Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings, Part 3

Today we conclude our series on Christmas symbols and their meanings.

Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a corrupted form of Saint Nicholas. He was the fourth Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, and his feast day is December 6. Saint Nicholas was very generous to the poor, but most of the time he kept his identity a secret. The most well-known story is about three young women whose destitute father was going to force them into prostitution so they could survive. To prevent this, Nicholas, secretly went to their home on three separate nights and threw a bag of gold though an open window. Over time, the bishop’s miter and fur trimmed red winter garments became Santa’s outfit, and Saint Nicholas’s generosity was attributed to the “jolly old man” who delivers gifts anonymously on Christmas Eve.

Sugar and Christmas Candy. Sugar isn’t found in Scripture, and for centuries only the wealthy could afford it, while lower classes used honey or molasses as sweeteners. References to honey are found frequently in Scripture. The sweets we consume at Christmas remind us of the sweetness of God’s presence that come into the world on Christmas in the form of Jesus.

Yule Log. The Yule log is a large log that is burned during traditional Christmas celebrations. Yule, which means sun or light, was a festival in honor of the sun god. The 25th of December was the birthday of the Roman god Mithras, who was known as the unconquered sun. Christians can see how the Lord used this symbol to prepare the pagans for Christ, the son of God, the eternal Light, the God of all gods.

The Yule log is reminiscent of Christ’s cross, made of wood. As the burning log gives light as it “dies,” so the death of Christ on the cross brought our world from the darkness of sin into the light of faith. As the burning of the log was thought to bring health, fruitfulness, and prosperity and to ward off evil spirits, so Christ’s sacrificial death brought to those who believe in Him the fruits of the Holy Spirit, health of soul, and prosperity in their spiritual life. Through His death, Christ conquered all evil spirits for all time. Burning the Yule log for twelve days prepared the pagans to recall the twelve tribes of Israel, which preceded Christ, and the twelve apostles whom Our Lord sent to spread the fire of the Holy Spirit to light up all the world.

Wreath. Wreaths combine several Christmas symbols including holly, fruit, mistletoe, evergreens, tinsel, and so on, all of which retain their symbolism on the wreath.

Advent Wreath. The Advent Wreath combines the symbolism of wreathes, evergreens, candles, and holly, when used. In addition, the Advent wreath uses the symbolic colors purple and pink. In an Advent Wreath, three purple candles, signifying penance, prayer, and preparation for Christmas, and one pink candle, symbolizing joy, are spaced equidistantly around the wreath. Each candle represents 1,000 years which, taken together, equal the traditional sense of 4,000 years from Adam to the birth of Christ. The purple candles are lighted on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent, and the pink one on the third Sunday. The white candle in the wreath’s center symbolizes the birth of Christ, the Light of the World and the center of all creation.

Ham. The wild boar, which can normally reach 440 lbs.(200 kg) and occasionally larger (up to 660 lbs. [300 kg]) is the wild ancestor of the domestic pig. Hunting boar was a dangerous sport in medieval times because a boar was powerful, unpredictable, and aggressive. With its massive weight, sharp hooves, short pointed tusks, and quick movements, a boar could easily attack and kill a man. Christians saw in the boar a symbol of Satan who, in the spiritual realm, could unpredictably and aggressively attack and even spiritually kill the soul.

In some artistic renditions of Satan, this enemy of God is portrayed as resembling a boar (sharp hoofed feet, tusks or fangs, hairy, large). Therefore, Christians easily adapted the Scandinavian custom of slaughtering a pig at Yule time to honor the god Freyr who ruled over the sun, rain, and produce of the fields. By carrying into their Christmas feasts a boar’s head on a platter, Christians were proclaiming that Jesus has the ultimate victory over Satan, symbolized by the boar. The Christmas ham is an adaptation of this custom.

