CRHISTMAS CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
Advent is the period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas (or sometimes from the 1st of December to Christmas Day!). Advent means ‘Coming’ in Latin. This is the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.
There are three meanings of ‘coming’ that Christians describe in Advent. The first, and most thought of, happened about 2000 years ago when Jesus came into the world as a baby to live as a man and die for us. The second can happen now as Jesus wants to come into our lives now. And the third will happen in the future when Jesus comes back to the world as King and Judge, not a baby.
Some people fast (don’t eat anything) during advent to help them concentrate on preparing to celebrate Jesus’s coming. In many Orthodox and Eastern Catholics Churches, Advent lasts for 40 days and starts on November 15th and is also called the Nativity Fast.
Orthodox Christians often don’t eat meat and dairy during Advent, and depending on the day, also olive oil, wine and fish. You can see what days mean now eating what foods on the calendar from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. .
There are several ways that Advent is counted down but the most common is by a calendar or candle(s).
There are many types of calendars used in different countries. The most common ones in the UK and USA are made of paper or card with 25 little windows on. A window is opened on every day in December and a Christmas picture is displayed underneath. When they were first made, scenes from the Christmas Story and other Christmas images were used, such as snowmen and robins, but now many calendars are made in the theme of television programs and sports clubs. Some of these types of calendar even have chocolate under each window, to make every day in December that little bit better! I used to like those when I was a little girl (and still do now!!!)!
Some European countries such as Germany use a wreath of fir with 24 bags or boxes hanging from it. In each box or bag there is a little present for each day.
You can also not get online Advent or ‘Christmas Countdown’ calendars. So during December, why don’t you visit the online Advent Calendar and find out something Christmassy each day!!!!!!
There are two types of candle(s) that are used to count down to Christmas Day in Advent. The first looks like a normal candle, but has the days up to Christmas Day marked down the candle. On the first of December the candle is lit and burnt down to the first line on the candle. The same is done every day and then the rest of the candle is burnt on Christmas day. I use one of these candles to count down during Advent.
An Advent Crown is another form of candles that are used to count down Advent. These are often used in Churches rather than in people’s homes. The crown is often made up of a wreath of greenery and has four candles round the outside and one in the middle or in a separate place. Sometimes a more traditional candelabra is used to display the five candles.
One candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, two are lit on the second Sunday and so on. Each candle has a different meaning in Christianity. Different churches have given them different meanings, but I was taught the following: (a) The first represents Isaiah and other prophets in the bible that predicted the coming of Jesus; (b) The second represents the bible; (c) The third represents Mary, the mother of Jesus; and (d) The fourth represents John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who told the people in Israel to get ready for Jesus’ teaching.
The middle or separate candle is lit on Christmas Day and represents Jesus, the light of the world. In Germany this fifth candle is known as the ‘Heiligabend’ and is lit on Christmas Eve.
In many churches, the colour purple is used to signify the season of Advent. On the third Sunday, representing Mary, the colour is sometimes changes to pink or rose.
Advent was first recorded about 380AD in Spain. By the 6th century, there are records of monks in Tours (in France) holding a pre-Christmas fast. By end of the 6th century, the four Sundays before Christmas had commonly become known as Advent Sundays.
In medieval and pre-medieval times, in parts of England, there were an early form of Nativity scene called ‘advent images’ or a ‘vessel cup’. They were a box, often with a glass lid that was covered with a white napkin that contained two dolls representing Mary and the baby Jesus. The box was decorated with ribbons and flowers (and sometimes apples). They were carried around from door to door. It was thought to be very unlucky if you haven’t seen a box before Christmas Eve! People paid the box carriers a halfpenny to see the box.
There are some Christmas Carols that are really Advent Carols! These include ‘People Look East’, ‘Come, thou long expected Jesus’, ‘Lo! He comes, with clouds descending’ and perhaps the most popular advent song ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel!
