Christmas History

The Symbols of Christmas

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 symbolizes high hopes and high ideals - hope for good fortune, hope for reaching above oneself. For all human beings, regardless of religion, stars have special meaning for all share the heavens, no matter what barriers keep them apart on earth.

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 jewelry, toy guns and swords, fruit and candy, in the 1850s.

Most nineteenth century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the 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 Christmas 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 colors 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, signaled 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.

In Poland, Christmas trees there were always angels, peacocks and other birds as well as many, many stars. In Sweden, trees are decorated with brightly painted wooden ornaments and straw figures of animals and children. In Denmark, tiny Danish flags along with mobiles of bells stars, snowflakes and hearts are hung on Christmas trees.

Japanese Christians prefer tiny fans and paper lanterns. Lithuanians cover their trees with straw bird cages, stars, and geometric shapes. The straw sends a wish for good crops in the coming year. Czechoslovakian trees display ornaments made from painted egg shells.

A Ukrainian Christmas tree has a spider and web for good luck. Legend has it that a poor woman with nothing to put on her children's tree woke on Christmas morning to find the branches covered with spider webs turned to silver by the rising sun.

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.

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 ancient Europeans. Druid priests employed it in their sacrifices to the gods while Celtic people felt 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.

Norsemen offer us a beautiful symbolic myth about mistletoe. The story goes 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.

What could be more natural than to translate the spirit of this old myth into a Christian way of thinking and accept the 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 cannot expect to marry the following year. Whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations.

Ivy, Laurel and Rosemary
Ivy has been a symbol of eternal life in the pagan world and then came to represent new promise and eternal life in the Christian world. Ivy is more of an English Christmas green than an American one. 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.

Laurel Among the Romans who remained pagan, the laurel leaf was sacred to the sun god Apollo. In the Christian sect it came to symbolize 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, is scarce in England. Substitutions such the common cherry laurel, the Portugal laurel, the Aucuba and others are often used. A British Christmas carol about the three kings leans heavily on the word "laurel". "We come walking with our staves, wreathed with laurel: We seek the King Jesus, Him that saves, To Bring Him laurel..."

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.

The Christmas Rose
A well known English plant, the Christmas rose is a true Christmas flower. It is sometimes called the Snow or Winter Rose. It blooms in the depths of winter in the mountains of Central Europe. Legend links it with the birth of Christ and a little shepherdess named Madelon.
As Madelon tented her sheep one cold and wintry night, wise men and other shepherds passed by the snow covered field where she was with their gifts for the Christ Child. The wise men carried the rich gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense and the shepherds, fruits, honey and doves. Poor Madelon began to weep at the thought of having nothing, not even a simple flower for the Newborn King. An angel, seeing her tears, brushed away the snow revealing a most beautiful white flower tipped with pink - the Christmas rose.

Also in central and northern Europe it is the custom to break off a branch of a cherry tree at the beginning of the Advent and keep it in water in a warm room; the flowers should burst into bloom at Christmas time.

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, as he traveled about, 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 the eternal life of Christ.

Another legend holds that Martin Luther, a founder of the Protestant faith, 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.

The Druids 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 their priests 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. In West England it is said sprigs of holly around a young girl's bed on Christmas Eve are suppose to keep away mischievous little goblins. In Germany, a piece that has been used in church decorations is regarded as a charm against lightning. In England, British farmers put sprigs of holly on their beehives. On the first Christmas, they believed, the bees hummed in honor of the Christ Child. The English also mention 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."

The Poinsettia
A favourite flower in the United States is the poinsettia, with its beautiful, red, star-shape. It is called the "Flame Leaf" in Central America or "Flower of the Holy Night" and was brought here over a hundred years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett, our first ambassador to Mexico. Most of the poinsettias used now come from California.

The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.

One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course other children teased them when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and so we see them today.

The Glastonbury Thorn
The Glastonbury thorn legend ties in Christ's death as well as the celebration of His birth. The legend goes that soon after the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea, the owner of the tomb in which Christ was buried, came to Britain to spread the message of Christianity. When he traveled there from the Holy Land he brought with him his staff. Being tired from his journey, he lay down to rest. In doing so, he pushed his staff into the ground beside him. When he awoke, he found that the staff had taken root and begun to grow and blossom. It is said he left it there and it has flowered every Christmas and every spring . It is also said that a puritan trying to cut down the tree was blinded by a spllinter of the wood before he could do so. The original thorn did eventually die but not before many cuttings had been taken. It is one of these very cuttings which is in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey today.

