The Christmas Crib
The Christmas Tree
For many people the Christmas tree is the symbol of the Christmas. Other evergreen plants have been a part of mid-winter festivals long before Christ. They played a symbolic part because they stayed green and alive when other plants appeared dead and bare. They represented everlasting life and hope for the return of spring. Primitive European tribes hung evergreens above their doors to offer the wandering winter spirits shelter within their homes in hopes of receiving good fortune and good health in return. The Romans decorated their homes with the evergreens at the Festival of Saturnalia and at the Kalends of January, their New Year. They exchanged evergreen branches with friends as a sign of good luck. The Druids viewed evergreens as sacred and a symbol.
Evolution of the Christmas Tree
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the sixteenth century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce.
The Christmas tree custom became popular in other parts of Europe . In England, Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria made Christmas trees fashionable by decorating the first English Christmas tree at Windsor castle with candles and a variety of sweets, fruits and gingerbread in 1841. Of course other wealthy English families followed suit, using all kinds of extravagant items as decorations. Charles Dickens described such a tree as being covered with dolls, miniature furniture, tiny musical instruments, costume jewellery, toy guns and swords, fruit and sweets, in the 1850s.
In the US the first record of a christmas tree was one displayed in the 1830s by German settlers of Pennsylvania. They put one on show to raise money for a local church. In 1851 a tree was set up outside of a church. The people of the parish thought it such an outrage and a return to paganism and asked the minister to take it down.
By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their trees to reach from floor to ceiling.
The early twentieth century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German- American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colours and interlaced with berries and nuts Electricity brought about Christmas lights making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end.
With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country. All important buildings, private and public, signalled the beginning of the Christmas holiday with the tree ceremony.
Early Christmas trees had, in place of angels, figures of fairies - the good spirits, though horns and bells were once used to frighten off evil spirits.
Christmas Tree Legends
Many legends exist about the origin of the Christmas tree. One is the story of Saint Boniface, an English monk who organized the Christian Church in France and Germany. One day he came upon a group of pagans gathered around a great oak tree about to sacrifice a child to the god Thor. To stop the sacrifice and save the child's life Boniface felled the tree with one mighty blow of his fist. In its place grew a small fir tree. The saint told the pagan worshipers that the tiny fir was the Tree of Life and stood for the eternal life of Christ.
Another legend holds that Martin Luther was walking through the forest one Christmas Eve. As he walked he was awed by the beauty of millions of stars glimmering through the branches of the evergreen trees. So taken was he by this beautiful sight that he cut a small tree and took it home to his family. To recreate that same starlight beauty he saw in the wood, he placed candles on all its branches.
Yet another legend tells of a poor woodsman who long ago met a lost and hungry child on Christmas Eve. Though very poor himself, the woodsman gave the child food and shelter for the night. The woodsman woke the next morning to find a beautiful glittering tree outside his door. The hungry child was really the Christ Child in disguise. He created the tree to reward the good man for his charity.
Others feel the origin of the Christmas tree may be the "Paradise Play." In medieval times most people would not read and plays were used to teach the lessons of the bible all over Europe. The Paradise Play, which showed the creation of man and the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was performed every year on December 24th. The play was performed in winter creating a slight problem. An apple tree was needed but apple trees do not bare fruit in winter so a substitution was made. Evergreens were hung with apples and used instead.
Another story comes from Germany about spiders and Christmas trees. Long ago families allowed their animals to come inside and view the Christmas trees on Christmas Eve. Because the Christ Child was born in a stable, they felt that the animals should take part in the Christmas celebration. But spiders weren't allowed because housewives didn't want cobwebs all over everything. Of course the spiders were unhappy about this, so one year they complained to the Christ Child. He felt sorry for them and decided that late at night He would let them in to see the trees. The excited spiders loved the Christmas trees and all night long they crawled about in the branches, leaving them covered with webs. On Christmas morning the housewives saw what the spiders had done. But instead of being angry, they were delighted. For in the night the Christ Child had turned all of the cobwebs into sparkling tinsel. And even today, tinsel is often used to decorate Christmas trees to add that same sparkle the Christ Child gave the cobwebs long ago, in Germany.
The Christmas Star
The stars that appear in the sky today are the same ones that were there two thousand years ago. Was there a nova at the time of Jesus' birth? The exact time of His birth is not known, but astronomers cannot place a new star appearance anywhere near the possible time. Could it have been a shooting star? Again, the astronomers say it was not likely. A meteor lasts only a few seconds or mintues at best. The wise men followed the star for weeks looking for Jesus. We can rule out comets as well. They can be seen by the naked eye for a week or months. But modern astronomers know which comets were close enough to earth hundreds and thousands of years ago and there was no comet visible to humans around the time of Christ's birth.