The 12 Days of Christmas are now most famous as a song about someone receiving a great many presents from their ‘true love”. However, to get to the song there had to be the days to start with!
The 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and last until the evening of the 5th January – also known as Twelfth Night. The 12 Days have been celebrated in Europe since before the middle ages and were a time of celebration.
The 12 Days each traditionally celebrate a feast day for a saint and/or have different celebrations: (a) Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day – celebrating the birth of Jesus. ; (b) Day 2 (26th December also known as Boxing Day): St Stephen’s Day. He was the first Christian martyr (someone who dies for their faith). It’s also the day when the Christmas Carol ‘Good King Weneslas’ takes place; (c) Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle (One of Jesus’s Disciples and friends); (d) Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents – when people remember the baby boys which King Herod killed when he was trying to find and kill the Baby Jesus; (e) Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket. He was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century and was murdered on 29th December 1170 for challenging the King’s authority over Church; (f) Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester; (g) Day 7 (31st December): New Year’s Eve (known as Hogmanay in Scotland). Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day. He was one of the earliest popes (in the 4th Century). In many central and eastern European countries (including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia) New Years’ Eve is still sometimes called ‘Silvester’. In the UK, New Year’s Eve was a traditional day for ‘games’ and sporting competitions. Archery was a very popular sport and during the middle ages it was the law that it had to be practised by all men between ages 17-60 on Sunday after Church! This was so the King had lots of very good archers ready in case he need to go to war!; (h) Day 8 (1st January): 1st January –Mary, the Mother of Jesus; (i) Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, two important 4th century Christians; (j) Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This remembers when Jesus was officially ‘named’ in the Jewish Temple. It’s celebrated by different churches on a wide number of different dates!; (k) Day 11 (4th January): St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the past it also celebrated the feast of Saint Simon Stylites (who lives on a small platform on the top of a pillar for 37 years!); and (L) Day 12 (5th January also known as Epiphany Eve): St. John Neumann who was the first Bishop in American. He lived in the 19th century. Also (1) Christmas is celebrated to remember the Birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God; (2) The name ‘Christmas’ comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service (which is sometimes called Communion or Eucharist) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The ‘Christ-Mass’ service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at Midnight! So we get the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas; (3) Christmas is now celebrated by people around the world. , whether they are Christians or not. It’s a time when family and friends come together and remember the good things they have. People, and especially children, also like Christmas as it’s a time when you give and receive presents! !
The Date of Christmas
No one knows the real birthday of Jesus! No date is given in the Bible, so why do we celebrate it on the 25th December? The early Christians certainly had many arguments as to when it should be celebrated!
Also, the birth of Jesus probably didn’t happen in the year 1AD but slightly earlier, somewhere between 2BC and 7BC (there isn’t a 0AD – the years go from 1BC to 1AD!). The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December.
There are many different traditions and theories as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. A very early Christian tradition said that the day when Mary was told that she would have a very special baby, Jesus (called the Annunciation) was on March 25th – and it’s still celebrated today on the 25th March. Nine months after the 25th March is the 25th December! March 25th was also the day some early Christians thought the world had been made, and also the day that Jesus died on when he was an adult.
December 25th might have also been chosen because the Winter Solstice and the ancient pagan Roman midwinter festivals called ‘Saturnalia’ and ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’ took place in December around this date – so it was a time when people already celebrated things.
The Winter Solstice is the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It happens on December 21st or 22nd. To pagans this meant that the winter was over and spring was coming and they had a festival to celebrate it and worshipped the sun for winning over the darkness of winter. In Scandinavia, and some other parts of northern Europe, the Winter Solstice is known as Yule and is where we get Yule Logs from. In Eastern Europe the mid-winter festival is called Koleda.
The Roman Festival of Saturnalia took place between December 17th and 23rd and honored the Roman god Saturn. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’ and was held on December 25th (when the Romans thought the Winter Solstice took place) and was the ‘birthday’ of the Pagan Sun god Mithra. In the pagan religion of Mithraism, the holy day was Sunday and is where get that word from!
