Vienna Boys Choir - Carol of the Bells
The Christmas Quilt shown above
which I made for my daughter's family
displays the many familiar symbols of the Christmas Season.
We have come to learn their true meaning and origin.
It is a traditional practice for Catholic families to set up an Advent Wreath of greenery adorned by a set of four candles three violet-colored, and one rose-colored. Because Advent is a penitential season, it should not be highly decorated with colorful ornaments. The circular shape of the wreath is a symbol of eternity, and the greenery symbolizes hope and renewal. The colors of violet and rose candles symbolize penance and joy. Each candle also represents one of the four weeks of Advent, and one thousand years of the four thousand years that passed between Adam and Eve to Christ's coming. The first candle also recalls the Patriarchs; the second candle recalls the Prophets; the third candle recalls St. John the Baptist; and the final candle recalls Our Lady.
The dove has always been an universal symbol of peace, and when it is shown with an olive branch, it also means, "I am asking for forgiveness" or "I surrender". The meaning behind this symbol is very beautiful because it suggests one taking a posture of humility in the interests of creating peace and goodwill amongst men. The Dove also is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, Whom overshadowed the Virgin Mary, and by His Power, Our Lord Jesus conveived in her womb. The dove is thus a powerful symbol that captures the wonderful spirit of Christmas, which is one of friendship and benevolence, and the Incarnation: God made man.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico. They were named after America's first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett. He brought the plants to America in 1828. The Mexicans in the eighteenth century thought the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem. Thus the Poinsettia became associated with the Christmas season. The actual flower of the poinsettia is small and yellow. But surrounding the flower are large, bright red leaves, often mistaken for petals.
Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. They would gather this evergreen plant that is parasitic upon other trees and used it to decorate their homes. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion. Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably derived from this belief. The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins. Instead, church Fathers suggested the use of holly as an appropriate substitute for Christmas greenery.
The Wreath has an important place in the history of Christmas. According to historians, wreaths have had a special place in pre-Christian era itself. It is said that in Eastern Europe, people used to illuminate wreaths made of evergreen leaves in winters, with the belief that it would bring spring and sunshine. Though the exact origin of a Christmas wreath is not recorded, it is said that they originated before Christianity itself. Since its origin, the Christmas wreath has gone through a multitude of changes, but has retained its significance. It is used to symbolize the festive spirit of Christmas as well as an embellishment for the homes and premises. The decorations used for the wreath used to be nuts, seedpods, pinecones that were considered to be symbols of resurrection and permanence of life. Although Christmas wreath has now become more of a decorative wreath, the significance and importance of the wreath remains undeterred and shall remain so until eternity.
The Christmas tree is a symbol of immortality, resiliency, longevity, and rebirth. The pine's strength in the face of adversity makes it symbolic of those who have become strong through suffering, or who have kept to their beliefs and promises in spite of opposition.One Christmas Eve in 8th century Germany, the missionary, St. Boniface, gathered newly baptized Christians together to renounce paganism by cutting down the sacred oak they once sacrificed under. As it fell, the oak split into four pieces revealing a young pine growing in its center. Boniface suggested that the people take this pine as a symbol of their new-found Christian faith because it's shape points toward Heaven, and it's evergreen foliage reminds us of eternal life.The vertical symbolism of the pine tree was emphasized by Christians. This tree, which forever pointed heavenward, was a reminder to seek out heavenly rather than earthly treasures. It was a symbol of the saints, their self-denial, and their patience. A proper Christmas symbol, the tree was also a symbol of communication and mediation between heaven and earth because it's roots reached into the earth and its branches soared into the heavens.