Christmas Cookies, Breads, Pastries. Christmas pastries are made with flour and remind us of the many uses of bread in Scripture. The Jewish people offered cakes made with oil to the Lord. The Israelites took their unleavened loaves with them when they fled Egypt. They recalled this event yearly in the feast of Unleavened Bread. The manna in the desert tasted like wafers made with honey. Elijah performed a miracle in which a widow’s flour did not run out during a time of famine. When David brought the Ark of God back to Jerusalem, he gave each person in Israel a loaf of bread, a cut of meat, and a raisin cake. Jesus multiplied loaves twice in Scripture and came as the Bread of Life. He comes to us in every Mass under the form of Eucharistic bread and wine. This rich history is present to us with every taste of Christmas pastries.

Stocking. The tradition of placing gifts into Christmas stockings come from another tradition regarding Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. In this tradition, the three women who needed dowries in order to be kept from a life of prostitution had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry. When the saint came by to help them, the money that he threw into their house fortuitously landed in the stockings. The tradition of naughty children receiving a lump of coal in their stockings comes from Italy. Because stockings cover our feet, they symbolize our life’s journey. If our journey takes us closer to God, He rewards us with the joys and happiness of eternal life. But if we constantly turn from Him, we will do so in eternity as well. In popular imagination, satan stokes the fires of hell with coal. Hence, coal in the stocking of naughty children is a somber reminder of damnation while the gifts good children receive foreshadow their eternal reward.

I wish you all the most blessed of Christmases and a joyous New Year!

Excerpted from Confraternity of Penitents.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings, Part 2

I found a fascinating discussion of Christmas symbols and their meanings of the Web site of the Confraternity of Penitents, from which the following discussion is excerpted.

Gifts. The wise men who brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh inspired the concept of gift giving at Christmas. At Christmas, however, many people focus on giving and receiving gifts instead of on the greatest gift of Jesus that God gave to us at Bethlehem.

Fruit. At Christmas, people often give fruit baskets as gifts. At the turn of the 1900s, good children would receive an orange as a Christmas present. Many Christmas dinners feature fruit such as cranberry sauce. As a Christmas symbol, fruit recalls the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit that are a result of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Christmas Tree. In the early 700’s, Saint Boniface, who converted the German people to Christianity, cut down the Oak of Thor, the mighty sacred tree worshipped by the Saxons. From its roots grew a fir tree that Boniface took as a sign of the Christian faith. In the 11th century, Paradise plays portrayed the tree of Paradise decorated with red apples. During the 15th century, the faithful began to place trees in their homes on December 24, which was the feast day of Adam and Eve. Around the year 1500, Martin Luther was inspired by the beauty of a snow covered fir tree to bring a small tree inside and decorate it with candles in honor of Christ’s birth.

By the 18th century, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was well established in France, Germany, and Austria, and in America by the 1800s. The Christmas tree represents the original Tree of Paradise, the burning bush that spoke to Moses, the branch of Jesse from which Jesus was born, the life-giving tree of the cross of Christ, and the tree that John saw in the book of Revelation, whose leaves provide medicine for the people and which yields fruit each month for the healing of the nations. Because it is always green, the evergreen tree represents hope. Its needles and its narrow crest point upward, turning our thoughts to heaven. As the tree is cut down, and then put up again, it symbolizes Christ’s resurrection.

Candles And Christmas Lights. In the Advent wreath, a purple candle symbolizing penance is lighted for the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. A pink candle symbolizing joy is lighted on the third Sunday of Advent. A white candle in the center of the wreath symbolizing Christ’s purity is lighted on Christmas Day. Before electricity, people used candles to light their homes and to decorate their Christmas trees. Candles and Christmas lights represent Christ, the Light of the World.

Bells. Jewish high priests wore bells on the bottom hem of their ephods so that when they ministered in the temple, the tinkling sound could be heard as the priest entered and left God’s presence in order to keep him from dying. Christmas bells not only symbolize the joy of Christmas, but they also remind us that Christ is our great high priest, who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins once for all.

Candy Canes. The candy cane is shaped like a shepherd’s crook, reminding us that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came into our world at Christmas. The red stripe symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice and the white background his purity. The candy cane reminds us of Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant who was led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7) and by his stripes you were healed (Isaiah 53:5). Candy canes have a peppermint flavor, reminiscent of hyssop, which has cleansing medicinal purposes. Jesus came to heal our ills and to purge us of sin. When Jesus was crucified, a bystander stuck a wine-filled sponge on a branch of hyssop to give Jesus a drink. The peppermint flavor reminds us that our healing came at the price of Christ’s life. The candy cane is meant to be broken and shared, just as Jesus’ body was broken on the cross and shared through the gospel.