Early Christians might have given this festival a new meaning – to celebrate the birth of the Son of God ‘the unconquered Son’! (In the Bible a prophesy about the Jewish savior, who Christians believe is Jesus, is called ‘Sun of Righteousness’.) (1) The Jewish festival of Lights, Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev (the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at about the same time as December). Hanukkah celebrates when the Jewish people were able to re-dedicate and worship in their Temple, in Jerusalem, again following many years of not being allowed to practice their religion; (2) Jesus was a Jew, so this could be another reason that helped the early Church choose December the 25th for the date of Christmas!; (3) Christmas had also been celebrated by the early Church on January 6th, when they also celebrated the Epiphany (which means the revelation that Jesus was God’s son) and the Baptism of Jesus. Now Epiphany mainly celebrates the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus, but back then it celebrated both things! Jesus’s Baptism was originally seen as more important than his birth, as this was when he started his ministry. But soon people wanted a separate day to celebrate his birth; (4) Most of the world uses the ‘Gregorian Calendar’ implemented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Before that the ‘Roman’ or Julian Calendar was used (named after Julius Caesar). The Gregorian calendar is more accurate that the Roman calendar which had too many days in a year! When the switch was made 10 days were lost, so that the day that followed the 4th October 1582 was 15th October 1582. In the UK the change of calendars was made in 1752. The day after 2nd September 1752 was 14th September 1752; (5) Many Orthodox and Coptic Churches still use the Julian Calendar and so celebrate Christmas on the 7th January (which is when December 25th would have been on the Julian calendar). And the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates it on the 6th January! In some part of the UK, January 6th is still called ‘Old Christmas’ as this would have been the day that Christmas would have celebrated on, if the calendar hadn’t been changed. Some people didn’t want to use the new calendar as they thought it ‘cheated’ them out of 11 days! (6) Christians believe that Jesus is the light of the world, so the early Christians thought that this was the right time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They also took over some of the customs from the Winter Solstice and gave them Christian meanings, like Holly, Mistletoe and even Christmas Carols! And (7) St. Augustine was the person who really started Christmas in the UK by introducing Christianity in the 6th century. He came from countries that used the Roman Calendar, so western countries celebrate Christmas on the 25th December. Then people from Britain and Western Europe took Christmas on the 25th December all over the world!
- SO when was Jesus Born?
- There’s a strong and practical reason why Jesus might not have been born in the winter, but in the spring or the autumn! It can get very cold in the winter and it’s unlikely that the shepherds would have been keeping sheep out on the hills (as those hills can get quite a lot of snow sometimes!). (2) During the spring (in March or April) there’s a Jewish festival called ‘Passover’. This festival remembers when the Jews had escaped from slavery in Egypt about 1500 years before Jesus was born. Lots of lambs would have been needed during the Passover Festival, to be sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews from all over the Roman Empire travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, so it would have been a good time for the Romans to take a census. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census (Bethlehem is about six miles from Jerusalem); (3) in the autumn (in September or October) there’s the Jewish festival of ‘Sukkot’ or ‘The Feast of Tabernacles’. It’s the festival that’s mentioned the most times in the Bible! It is when Jewish people remember that they depended on God for all they had after they had escaped from Egypt and spent 40 years in the desert. It also celebrates the end of the harvest. During the festival, Jews live outside in temporary shelters (the word ‘tabernacle’ come from a Latin word meaning ‘booth’ or ‘hut’); (4) Many people who have studied the Bible, think that Sukkot would be a likely time for the birth of Jesus as it might fit with the description of there being ‘no room in the inn’. It also would have been a good time to take the Roman Census as many Jews went to Jerusalem for the festival and they would have brought their own tents/shelters with them! (It wouldn’t have been practical for Joseph and Mary to carry their own shelter as Mary was pregnant.); (5) The possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem seems to point either spring or autumn; (6) So whenever you celebrate Christmas, remember that you’re celebrating a real event that happened about 2000 years ago, that God sent his Son into the world as a Christmas present for everyone!; and (7) As well as Christmas and the solstice, there are some other festivals that are held in late December. Hanukkah is celebrated by Jews; and the festival of Kwanzaa is celebrated by some Africans and African Americans takes place from December 26th to January 1st. Christmas is also sometimes known as Xmas. Some people don’t think it’s correct to call Christmas ‘Xmas’ as that takes the ‘Christ’ (Jesus) out of Christmas. (As Christmas comes from Christ-Mass, the Church service that celebrated the birth of Jesus.)