Some star gazers suggest that if we move the birth of Jesus to the springtime of 6 B.C., we can attribute the star to the time the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were close together in the heavens. They formed a triangle in the group of stars known as Pisces. The wise men, themselves, were astrologers and studied the stars and planets and knew, according to Jewish rabbis, of the triangle and that it had appeared before the birth of Moses. Perhaps they interpreted it as a sign of a great event in the land of the Jewish people. This may have been the star of Bethlehem. Pisces became the special constellation of the Hebrew people.
Still, many people prefer to believe that the strange star did appear, and that it was simply a miracle and throughout the world today, the Christian holiday has usually begun with the appearance of the first star of Christmas Eve. The Festival of the Star is held in Poland. Right after the Christmas Eve meal, the village priest, acts as the "Star Man" and tests the children's knowledge of religion. In Alaska, boys and girls carry a star shaped figure from house to house and sing carols in hopes of receiving treats. In Hungary a star-shaped pattern is carved in a half of an apple and is suppose to bring good luck.
In general, the Christmas star symbolises hope and goodwill.
Mistletoe is an aerial parasite that has no roots of its own and lives off the tree that it attaches itself to. Without that tree it would die. Mistletoe was thought to be sacred by the Celts. Druid's used it in their sacrifices and believed that it possessed miraculous healing powers. In fact, in the Celtic language mistletoe means "all-heal." It not only cured diseases, but could also render poisons harmless, make humans and animals prolific, keep one safe from witchcraft, protect the house from ghosts and even make them speak. With all of this, it was thought to bring good luck to anyone privileged to have it.
The Norse believed that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death, which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. Frigga, the goddess and his mother finally restored him. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.
The early Christians accepted mistletoe as the emblem of that Love which conquers Death? Its medicinal properties, whether real or imaginary, make it a just emblematic of that Tree of Life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations thus paralleling it to the Virgin Birth of Christ.
Later, the eighteenth-century English credited mistletoe not with miraculous healing powers, but with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she is unlikely to marry the following year!
The Celts believed that holly, with its shiny leaves and red berries stayed green to keep the earth beautiful when the sacred oak lost it leaves. They wore sprigs of holly in their hair when they went into the forest to watch the Druids cut the sacred mistletoe.
Holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and was used at the Roman Saturnalia festival to honor him. Romans gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about decorating images of Saturn with it. Centuries later, in December, while other Romans continued their pagan worship, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. To avoid persecution, they decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian numbers increased and their customs prevailed, holly lost its pagan association and became a symbol of Christmas.
The plant has come to stand for peace and joy, people often settle arguments under a holly tree. Holly is believed to frighten off witches and protect the home from thunder and lightning.
English tradition mentions the "he holly and the she holly" as being the determining factor in who will rule the household in the following year, the "she holly" having smooth leaves and the "he holly" having prickly ones. Other beliefs included putting a sprig of holly on the bedpost to bring sweet dreams and making a tonic from holly to cure a cough. All of these references give light to "decking the halls with boughs of holly."
Ivy was a symbol of eternal life in the pagan world and came to represent new promise and eternal life in the Christian world. It is considered a feeble clinging plant, rather feminine in nature, not at all like the masculine sturdy holly leaf. It was the ancient symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry.
Among the Romans who remained pagan, the laurel leaf was sacred to the sun god Apollo. In the Christian sect it came to symbolise the triumph of Humanity as represented by the Son Man. Bay is also a name used for laurel. As the bay tree, the true laurel of the Ancients.
Rosemary is yet another Christmas green. Though now it is used to mainly season foods, during the Middle Ages it was spread on the floor at Christmas. As people walked on it, the fragrant smell arose filling the house. The story associated with the shrub is that Mary laid the garments of the Christ Child on its branches and caused it to have such a wonderful aroma. It is also said that rosemary is extremely offensive to evil spirits, thus, being well suited to the advent of their Conqueror. The name rosemary is given, too, an association to the Virgin Mary's name, making it all the more fitting for the Christmas season.
Early Christmas music compositions are regarded as chants and hymns. The original carols referred to a circle dance which did not have any singing - that came later. As the church struggled against the influences of pagan customs, the singing of carols was barred from sacred services. However, outside the church, Nativity carols were written as simple folk songs and became popular.
Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with bringing carols into the formal worship of the church during a Christmas Midnight Mass in a cave in Greccio, in the province of Umbria in 1223. It's said that the music sung that night was more akin to what we know as carols than to hymns. Carols enjoyed further development and popularity when they were used in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages.
Wandering minstrels traveled from hamlet to castle, performing carols in the distant past. In later years, villages had their own bands of waits.
Waits were originally watchmen who patrolled the streets and byways of the old walled cities keeping guard against fire and singing out the hours of the night. During Christmas, they would include some carols for the people along the way. This lead to the tradition of groups of musicians singing and playing for for various civic events during the Christmas season.It was during Christmas 1223 that St Francis of Assisi conceived the idea of celebrating the Nativity "in a new manner", by reproducing in a church at Greccio the praesepio of Bethlehem. He used real animals and hay. This began the tradition of the Crib.