan roots in a sense. In the eighth
century, St. Boniface brought Christianity to Germany. When he returned, he
found that paganism was still very much alive and well. The son of a major
chieftain, Gundhar, was about to be sacrificed to the 'gods'. It was December
24th, Christmas Eve. St. Boniface felled the sacred oak, sacred to the god
Thor. "Not a drop of blood shall fall tonight, for this is the birth night
of the Saint Christ, Son of the All-Father and Savior of the world." (Recall
that St. Boniface was speaking to a group who saw the 'head' god as the
All-Father. So he was transposing Odin with God, the Father) "This little
tree, a young child of the forest, shall be a home tree tonight. It is the
wood of peace, for your houses are built of fir. It is a sign of endless
life, for it's branches are evergreen. See how it points toward Heaven. Let
this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild
woods but in your homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving
gifts and lights of kindness." (Catholic Source Book, pg. 405)
Later, Martin Luther, reportedly inspired by the starry night, decorated
his tree with candles to commemorate Christ's birth under Bethlehem's starry
night. Later, unconsecrated hosts were hung from the Christmas tree to
remind us the 'Bread of Life' born that night. Some began to hang apples, to
remind us of the fruit of sin. So the Christmas tree began as a catechism of
Christ in symbol.
Christmas carols and the nativity scene have a common source: St. Francis
of Assisi. He was among the first who sang in common fashion, about the
Lord. His birth, His life, and death. His glory, His passion. It became a
practice to sing songs of glory to God, so, with the coming of the
Renaissance, it was natural for the madrigals of the day to focus on Christ.
(And many of these Renaissance songs are still heard today.)
In the town of Greccio in 1223, St. Francis despaired how little the
townspeople thought of Christ on Christmas. So, on the night of December 24th he
called the people out of town to a cave where he re-created the scene of
Christ's birth. Reportedly the Christ-child Himself came once again to the
manger and the people, seeing this, they were reminded of the greatness of
the day. Many miracles were reported that night, but most of all, was the
miracle of a reawakened faith by the people of Greccio. And to this day,
many have nativity scenes to remind us of the real beauty and glory of
But not all of our traditions were used to teach, or illustrate God's
glory. Many of them were to simply carry on. The hymn "The Twelve Days of
Christmas" was an underground Catholic catechism, as were candy canes. The
tradition of the candle in the window came about for the desire to hear
The "Twelve Days of Christmas" were written to teach children their
Catholic faith in secret, since to do so openly from 1558 to 1829, could be
considered treasonous in England. The meanings behind the 12 days?
The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.
Two turtledoves were the Old and New Testament.
Three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love.
Four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Five golden rings recalled the Penteteuch - the first five books of the Old
Six geese-a-laying stood for the six days of creation.
Seven swans-a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven sacraments.
Eight maids-a-milking were the eight Beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing? These were the night truths of the Holy Spirit
(Galatians 5:22-23.) Love, Joy, Peace, Long-suffering, Kindness, Goodness,
Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-control.
Ten lords-a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.
Eleven pipers piping stood for the 11 faithful disciples.
Twelve drummers drumming symbolized the 12 points of belief in the Apostle's
Even candy cane was a sort of catechism for the children. The cane is the
shepherd's crook, the first witnesses of Christ's birth. It also stood for
the Bishop's crook, the 'shepherd' of his flock. The red and white stripes
represent Christ's purity and sacrifice, just as they do during Masses. The
three thin stripes represented the Three Divine Persons while the thicker
stripe represented the One God in those Three Divine Persons. The peppermint
stood for the royal gift of spice, and, like the Body of Christ, the candy
cane was given to be broken and shared.
In Ireland, the English tried to stamp out Catholicism. Priests were
forced to visit homes in secret so the people could hear Mass at night. At
Christmastime, the Catholic families would leave their doors unlocked and
place a lit candle in their windows to guide the priests to their home so
they could hear Christmas Mass. Any English soldiers seeing this were told
that it was to welcome Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve, since there was no
room at the Inn. The soldiers just dismissed it as a harmless superstition
and let the signal remain.
So, these signs, symbols and traditions of Christmas helped to remind us of
Christ, His love, power and glory. They serve to teach us our faith and to
hold fast to our faith. So, when we decorate, it may be helpful to try and
see why we do these special things during this time of year. And why, so
many of them are now disregarded or rejected for more 'inclusive' symbols.
Pax Christi, Pat