It’s that time of the year again. There’s a nip in the air. I hear the faint strains of Oh Come All Ye Faithful drift through the air as the lights on my Christmas tree twinkle in the dark. Three days to go before Christmas. Snow is falling all around, children laughing, having fun, tis the season of love and understanding, Merry Christmas everyone…I hum the tune in a loop as I pen down this blog.
Start December and the air is filled with cheer and romance. While you enjoy the season, have you ever wonder what Christmas is all about, who is Santa, what’s mistletoe and why do people play Christmas carols. Most of the traditions we follow today have their origin in the Victorian Era of the 1860s. Read on to learn more about your favourite time of the year:
Nativity Scene / Crib: Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. To Christians across the world, Jesus is the Savior who was born to the Virgin Mary and Joseph on 25th Dec, over 2000 years ago. The word nativity comes from the latin word ‘natal’ which means birth. The crib or the manger is re-created to remind us of the birth of baby Jesus. Jesus chose to come to earth as a little baby, born in humility in a cattle shed in Bethlehem, in Palestine. Today Churches and many homes across the world recreate a small crib to remind us of the birth of the Saviour. In some countries such as Italy and Malta, and many South American countries, the crib is the most important Christmas decoration.
Star: The star signifies the Star of Bethlehem that led the 3 Kings from the East (today’s Iran) to the manger where baby Jesus was born. The 3 Kings or wise men (astronomers) realised the star signified the birth of a King and followed the direction of the Star that led them to pay homage to Jesus. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Angles: Close to the manger where the baby Jesus was born, there stood shepherds watching over their flock that night, when all of a sudden a host of angels appeared in the sky before them singing the Gloria and giving praise to God. It was then that the Shepherds realised something wonderful had taken place that night and went in search, where they discovered the little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.
Christmas Tree: The centre of every family gathering, the Christmas tree today has become a worldwide symbol of good cheer. The Christmas tree is a European tradition that arose in the 16th century in Germany. Fir or Pine trees were decorated with apples, coloured papers and candies. When Prince Albert of Germany married Queen Victoria of England, he took with him this evergreen tree. A pic of their marriage with the decorated tree at the centre was splashed across magazines in America and the custom spread to nearly every home in few years.
Christmas Carols: You’ve sung them while clutching cups of hot cocoa, cozying up at the fireplace, or stomping through snowdrifts. You’ve heard them played in cafes, churches, and parties (I even quoted two at the start of the blog). You know their words by heart, yet no one knows the precise history behind caroling. How they originated, who wrote them and where they evolved is unclear. Carolling began in England. Wandering musicians would travel from town to town visiting castles and homes of the rich. In return for their performance, the musicians hoped to receive a hot meal or money. Carols celebrating the nativity, or birth of Jesus Christ, were first written in Latin in the 4th and 5th centuries. The legend behind one of the most popular Christmas carol in the world plays out as a sort of Christmas miracle, Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, was determined to have music at his Christmas Eve service on 24th Dec 1818 even though the organ at his beloved St Nicholas Church was broken. So, the poem he penned in 1816 “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht he handed over to his friend Franz Gruber to compose a tune for it that would not demand an organ and together they both sang the song during the service. Surrounding this premiere performance of Silent Night the carol was translated into English more than 40 years later and has today been translated into 142 languages and to date remains the most loved Christmas Carol.
Mistletoe: Mistletoe is a plant that grows on trees including willow, apple and oak trees. It was used as a symbol of love and friendship in Norse mythology thereby originating the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe : any man and woman that met under the mistletoe have to stop and share a kiss. After each kiss a berry is plucked from the bush. The use of mistletoe as a Christmas decoration is very common till today.
Santa and Christmas Stockings: The origin of Santa dates back to today’s modern day Turkey. There was an old man with three beautiful daughters who had no money to get them married. St Nicholas was riding through the village (Myra, Turkey) and heard of this story. Feeling bad for the man, he crept down the chimney that night and found stockings that the daughters had hung by the fireplace to dry. Into these 3 stockings he placed a bag of gold each. The next morning the 3 beautiful women and their father were overjoyed. Ever since, children have hung stockings by the fireplace hoping to be filled with presents. However, in the 16th Century in Europe, after the reformation, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas became unpopular. But someone had to deliver presents to children at Christmas, so in England, he became ‘Father Christmas’ or Old Man Christmas, in France he was known as Père Nöel and in the USA he became Santa Claus. Today Santa lives in Finland in a small village called, Rovaniemi made year round famous by Santa tourism. He comes dashing through the snow, riding his sledge pulled by eight reindeer, the famous being Rudolph the red nosed reindeer (another carol J)
Candy Cane: According to popular legend in the 17th century a German choir conductor wished to find a way to get the children to be quiet in church during Christmas Eve ceremonies. He asked the local sweet maker to make sweet sticks for the children but in order to justify the giving of candy during worship he had the sweet maker add a crook to the tip of each sweet (to resemble the crooks of the shepherds at the birth of Jesus) and to make them red and white (white to symbolize the purity of Jesus and red the blood of Jesus). These candy canes then spread through Europe while being given out at nativity plays.
Poinsettia: This plant has its association in Mexico, where a young girl who was too poor to pay for a present to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Angels inspired her to pick weeds to place in front of the church alter and these weeds transformed into poinsettias when gorgeous crimson blossoms sprouted from them. Today these beautiful flowers are popular Christmas decorations adorning homes and gardens
Bells: Bells, especially Church Bells, have always been associated with Christmas. In churches, the bell is rung to signal the start of the service. In the Catholic Church, Christmas and Easter are the only times that Mass is held at Midnight. It’s traditional that at both midnight Masses, the church bells are rung while the Priest sings the “Gloria” (Gloria in Excelsis Deo). Having a Mass at Midnight at Christmas dates back to the early church, when it was believed that Jesus was born at midnight! In many Catholic countries the midnight mass service is very important and everyone tries to attend the service.
And the countdown to Christmas has begun. If you still havn’t decorated your home, go out there to one of the many Christmas markets across the world and grab a piece of decoration to bring that festive cheer to your home. To each of you, where ever you are, wish you a Merry Christmas and a splendid time with family and friends!
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