Gingerbread Men. Gingerbread men are created, reminding us God’s creation of Adam and Eve, and God’s creation of each of us. Spices, reminiscent of those mentioned in the Old Testament, make the gingerbread man the color of the earth from which Adam was created. Gingerbread people are created to be eaten, in effect reuniting with their creators, just as God created us for eternal union with Him after we die.

Please join me tomorrow for Part 3 of Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings!

Excerpted from Confraternity of Penitents.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings, Part 1

Over the centuries the wreath and other plants often used during the Christmas season have held a variety of meanings for Christians.

Evergreens. Evergreens are plants that retain their green leaves or needles all year round. Many pagan cultures worshipped evergreens as symbols of immortality, and used them to ward off evil spirits. Europeans favored the evergreens familiar from German and Celtic solstice festivities. In the cold north evergreens represented light and life at a time of darkness and despair. The torch and plants that stayed green all year were favorite winter symbols. A wreath with burning candles is related to the Yule log burned during the twelve-day Norse winter festival of Jol to bring good luck. For the Swedish festival of St. Lucia, on December 13, each family’s oldest daughter wears a headpiece decorated with greenery and nine lighted candles. Christmas candles may also be related to Hanukkah candles since both festivals celebrate holy light.

Laurel. Early Roman Christians used laurel in their Christmas decorations because it symbolized victory, glory, and cleansing from guilt.

Holly. European Christians in the Middle Ages believed the prickly leaves and red berries of holly represented thorns and drops of blood. Some Christians also believed that the cross was made of holly wood.

Mistletoe. An old Scandanavian custom that enemies who met under mistletoe in the forest were to lay down their weapons and maintain a truce until the following day eventually led to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. Mistletoe is usually excluded from church greenery partially for that reason, but also because Druids worshiped the plant, believing it could cure diseases.

Christmas Wreath. The wreath is probably related to circlets worn on the head in cultures such as ancient Persia and Greece. The word wreath comes from an old English word, meaning to writhe or twist. Greens twisted into a circle made “crowns” for kings, military leaders, and athletes. Because wreaths, due to their circular shape, symbolize eternity, the circle of life, and endless hope, people began to decorate their homes with them at Christmas. Because a wreath has neither beginning nor end, but is a continuous circle, it symbolizes God.

Poinsettia. The poinsettia may be the only Christmas plant that doesn’t have pagan superstitions attached to it. In 1829 Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, American ambassador to Mexico, introduced poinsettias to this country. Mexicans call it the “flower of Holy Night” because its colorful bracts form a star shape. Mexican legend tells of a poor boy who was afraid to enter the church on a long-ago Christmas Eve because he had no gift to bring baby Jesus. After praying, he looked up to see a poinsettia blooming at his feet and joyfully offered the flower to the Christ Child.

Please join me tomorrow for Part 2 of Christmas Symbols and their Meanings!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dating Christ’s Birthday

Obviously the exact date of Christ’s birth has never been credibly established, although there have been a number of attempts to do so. Church leaders early on began to speculate on the actual date of Jesus’ birth, with a number of dates being proposed. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20, while other church leaders argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) advocated January 2, and others argued for November 17, November 20, and March 25.

A Latin treatise written around 243 set the date as March 21, the supposed date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had already followed the same logic in concluding that Christ’s birth and baptism most likely occurred on a Wednesday because God created the sun on the fourth day of the week. But there wasn’t enough evidence available to conclusively prove any of these dates, and there were serious flaws to the calculations behind all of them.

So why was December 25 chosen as the date of Jesus’ birth? For one thing, December 25 was sacred not only to the Romans, but also to the Persians, whose religion was one of Christianity’s main rivals during the first century. Some scholars claim that the celebration of the Christ mass was instituted to compete with the pagan traditions that were creeping into the church.

