Sat, 06 Jun, 2020

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.   

Alongside the crib or in an appropriate place in Catholic houses on Christmas day or on eve, Christians place the Christmas trees. Christmas tree is an evergreen tree, decorated with lights and ornaments as a part of Christmas festivities.   
There are a number of legends and traditions associated with the origin of the Christmas Tree. For thousands of years, long before the advent of Christianity, evergreen trees and plants were used to celebrate winter festivals in Europe. The early Romans would use evergreens to decorate the temples at Saturnalia festival, ancient Egyptians would use green palm rushes as part of their worship of god Ra. Much later in the Middle Ages, the Germans and the Scandinavians placed evergreen trees in their homes or outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring.   
It is said that the modern day Christmas tree seems to have evolved from these early German traditions. One legend points to Boniface, an English Benedictine monk, famous for his missionary work in Germany, for the origin of the Christmas tree. It seems that Boniface encountered some native Germans performing some sacrifices in front of a mighty oak tree (oak trees being sacred to the god Thor). Boniface seized his axe and felled the tree in order to stop the pagans worshipping a false idol. But before he could cut it down, a mighty blast of wind came and finished the job for him. The giant tree was shattered into four great pieces.   
The pagans were waiting for him to be struck down by lightning, but this did not happen. So he took the opportunity to convert them. Then the legend has it that from this cut down oak tree, a fir tree grew out. The Germans cut the wood from the fallen oak tree and used it to build a chapel there.   
St Boniface took this as a sign of the Christian faith and his followers decorated the tree with candles so that the saint could preach to the pagans at night. They introduced this custom in the United States after 1776. It seems that this custom was introduced in Britain after 1848.   
Another legend speaks of a forester visiting a family on a cold Christmas Eve, who had gathered round the fire to keep warm. He was given shelter for the night in the house but the following morning they were awakened by the singing by a choir of angels and the forester had turned into the child Jesus, who going into their garden, broke a branch off a Fir tree and gave it to the family as a present to say thank you, for looking after him.   
Ever since then, people have remembered that night by bringing Christmas Tree into their homes. The early Christians always held the fir as the symbol of the Tree of Life and hence in the years that followed, they added candles and fruits to it, the candles representing the light of Christ. The Christmas tree then is a symbol of joy, of good will and love.  

Santa Claus is seen distributing gifts to children who wait for his arrival. When did he originate?   
The name Santa Claus is the English form of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas Sinterklaas, a monk of the 3rd century of Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey, who was admired for his kindness and piety. He became famous for his generosity to the poor. He has become the subject of many legends.   
One legend speaks of him helping a poor family who had three daughters at the time of their marriage. Another speaks of the shipwrecked sailors praying to him for their safety. He seems to have appeared there and calmed the rough sea.   
His popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. After his death, a tradition of giving gifts was started in his honour. He was the most popular saint in Europe during the renaissance. His popularity declined during the period of protestant reformation.   
He became quite popular in UK, particularly in England and was known as ‘Father Christmas’ or Old Man Christmas’ who distributed gifts to children. His popularity soon spread to other countries. Soon carols were composed on him. 

With the dawn of the season of advent, one hears Christmas carols in the air with varied tunes and lyrics. There are the traditional ones and the modern ones, both ringing out the fervour of Christmas. When was the first Christmas carol sung? What was its nature and what does it signify?   
The word ‘carol’ comes from the French word Carole, means circle dance or a song of praise or joy. They were not Christian carols but pagan ones sung thousands of years ago at Winter Solstice celebrations. Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has survived. The early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs.   
The first century Christmas hymn was Angel’s Hymn and later many more were written in Latin. Then many composers began to compose Christmas carols but they were in Latin and hence were not popular. By the middle ages, majority of Christians lost interest in the singing of Christmas carols. St Francis of Assisi revived the lost interest by putting on Nativity plays in Italy in which majority of the songs were written in the language of the common people.   
Thus, the singing of carols spread throughout Europe. The earliest carol was written in 1410 but sadly only a small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most of the carols from this time were hardly sung in the Church as they were found inappropriate and not scriptural but simply light-hearted stories sung by travelling minstrels.   
Then with the coming of Puritans in England, singing of carols disappeared from Church services altogether. There was a revival of hymns and Christmas carols in the language of the people during the Victorian period when William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected old Christmas music from villages of England.   
People now began singing carols in their homes, on the streets, in the churches; for fun and for money too. The tradition of ‘Carolling’ from house to house was born, along with the giving of alms to the singers.   

The Star of Bethlehem, nowadays often called the Christmas Star, is a major seasonal symbol throughout the world. In all the Christian houses, chapels and churches, Christmas decorations are incomplete without a Star. Churches even hold star competitions. Why do we put a star in front of our houses?   
In the gospel of St Matthew we read, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him’.”   
Herod was troubled not because of the appearance of the star, but the child born was to be the king. He enquired from the wise men the time when the star appeared. The above account suggests that the Magi from seeing the star, interpreted that the king of the Jews was born even before they arrived in Jerusalem.   
The Star of Bethlehem has been understood by many Christians as a miraculous symbol of the birth of Jesus. The ancients — the Greeks, Romans and even the Hebrews -- believed that astronomical phenomena heralded actual events on earth, such as the birth of important rulers and heroes.   
Scholars have different theories about the appearance of Star. The evangelist Matthew speaks about it in his account. Some affirm that ‘star in the east’ could be a heliacal rising, where a constellation or planet appears in the sky just before sunrise.   
Another theory speaks of the Star of Bethlehem as the comet. A third possibility is that it could have been a nova or supernova, which appears from time to time in the sky. Orthodox churches and others speak about the star of Bethlehem as an ‘angel’ that guided the wise men to Bethlehem. 

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