The story of Christmas reminds us that from the beginning angels have been part of our revealed religion. It is an article of the Catholic faith that angels are real. In the New Testament the angels are integral to the mystery of the Incarnation. They are present to give God's message of the incarnation, first to the Blessed Virgin Mary, then to Zachariah, then to Joseph, finally to the shepherds.The word angel comes from the Greek word angelos which means 'messenger', and all through the Scriptural account the angels were God's messengers to mankind. In each situation the angels were not only God's messengers, but they were also channels of peace and joy. In every instance they serve God and point back to his glory. Angels proclaim and they praise God. "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of God will." (Matt. 2:14) The custom of placing an angel on the top of the Christmas tree traces back to Nuremberg, Germany. Papier-mâché and wax angels were suspended from a wire over the tree. The heat from the candles on the tree caused the angels to revolve.
Wisemen followed the mysterious Star of the East to worship the newborn King of the Jews. [Matt 2:1-10] Astronomers have as yet agreed upon no explanation for the appearance of this star. Although the star of Bethlehem is sometimes portrayed as a comet, falling stars are usually considered ill omens. At the end of the world "the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken." [Matt 24:29; Mk 13:25; Luke 21:25] As a general rule, stars were believed to mark the births and deaths of important persons, including kings. St. Dominic is shown with a star on his forehead or halo because one was said to have appeared there at his baptism. Stars symbolize great multitudes, heavenly favor, wisdom, guides, watchers, and aspirations.
The first Christmas trees were decorated with real fruit and flowers. Cookies, nuts , candies and other kinds of food were added later on. Lighted candles were also used but there was the danger of fires when the candles were lit. Tiny gifts were also hung on the trees for ornaments. In Germany glass blowers began making glass balls to decorate the trees. The circular shape is also reminiscent of heaven, so these are especially auspicious when you think of them as jewels descending from heaven to hang on Christmas trees.
St. Nicholas, was born in Turkey in the 4th century. He was very pious from an early age, devoting his life to Christianity. He became widely known for his generosity for the poor. But the Romans held him in contempt. He was imprisoned and tortured. But when Constantine became emperor of Rome, he allowed Nicholas to go free. Constantine became a Christian and convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicholas was a delegate to the council. He is especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity. He is the patron saint of sailors, Sicily, Greece, and Russia. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children. The Dutch kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas, which became corrupted to Sinterklaas, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which was later published as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit. However, his authorship is controversial. Some scholars suggest that it was Henry Livingston Jr. who wrote the poem.
In the late 1800's a candy maker in Indiana wanted to express the meaning of Christmas through a symbol made of candy. He came up with the idea of bending one of his white candy sticks into the shape of a Candy Cane. He incorporated several symbols of Christ's love and sacrifice through the Candy Cane. First, he used a plain white peppermint stick. The color white symbolizes the purity and sinless nature of Jesus. Next, he added three small stripes to symbolize the pain inflicted upon Jesus before His death on the cross. There are three of them to represent the Holy Trinity. He added a bold stripe to represent the blood Jesus shed for mankind. When looked at with the crook on top, it looks like a shepherd's staff because Jesus is the shepherd of man. If you turn it upside down, it becomes the letter J symbolizing the first letter in Jesus' name. The candy maker made these candy canes for Christmas, so everyone would remember what Christmas is all about.
Originally, children simply used one of their everyday socks, as a custom adapted from the story of Saint Nicholas, told since ancient time about a kind noble man who had three daughters. The wife of the nobleman expired and the daughters and their father were left in a state of sorrow. When the daughters became older and eligible for marriage, the poor father could not afford to give the huge dowries to their husbands. One evening the daughters, after washing their stockings hung them near the fire place to be dried. Nichols, Bishop of Myra, being moved by the plight of the daughters came in and put in three bags of gold one in each of the stocking hanging by the chimney. Eventually special Christmas stockings were created for this purpose. Many families create their own Christmas stockings with each family member's name applied to the stocking. From among traditions throughout the world, in Holland the children fill their shoes with hay and a carrot for the horse of Sintirklass. In Hungary children shine their shoes before putting them near the door or a window sill. Italian children leave their shoes out the night before Epiphany, January 5. And in Puerto Rico children put greens and flowers in small boxes and place them under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings.