From the beginning, celebrating Christmas was controversial. Origen (c.185 to c. 254) preached that the celebration of birthdays was for pagan gods, and that Christ would be dishonored if his birth was celebrated in the same way the pagans honored their rulers. The giving of lavish gifts and excesses of eating and drinking that accompanied pagan celebrations contrasted drastically with the nativity’s simplicity and offended church leaders. Even today, many people condemn these traditions as being contrary to the true spirit of Christmas.

Not all of Origen’s contemporaries agreed that Christ’s birthday should not be celebrated, however. In fact, the nativity has been observed in some form since 98 AD, and in 137 the bishop of Rome established it as a solemn feast day. As Christianity spread, individual churches increasingly adapted traditions from some of the pagan winter festivals practiced throughout the Middle East and Europe, such as hanging evergreens and giving presents, for their celebration of Jesus’ birth.

For the first three centuries of the Common Era, the celebration of Christ’s birth didn’t take place in December. When individual churches observed the nativity, they usually did so on January 6 during Epiphany, one of the church’s earliest feasts. Western Christians first celebrated the Christ mass on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion. That was the date of two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti, the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun,” and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier.

Since pagans already honored deities with some parallels to the true God, church leaders decided to appropriate the date by substituting their own festival. So in 350 AD, Pope Julius I set the observance of the Christ mass on December 25.

Although Eastern churches initially held on to January 6 as the date for Christ’s birth and baptism, most eventually also adopted December 25, while still celebrating his baptism on January 6. The Armenian Church continues to celebrate the nativity on January 6, while the Western church designates Epiphany as the date the Magi located the Christ child. The earliest English reference to December 25 as Christmas first appeared in late Old English in 1038 as Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ.

Many of our traditional Christmas customs appeared during the Middle Ages. The tradition of reenacting the nativity scene was introduced by Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), when on Christmas Eve 1223, he and his companions worshiped in a cave near Greccio, Italy, surrounded by the traditional oxen, sheep, and donkeys. Saint Francis’ friars wrote the first festive songs that became the first Christmas carols. By the fourteenth century, carols were firmly established as a treasured part of the religious observance of Christ’s birthday.

Although the pagan origins of the date of Christmas and of many Christmas traditions have caused opposition to the holiday from the beginning, in general the church has viewed efforts to reshape the surrounding secular culture in a positive light. In 320 one theologian wrote, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”

And to that, I say, Amen!

Tomorrow we’ll talk about our traditional Christmas symbols and their meanings. Be sure to stop by!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Celebrating Jesus' Birth

When Was Jesus Born?

There have been a number of theories about when Christ was actually born, but most of the evidence points to either 5 or 4 BC. The Bible records that Jesus was born during Herod’s reign, and Herod died in 4 BC. Consequently, Jesus could not have been born any later than 4 BC.

The scriptures also mention a Roman census at the time of Jesus birth. It is known that Herod the Great was a friend of Mark Antony. He, in turn, was on intimate terms with Caesar Augustus, who ordered this census. The census that most closely corresponds to the one mentioned in Luke is the Imperial Citizens Census decreed in 8 BC. Undoubtedly such an extensive census would have taken several years to complete and probably reached Palestine around 6 to 5 BC.

If Jesus was born in the winter of 6 BC, he would have been close to two years old when Herod ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem to be killed not long before he died a painful death in the spring of 4 BC. If Jesus was born in 5 BC, then he would still have been a baby when his parents secretly fled with him to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous designs.

Where Was Jesus Born?

Accounts of Jesus’ birth were documented early on. Origen (185-254 AD) wrote that he saw “the grotto with the manger where He [Jesus] was swaddled.” Stone feeding troughs contemporary to Jesus’ time have been excavated in stables in Bethlehem. The grotto that is the traditional birthplace has been saved from destruction several times. The first was because Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) tried to destroy the new Christian religion by building a temple to Adonis there. The result of his efforts was that the grotto was preserved, along with a record of its location and significance.

The first full account of a Christmas service at the grotto was written in the fourth century. Aetheria, a nun, described hangings of silk, decorations of gold and jewels, numerous lamps and candelabra, and the chanting of psalms during the sacrament of the Mass.