But that is not quite right! In the Greek language and alphabet, the letter that looks like an X is the Greek letter chi / Χ (pronounced ‘kye’ – it rhymes with ‘eye’) which is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Christos.
The early church used the first two letters of Christos in the Greek alphabet ‘chi’ and ‘rho’ to create a monogram (symbol) to represent the name of Jesus. This looks like an X with a small p on the top: ☧
The symbol of a fish is sometimes used by Christians (you might see a fish sticker on a car or someone wearing a little fish badge). This comes from the time when the first Christians had to meet in secret, as the Romans wanted to kill them (before Emperor Constantine became a Christian). Jesus had said that he wanted to make his followers ‘Fishers of Men’, so people started to use that symbol.
When two Christians met, one person drew half a basic fish shape (often using their foot in the dust on the ground) and the other person drew the other half of the fish. The Greek word for fish is ‘Ikthus’ or ‘Ichthys’. There are five Greek letters in the word. It can also make up a sentence of Christian beliefs ‘Ie-sous Christos Theou Huios So-te-r’ which in English means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. The second letter of these five letter is X or Christos!
So Xmas can also mean Christmas; but it should also be pronounced ‘Christmas’ rather than ‘ex-mas’!
Twelfth Night was a big time of celebration with people holding large parties. During these parties, often the roles in society were reversed with the servants being served by the rich people. This dated back to medieval and Tudor times when Twelfth Night marked the end of ‘winter’ which had started on 31st October with All Hallows Eve (Halloween).
At the start of Twelfth Night the Twelfth Night cake was eaten. This was a rich cake made with eggs and butter, fruit, nuts and spices. The modern Italian Panettone is the cake we currently have that’s most like the old Twelfth Night cake.
A dried pea or bean was cooked in the cake. Whoever found it was the Lord (or Lady) of Misrule for the night. The Lord of Misrule led the celebrations and was dressed like a King (or Queen). This tradition goes back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia. In later times, from about the Georgian period onwards, to make the Twelfth Night ‘gentile’, two tokens were put in the cake (one for a man and one for a women) and whoever found them became the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of the Twelfth Night party.
In English Cathedrals during the middle ages there was the custom of the ‘Boy Bishop’ where a boy from the Cathedral or monastery school was elected as a Bishop on 6th December (St Nicholas Day) and had the authority of a Bishop (except to perform Mass) until 28th December. King Henry VIII banned the practice in 1542 although it came back briefly under Mary I in 1552 but Elizabeth I finally stopped it during her reign.
During Twelfth Night it was traditional for different types of pipes to be played, especially bagpipes. Lots of games were played including ones with eggs. These included tossing an egg between two people moving further apart during each throw – drop it and you lose and passing an egg around on spoons. Another popular game was ‘snapdragon’ where you picked raisins or other dried fruit out of a tray of flaming brandy!
The first Monday after Christmas feast has finished was known as ‘Plough Monday’ as this was when farming work would all begin again!
Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany Eve. In many countries it’s traditional to put the figures of the Wise Men/Three Kings into the Nativity Scene on Epiphany Eve ready to celebrate Epiphany on the 6th January.
It’s also traditional to take your Christmas decorations down following Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night is also the name of a famous play written by William Shakespeare. It’s thought it was written in 1601/1602 and was first performed at Candlemas in 1602, although it wasn’t published until 1623.