Of all the Christmas decorations we so lovingly place around our homes, the one that is indispensable as it is central to the meaning of Christmas, is the Manger or Crèche. The crib should be a cherished part of the Christmas celebration in every family. It is not only completely religious in significance, but also presents to the children in a beautiful way the Birth of our Lord and Savior, assuming the character of a religious shrine in the houses of the faithful during Christmas season. It should be placed in an honored position, on a table or on some other support, not too high for the children to see it easily. Dignified decorations might enhance its attraction and solemnity. The origin of the Manger lies with Saint Francis of Assisi, who was so overwhelmed by the mystery of the Incarnation, that he wanted to present it again in Greccio with the living manger, thus becoming the initiator of this tradition of the Church. The Manger can help us, in fact, to understand the secret of the true Christmas, because it speaks of humility and the merciful goodness of Christ, who “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor”. (II Corinthians 8:9) His poverty enriches those who embrace it and Christmas brings joy and peace to those who, as the shepherds, accept in Bethlehem the words of the angel: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger". (Luke 2:12) It was, and still is, the custom to "unveil" the crib on Christmas Eve in a ceremony of spiritual significance. Parents and children gather before the crib or Nativity crèche, and one of the older children reads the Gospel of Bethlehem [Luke 2]. Then prayers are said and a Christmas carol is sung. At the conclusion of this simple rite, the members of the family wish each other a blessed and merry Christmas. It is at this moment that Christmas really begins in the home.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
The story of the Magi or Wise Men who came from the east is told in the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:1-12). They followed a star which led them to Bethlehem. There, they saw the Christ Child, worshipped Him, and gave Him precious gifts. The second chapter of St. Matthew also tells of Herod the Great's plot to kill the infant Jesus and of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus is it written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child, and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
When the sun goes down on December 24th, and darkness covers the land, families and churches prepare for participation in customs such as burning the yule log, singing around the decorated tree, kissing under the mistletoe and holly, and attending Midnight Mass. Throughout the years, Midnight Mass has been a popular Christmas Mass choice for many Catholics. In the early history of the Church, vigils were held before every feast for the purpose of preparing for the feast itself. Mass would be held in the evening. The vigil Mass for Christmas, held Christmas Eve, also differs from the Christmas Midnight Mass. Christmas Day actually has three separate Masses that are or can be held, in addition to the vigil – at midnight, at dawn, and during the day. It is not known exactly how the tradition of the three Masses originated, as even the origin of the feast of Christmas itself isn't certain – depending on the city, something resembling a Christmas celebration started in different years (and at varying times of the year, as well). By the end of the fourth century it was almost universally held on December 25, with Rome having started celebrating it on that date before 354, and Constantinople not before 379. The celebration of Epiphany on January 6 had previously been the major Christmas-like celebration, but once December 25 became the widely agreed-upon date of Christmas the celebrations moved to that date as well. Christmas as a liturgical feast falling on Dec. 25 originated at Rome, in or around the year 330. It is very likely that the feast was first celebrated in the newly completed basilica of St. Peter. Initially the privilege of three celebrations at Christmas was reserved to the Pope. The first evidence we have of a single priest celebrating the three Masses is from the Monastery of Cluny before the year 1156. All priests may still avail of this privilege and celebrate three Masses on Christmas Day providing they respect the proper hours. The first Mass of Christmas is celebrated at Midnight.
The use of large church bells to call the faithful to worship may have been started by Bishop Paulinus of Nola (431 A.D.) in Campania. For many, the sound of church bells ringing out on a Sunday morning bring to mind the commandments to keep the Sabbath holy and to meditate on the words of the Lord. [Ex 20:8-11; Josh 1:8; Ps 48:9] Their pitch and rhythm indicate joy, warning, or sorrow so that the community might rejoice with the joyful, and mourn with the sorrowful. They are a symbol of creativity and harmony; the creating Word, and the music of the spheres. [Gen 1; John 1:1-4] High in the towers, suspended between heaven and earth, bells and especially their clappers, represent communication and suspension between heaven and earth, or humans and God.