Who Were the Magi?

These unnamed wise men were likely Zoroastrians from Persia. Since they are known to have studied the stars, it would have been natural for them to investigate an astrological phenomenon like the one recorded as announcing Jesus’ birth. It is also very credible that the journey from Persia to Bethlehem could have taken up to two years.

What Was the Star?

There are two theories that may identify the star the Magi followed to Bethlehem .

First, in December of 7 BC there was a confluence of Jupiter and Saturn. By February of 6 BC Mars was in close proximity to the two planets. Astrologically, this is known as Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces. To the ancients, Jupiter represented the greatest of the gods, while the sign of Pisces (the fish) would indicate that a very important ruler was to be born.

The second possibility is a comet that appeared for about seventy days in the late winter or early spring of 5-4 BC. Another comet then appeared in March of 4 BC. The Greek term for star is aster, which can be interpreted as any astrological phenomenon. That makes either of these comets also a possibility for the star that announced Jesus’ birth, especially since they would have been visible from Persia and would have appeared to be traveling westward.

Paul L. Maier suggests that the configuration of Jupiter with Saturn in 7-6 BC alerted the Magi that a new ruler would soon be born. Then when the comet of 5 BC appeared with its brilliant light, it is very believable that they would have followed it. Maier also believes that when Herod questioned the Magi about when they first saw the star, they described the astrological sign they had observed two years earlier. This would explain why Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem less than two years old killed.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about how the church set the official date of Christ’s birth. Please join me!

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Christmas Primer

And a very hearty HO HO HO to everyone!! It’s the season to be merry so, in the true spirit of Christmas past, for the next few days I’m going to delve into some little-known aspects of the history, traditions, and symbols of the Christmas celebration. We’ll get back to the Great Awakening after New Year’s Day.

Let’s start off with an overview of ancient festivities that bear some similarity to our modern-day celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Ancient Winter Celebrations

Many of the traditions reflected in our contemporary Christmas celebrations are actually over 4,000 years old, dating to a time long before the Christ child was born. Traditions such as the twelve days of Christmas, the Yule log, giving gifts, parades, carolers, and holiday feasts can be traced as far back as Mesopotamian New Year’s celebrations.

The Mesopotamians believed that each year as winter arrived, their chief god, Marduk, battled the monsters of chaos. During their New Year’s festival, Zagmuk, which lasted for twelve days, the Mesopotamian king would visit the temple of Marduk to swear his allegiance to the god. According to Mesopotamian tradition, the king would die at the end of the year and return with Marduk to battle at his side. To spare their king from death, the Mesopotamians chose a criminal, dressed him in royal clothes, and gave him all the respect and privileges of a real king. At the end of the celebration the mock king was slain as a sacrifice to spare the life of the real king. The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a similar festival called the Sacaea in which slaves became the masters and their masters had to obey them.

In Phrygia the birth of the sun-god Attis was celebrated on December 25th, as was the birth of the Persian sun-god Mithras (photo). The ancient Greeks held a similar festival to assist their god Kronos in his battle with Zeus and his Titans. From December 17 to 24 Romans celebrated the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of peace and plenty. They decked their homes with garlands of laurel and with green trees lighted with candles. Both slaves and masters participated in masquerades, banquets, and visiting and exchanged good-luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits).

Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts, and trolls. In Scandinavia during the winter months the sun would disappear for many days. As the winter solstice approached, special rituals and celebrations were held to ensure that the sun would return. After thirty-five days scouts would go to the mountaintops to watch for the sun’s return. When they saw the first light, the Yuletide festival began with a special feast that included the burning of the Yule log, a part of the Scandanavians’ worship of vegetation and fire associated with magical and spiritual powers.

People also lit great bonfires to celebrate the sun’s return. In some areas they tied apples to tree branches as a reminder that spring and summer would return. The Celts of the British Isles revered all green plants, but particularly mistletoe and holly. Important symbols of fertility, these plants were used for decorating homes and altars.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how the celebration of Christ’s birthday came about.