Why We Celebrate Christmas Like We Do
How Sts. Francis and Boniface Aided Traditional Customs
We might know that Santa Claus was inspired by St. Nicholas, but where did the Christmas tree originate?
What are the origins of the crèche? What about the 12 days of Christmas or the poinsettia?
The word “Christmas” itself comes from the Old English: Cristes Maesse, the “Mass of Christ,” which dates back to at least 1038. Even earlier, in 567, the Second Council of Tours declared the “12 days” from Christmas to Epiphany were to be celebrated as holy and festive. St. Patrick brought Christmas celebrations to Ireland in 461, while St. Augustine of Canterbury brought the celebration to England in the early 600s and St. Boniface shared it with Germany in 754.
Because the crèche (which is also called the crib or manger) captures the Nativity, it should be the spiritual highlight of a home’s Christmas decorations. According to Jesuit Father Francis X. Weiser, in his definitive Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, the earliest picture of a Nativity scene dates to around 380 as a wall decoration in Rome’s St. Sebastian Catacombs. There is also some connection to Santa Maria Maggiore, where a reliquary houses relics Tradition holds to be wood from Christ’s manger.
But it was St. Francis of Assisi who originated the current crèche practice and popularized the custom in Greccio, Italy.
Brother Thomas of Celano, who knew Francis and wrote the first biography of the Italian saint, tells how, in 1223, the saint fashioned the prototype manger for Christmas. He sent for a trusted man named John and directed him, “If you will that we celebrate the present festival of the Lord at Greccio, make haste to go before and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I would make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by.”
When the blessed Christmas night came, men and women from the town joined the friars. All carried candles and torches to illuminate that night “which with its radiant Star has illuminated all the days and years,” wrote Brother Thomas. “At length the Saint of God came, and finding all things prepared, beheld them and rejoiced. The manger had been made ready. … There Simplicity was honored, Poverty exalted, Humility commended; and of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem.” He continued: “The Saint of God stood before the manger, full of sighs, overcome with tenderness and filled with wondrous joy. The solemnities of Mass were celebrated over the manger, and the priest enjoyed a new consolation.”
Francis chanted the Gospel and then preached about the birth of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem. Once the vigil ended, “in order that thereby the Lord might save beasts of burden and other animals, even as He multiplied His holy mercy,” the hay from the manger in the crèche proved miraculous. Thomas affirmed that “many animals in the region round about which had divers diseases were freed from their sicknesses by eating of that hay. Moreover, women in long and grievous labor were safely delivered by putting some of the hay on themselves, and a crowd of persons of either sex suffering from various ailments gained their long-wished-for health at that same place. Finally the place of the manger was hallowed as a temple to the Lord, and in honor of the most blessed father Francis, over the manger an altar was reared and a church dedicated, to the end that where beasts had once eaten fodder of hay, men might thenceforth for the healing of soul and body eat the flesh of the spotless and undefiled Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who in highest and unspeakable charity gave Himself for us, Who liveth and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Ghost, God eternally glorious, world without end. Amen, Alleluia.”
The Christmas Tree Saint
St. Francis may be thanked for the Nativity, but St. Boniface gets credit for our custom of tree decorating. In the early eighth century, the pope sent Boniface, a bishop, to convert the Germanic people. Historically, after initial successes, he was appalled when he returned to see converts turning back to pagan ways and preparing to sacrifice a child under what they considered their god’s sacred oak — the “Thunder Oak” dedicated to the god Thor — on Christmas Eve. So Boniface grabbed an axe.
Legend says with his first swing a mighty wind uprooted the oak. The frightened heathens recognized this as God’s action and begged Boniface to teach them to celebrate Christmas. He “pointed to a small fir tree that had miraculously remained upright and intact beside the debris and broken branches of the fallen oak,” recounts an article in L’Osservatore Romano that recalled the legend.
Boniface saw a small fir tree and told the people, according to Catholic.com, “This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace … the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”
What Boniface began appears to be the root of the historical development and tradition of the Christmas tree, as recounted by Father Weiser. From there, the tradition grew. The Christmas tree “is completely Christian in origin,” explains Father Weiser, an authority on liturgical customs and author of more than 20 books, including The Christmas Book and The Easter Book. By the 15th century, people brought fir trees into their homes for Dec. 24 and decorated them with red apples, signifying sin, and white wafers, reflecting the Holy Eucharist signifying the fruit of life. Eventually, rather than wafers, pieces of pastry and candy “representing the sweet fruits of Christ’s redemption” became the decorations.
Also on Christmas Eve, Western Christians were customarily burning large candles that represented Christ. By the 16th century, folks in western Germany combined the two customs and moved the crèche under the tree.
“Thus our modern Christmas tree came into being,” explains Father Weiser. Early in the 19th century, the custom spread on to the east and Slavic countries. “Considering the historical fact, the meaning and message of the Christmas tree appear completely and deeply religious. It stands in the home at Christmas time as a symbol and reminder that Christ is the ‘Tree of Life’ and the ‘Light of the World.’”
Father Weiser advises, “Its many individual lights may be explained to the children as symbols of his divine and human traits and virtues. The glittering decorations indicate his great glory.” Being evergreen is “an ancient symbol of eternity.” He adds, “In radiant beauty and quiet solemnity it should proclaim in the Christian home the very message of the holy liturgy that has inspired its origin: Lumen Christi — the Light of Christ.”
12 Days and Flowers
How about the Twelve Days of Christmas? In 567, the Second Council of Tours (can. xi, xvii) declared the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany were holy. A millennium later, the song The Twelve Days of Christmas began as a hidden catechism for Catholics in England to learn and keep the faith alive. From 1558 to 1829, Parliament’s laws made practicing the Catholic faith punishable by imprisonment or execution. The song’s “true love” is really God, and each gift hides a meaning of the faith.
And while holly and evergreens have their wonderful Catholic symbolism, the poinsettia has a touching legend connected to Christmas and its origin in Mexico, where it blooms at Christmas and is called the “Flower of the Holy Night.”
In True Christmas Spirit, Father Edward Sutfin relates the story that begins on a Christmas Eve long ago. A poor little boy (some retellings say a girl) went to church “in great sadness because he had no gift to bring to the Holy Child.” He didn’t dare enter the church, but only knelt down outside, where he prayed with great fervor, tearfully telling Our Lord how much he wanted to give him a lovely present. He was afraid to enter the church with nothing to give.
“When he finally rose from his knees, he saw springing up at his feet a green plant with gorgeous blooms of dazzling red,” relates Father Sutfin. “His prayer had been answered; he broke some of the beautiful twigs from the plant and joyously entered the church to lay his gift at the foot of the Christ Child. Since then, the plant has spread over the whole country; it blooms every year at Christmastime with such glorious abandon that men are filled with the true holiday spirit at the mere sight of the Christmas flower, symbolic of the Savior’s birth.”
How enriched and in “bloom” will our Christmas be when we remember the origins of our decorations and reflect their meanings in our celebration of Jesus’ birth.
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.