Christmas in Australia
Christmas in Australia seems to be more casual than anywhere else, from all the reports I've heard. We'll have breakfast with our immediate families, first, if we're staying at our own house or a hotel. It's normally bacon, eggs, toast, and black pudding (Yum!). Then, at about 11 am, we go to a relative's house or they come to ours - normally we swap each Christmas. We open some presents, and have our lunch, which would be prawns, and crab, things like that. After lunch, we open more presents, and explore them! Then, the 'over 30s' have a nap, while we younger ones give each other little presents, normally not more than five to ten dollars each. Then, we have a swim if there's a pool anywhere nearby, but if there isn't, we go to a park, or something like that. We have our main meal at dinner time. Turkey, chicken, fish, crab, prawns, potato, pumpkin, peas, pudding -the works. Then, we sit around, with the littlies drinking cordial and everyone else drinking wine, and reminisce over the year. Then we sleep. And that's all Christmas is over here.

Christmas in Austria
SALZBURG, Austria - A wide variety of holiday concerts are available to tourists visiting Austria during the holiday season. This is to be expected in a land that gave rise to the musical genius of Wolfgang Mozart, Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr. and Franz Schubert. Concert venues range from magnificent castles and fortresses to cruise boats on the Danube and a tiny chapel along the Salzach River.

The hottest ticket in Salzburg is for "Salzburger Adventsingen," a program of Advent music and folk lore which began more than a half century ago. With close to 100,000 ticket requests each year, only 30,000 will be lucky enough to gain admission. Still, there are dozens of other concerts to be heard each week during the Advent, Christmas, and New Year season.

Some of the most delightful are the candlelight concerts in the Hohensalzburg Fortress overlooking the city. If you´re lucky you may hear the unusual "Concerto for Strings and Alpenhorn" by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang´s father. Just be sure that you are not sitting in the front row where you will find several alpenhorns extending right off the stage. Other holiday concerts are held at the Mozarteum, at the outdoor Christmas Market, and in various churches and concert halls throughout the city.

Just outside Salzburg, on December 24, a torchlight and lantern procession will move from the Franz Gruber School in Arnsdorf to the Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf. You can join the procession and even sing the carols with people from all over the world who flock to the birthplace of the world´s best known Christmas carol, "Silent Night."

The Advent concert series in Innsbruck features groups of family singers and instrumentalists similar to the Trapp Family Singers of "Sound of Music" fame. In Austria, it´s not at all unusual to find families who play music, everything from classical to folk melodies, in their leisure hours. When they come together in concert at Innsbruck's Congress Hall, it becomes a memorable occasion.

Meanwhile in Vienna, choirs from around the world present traditional and modern Christmas songs and folk music in the ceremonial rooms of the Vienna City Hall on weekends in November and December as part of a yearly international choral festival. The fact is, every village, every hamlet, and every city in Austria will be filled with the glorious sounds of the holiday season throughout November and December. It is truly the land of the "Sound of Music."

Christmas in the Bahamas
Being a former British Colony, the Bahamas celebrate Christmas in the British traditional way. Celebrations began in the islands towards the middle of November with bazaars, fairs and dinners. Turkey and ham is the main course of the Christmas dinner with pies and cakes for dessert. just because we don't have snow, does not mean we don't have a Christmas! Yards and homes are brightly decorated with lights and animated figures. The Christmas season finally ends after New Year's Day.

Christmas In Greenland
Near Thule in Greenland, the Polar Eskimos do much visiting of families, drinking coffee and eating cakes and giving of brightly wrapped parcel, that may hold a model sledge, a pair of polished walrus tusks, or sealskin mitts. Everyone receives a gift and the children go from hut to hut singing songs.

Christmas trees are imported, as no trees live this far north. They are decorated with candles and bright ornaments. Lots of dancing goes on most of the night and after the coffee, cakes and carols, mattak, whaleskin with a strip of blubber inside, is passed around. Another festive food is kiviak. This Eskimo delicacy consists of little auks which have been buried whole in sealskin for several months until they have reached an advanced stage of decomposition.

Christmas is the one night in Greenland when the men look after the women, serving them coffee and stirring it for them. Games follow, including one in which an object is passed from hand to hand round a long table under the cloth. The item is supposed to be repulsive; round, clammy and rough in texture, such as a frozen egg, wrapped in strips of wet fox fur.


See also "UK Traditions "

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