CATHOLIC ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS. This time of year is filled with all sorts of traditions. Unfortunately, many of us have lost sight of the Catholic origins of many of the traditions that dominate the secular celebration of Christmas and Advent.
Consider the Christmas tree. There are many different efforts to explain the origins of the Christmas tree, including many that try to separate it completely from Christianity. For example, some try to say that since many different ancient non-Christian cultures used evergreens as a sign of life or health that therefore evergreen “Christmas” trees are not “Christian,” or that Christians “stole” the symbol from the pagans. But there is no conflict or stealing here. Since Christianity converted many ancient pagan cultures it was natural for those new Christians to keep the symbols that had meaningfully expressed their long held spiritual desires that were ultimately answered only in Christianity. So, if an evergreen tree expressed a pagan culture’s desires for eternal life, it was natural for them to carry that symbol into Christianity, which is fine with the Church.
The specific Christianization and “Christmas-ization” of the evergreen tree can be traced at least to the early 8th century in Germany. It seems one Christmas Eve the great missionary St. Boniface and his companions came upon a group of pagans gathered around their sacred tree, the “Oak of Geismar” (“Donar’s Oak”) to worship their god, Thor, and to sacrifice a little child to please him. Horrified by what he had found, Boniface struck the Oak, which the people believed to be indestructible, and suddenly a great wind came and blew the tree over, tearing it out of the ground by its roots and into four pieces. When the tree fell it revealed a small evergreen tree that had grown behind it. St. Boniface then told the people: “This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.” The people then took the tree to the great hall of their village and decorated it with candles, as Boniface told the story of the Baby Jesus. The whole village, including the pagan priest, were converted that Christmas Eve. (For a beautiful retelling of this tale see The First Christmas Tree, by Henry van Dyke).
This seems to be the oldest story of the Christmas tree, and stands as the inspiration for later developments in its use. It was popularized later in the middle ages through the German “Paradise Play” depicting the creation of man, with the evergreen decorated with apples to symbolize both Eden’s Tree of Life (evergreen) and Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (apples). When the play was performed in churches the Paradeisbaum (Paradise Tree) was surrounded by candles. Eventually the Paradeisbaum made its way into homes and the rest is history.
Santa Claus. Another tradition of the secular celebration of this season is Santa Claus, if its correct to call a real man a “tradition.” Once again, we often forget the Catholic origins of Santa Claus, who is none other than Saint Nicklaus (“Santa Claus” derived from the Dutch for “St. Nicholas”). Again many will argue about non-Christian or pagan predecessors, but it is clear that our Santa is St. Nicklaus. One reason for the two seem to be disconnected in America is because of the English Protestant and Puritan origins of our nation—after the “Reformation” the English downplayed the reference to Saint Nicholas as sounding too Catholic (in England Santa is still called “Father Christmas”).
But Catholics remember the wonderful stories about St. Nicholas, who was bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) in the early 300s. The story of how he rescued three sisters from being sold into slavery by dropping three bags of gold through their window at night. And how he raised three little boys from the dead after they had been murdered. Not to mention the many stories of his other amazing miracles—he is called Thaumaturgus, or Wonderworker. And we should not forget that after being tortured for his faith in the last Roman persecution, he attended the Council of Nicaea where he boldly defended the divinity of Christ, and Mary’s status as “Mother of God” against the arch-heretic Arias. Add all this to his reputation for giving treats to the children he met in the streets and you see the same man who is now the beloved and saintly giver of gifts on Christmas.
Now, so that no one misunderstands me, especially little children, what I am saying is that Santa Claus is real, and is also known as St. Nicholas. Although the Bishop St. Nicholas went to heaven on December 6, 343, Catholics know that as a saint he now has eternal life. And then it seems that God sent him back to us to be the great gift-giver of Christmas. This doesn’t mean that other stories that we read or see on TV about Santa Claus are not true or bad—I think they’re interesting and sometimes amusing, and even touching. It just means that WE know the REAL story, the rest of the, story.
Which reminds me: make sure you come to say hello to Santa Claus/St. Nicholas next Saturday morning, at our traditional parish “Breakfast with Santa.”
Lessons and Carols. Tonight (Sunday, December 9) at 7:00pm, we celebrate another Advent tradition: a program of beautiful Advent music and Scripture readings called, “Lessons and Carols.” Taking prophetic readings from the Old Testament and pre-nativity readings from the Gospels, our parish lectors lay out God’s amazing plan for the birth of His Divine Son. The choir then adds to the atmosphere of joyful expectation by leading us in popular Advent songs and a few more complicated choral pieces, reminding us of the angels singing over Bethlehem. This “tradition” is rather new, especially to Catholics, originally introduced by the Anglican Church at Cambridge’s King’s College in 1918, but it has recently become very popular in Catholic circles. I first experienced it almost 30 years ago as a layman at a Catholic parish of Anglican converts in San Antonio. I’m happy to say it’s become an Advent tradition at St. Raymond’s. Please join us, and stay for light reception afterwards!
Don’t Forget. Go to confession during Advent—we have confessions every single day of Advent, except Christmas Eve. And come to my Advent Series, “Looking at the Nativity,” this Thursday at 7:30pm. And don’t forget to stop by the “Giving Tree” in the narthex today, and help to make Christmas a little merrier for some folks who are having a rough time this year—families of our parish and Our Lady of the Blue Ridge parish in Madison.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles