DAILY CATHOLIC    MONDAY     December 20, 1999     vol. 10, no. 241


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      Pat Ludwa, a committed lay Catholic from Cleveland, has been asked to contribute, on a regular basis, a lay person's point of view on the Church today. We have been impressed with his insight and the clear logic he brings to the table from his "view from the pew." In all humility, by his own admission, he feels he has very little to offer, but we're sure you'll agree with us that his viewpoint is exactly what millions of the silent majority of Catholics believe and have been trying to say as well. Pat puts it in words that help all of us better understand and convey to others what the Church teaches and we must believe.

    Today Pat shares with us some of the meanings of the symbols and traditions that have been adapted over the years; many that today are considered secular in nature have their roots in Catholic meaning from the Christmas Tree to the candy cane. He shows how Christmas on December 25th evolved as the set date and how Saint Francis of Assisi played an integral role in reminding the people that of the immense blessing of Christmas. Pat also brings us a brief overview of the meaning behind the "Twelve Days of Christmas", which we will detail further in the Christmas issue. All of these things were to remind Christians that Jesus and the legacy He left through His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic is the reason for the season, if not every day of the year. That is the gist of his column today, The signs and symbols of Christmas.

    If you want to send him ideas or feedback, you can reach him at KnightsCross@aol.com

The signs and symbols of Christmas

        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 oppression.

        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 Christmas.

        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 Christmas Mass.

        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 testament.

    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 Creed.

        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

December 20, 1999       volume 10, no. 241


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