Figures of the festive season
FR APOLLO CARDOZO Christmas is round the corner and all Christians will be reverently and joyfully celebrating the feast of the birth of Jesus. While doing so, houses will be illuminated and decorated. There will be different programmes before and during the season. A number of symbols and figures are used while celebrating the feast of Christmas and here is a short history of the origins and meanings of a few traditional symbols and figures associated with Christmas
22nd December 2019, 02:33 Hrs
On the first Sunday in Advent, a wreath with candles is placed in the Church in a suitable place. One candle is lit on every successive Sunday. The wreath traditionally holds four candles, purple and pink in colour and which are lit one at a time on successive four Sundays. Each candle represents 1,000 years. Added together, the four candles symbolize the 4,000 years that humanity waited for the world’s Saviour, from Adam and Eve to Jesus, whose birth was foretold in the Old Testament.
The Advent wreath is also called the Advent crown symbolising the passage of the four weeks of Advent in the liturgical calendar. The candles demonstrate the strong contrast between darkness and light. So the advent wreath in a way helps us to contemplate the salvation history that surrounds the birth of God Incarnate.
The circular shape of the wreath is a symbol of God’s unending love for us that has no beginning and no end. The wreath, made of various evergreens, signifies continuous life.
The first candle, purple in colour, symbolizes hope. It is sometimes called the “Prophecy Candle” in remembrance of the prophets, especially Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ. It represents the expectation felt in anticipation of the coming Messiah.
The second candle, also purple, represents faith. It is called the “Bethlehem Candle” as a reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.
The third candle is pink and symbolizes joy. It is called the “Shepherd’s Candle,” and is pink because rose is a liturgical colour for joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday and is meant to remind us of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus, as well as the joy that the faithful have reached the midpoint of Advent.
On the fourth week of Advent, we light the final purple candle to mark the final week of prayer and penance as we wait for the birth of our Saviour. This final candle, the “Angel’s Candle,” symbolizes peace. It reminds us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.” Some wreaths have five candles and the last candle is white in colour and it is placed in the middle of the wreath. This candle is called ‘Christ Candle,’ which is lit on the eve of Christmas. It represents purity and the life of Christ. Another wreath called the Christmas Wreath is placed on the walls or the doors of the houses of the faithful. This is seen as an invitation to the spirit of Christmas to enter the homes and bring luck.
The Nativity scene is an important part of the celebration of the Christmas. Christians will prepare Cribs, enacting the Nativity scene, depicting Mary and Joseph in the stable with the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by shepherds with their sheep and with the optional extras of the Magi and with other appropriate innovations.
We read in the Bible that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the child was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The credit of creating the first Christmas Crib (crèche) is given to Saint Francis of Assisi, who is said to have done this in 1223 at Greccio, central Italy. It was staged in a cave near Greccio. Saint Francis’ Nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles.
Francis is supposed to have asked Sir John, (Messier Giovanni Velitta), a very holy man who stood in high esteem, two weeks before the feast of Christmas, to make elaborate preparations for this crib so that Christmas could be celebrated that year in a unique way. The good and faithful John did as Francis told him.
On the eve of Christmas, after everything was in its place in the crib, holy Eucharist began. Francis dressed in deacon’s vestments, read the gospel. Then he preached a delightful sermon to the people. It is recorded that after the Mass, St. Francis went to the crib and stretched out his arms as though the Holy Child was there, and brought into being by the intensity of his devotion, the babe appeared and the empty manger was filled with the radiance of the new born King.
St Bonaventure (a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death), mentions about it in his book on St Francis of Assisi in 1260. According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorius III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Greccio. He then invited the villagers to come and gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem”.
The nativity scene’s popularity took off from there. Within a couple of centuries, nativity scenes spread throughout Europe. Eventually statues replaced human and animal participants and so too static scenes.
Cribs differ in size, magnitude, from the card crib to statues of the human and animal participants. Homes may have small cribs, chapels and churches bigger ones and in villages very elaborate ones. The whole season of advent and days that follow the birth of Jesus resounds the spirit of Christmas.
Prior to Christmas cards, Christmas greetings were usually exchanged orally between families and friends. The origin of Christmas cards can be traced to United Kingdom, when in 1843 Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant and the first Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with his friend John Hersley, an artist, designed the first Christmas card and sold them for a shilling each.
The card had three panels, the outer panels showing people caring for the poor, the central panel depicting a family having a large Christmas dinner. This card did not become popular because it depicted the scene of a child holding a wine glass.
Later there were other cards that became popular among the artistic and literary circles. Much later as the printing methods improved and so too the mail service, it is said that Christmas cards became much more popular and hence printed in large numbers from about 1860.
In the US, Christmas cards appeared in the late 1840s but due to its cost they were not very popular. In 1875, Louis Prang, a printer began mass production of cards and hence their popularity spread.
In the 1910s and 1920s, homemade cards became popular. These were usually too delicate to send through the post and were given by hand. The cards have religious pictures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus or other pictures of the Christmas story.
The traditional wordings on the cards are ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.’ Of course, there are variations in the greetings, some expressing more religious sentiments or even some prayers, poems or verses from the Bible.
Now we have the e-cards that express similar sentiments. Nowadays, cards have all sorts of pictures on them, from the Nativity scene to sceneries with a Christmas and a New Year message. Christmas greetings are sent to family members, friends etc, to convey the spirit of Christmas.
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