Advent, is the true Christmas Season.
As most people in secular or Protestantized countries are putting away
"Christmas-y" things, and as shopping malls stop blaring "Here Comes Santa
Claus," Catholics are just getting started. The cleaning and baking during
penitential Advent pays off now, and the feasting and caroling begin!
The entire Christmas Cycle is a crescendo of Christ's manifesting Himself
as God and King -- to the shepherds, to the Magi, at His Baptism, to Simeon
and the prophetess, Anna (Luke 2). The days from the
Feast of the Nativity to the
Epiphany are known as "The Twelve Days
of Christmas," with Christmas itself being the first day, and Twelfthnight
-- 5 January -- being the last of the twelve days. Christmastide
liturgically ends on 13 January, the Octave of the Epiphany and the
Baptism of Christ (at which time the season of Time After Epiphany begins).
But Christmas doesn't end spiritually -- i.e., the celebration of
the events of Christ's life as a child don't end, and the great Christmas
Cycle doesn't end -- until
Candlemas on 2 February and
the beginning of the Season of Septuagesima.
In this way, just as From Ash Wednesday on,
we commemorate Christ in the desert for forty days, and just as after Easter
we celebrate for forty days until the
Ascension, after Christmas we
celebrate the Child Jesus for forty days --
all through the season of Time After Epiphany -- until Candlemas. The schema
of those Christ Child celebrations looks like this:
Christ is born
Feast of the
Herod slaughters the baby boys in order to kill the Christ Child
(the Octave of Christmas)
Jesus follows the Law
Feast of the
Holy Name of Jesus
After He is circumcised, He is named and becomes a part of the Holy
The Twelve Days of Christmas as a Feast come to an end
Feast of the
Jesus reveals His
divinity to the three Magi, and during His Baptism, and at the wedding at
Baptism of Our
Lord/Octave of the Epiphany
Christmas liturgically ends with the Octave of the Epiphany.
Feast of the
Jesus condescends to be subject to His parents
Feast of the
40 days after giving birth, Mary goes to the Temple to be purified and to
"redeem" Jesus per the Old Testament Law of the firstborn. Christmas
truly ends as a Season with Candlemas and the beginning of Septuagesima.
The Symbols of Christmas
|Light is the
pre-eminent symbol of Christmas. The Light Who is Christ was foreshadowed
by the Advent candles, and is now symbolized by the Christ Candle that burns
throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Feasts of the
Candlemas celebrate Christ as
Light of the World in even more explicit ways.
||In the Middle
Ages, mystery plays were held on Christmas Eve which featured a Paradise
Tree -- a tree representing both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
and the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden -- because Christmas Eve was
an unofficial "feast day" of Adam and Eve (it's their official Feast Day
in many Eastern Churches). The tree was decorated with colorful apples
representing the forbidden fruit, and with candies representing the Tree
of Life. These Mystery plays were suppressed during the fifteenth century,
but the faithful kept the "Paradise Tree" tradition.
At another level of symbolism, Saint Boniface (675-754) chopped down an oak
tree sacred to pagans at Geismar in Germany. He did this to show them that
nothing bad would happen, that Thor has no power. It is said that when he
did this, he pointed out a small fir tree growing at its base and said "This
humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre
of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let
Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top
points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide."
used in wreaths as in ancient Roman times, is a symbol of victory and
accomplishment, and came to be seen as a symbol of Christ's victory. Laurel
is often see, too, on tombstones, and is the root of the word "laureate,"
meaning crowned with laurel, or accomplished.
||In Roman times
wreaths (made of laurel) were used as symbols of victory. Christians adopted
the practice, using wreaths (usually of pine nowadays) to represent the victory
of the newborn King. Some families turn their Advent wreaths into Christmas
wreaths to be used starting on Christmas morning.
a very, very old Christmas symbol. Legend has it that on the Flight to Egypt
after the Magis' visit and St. Joseph's dream, Our Lady washed Baby Jesus'
clothes out and laid them across some rosemary bushes to dry. Since then,
God blessed them with their lovely fragrance.
|Ivy was originally
banned for Christian use because of its pagan associations, but after they
were forgotten in the Middle Ages, ivy became seen as a symbol for human
reliance on divine strength because of the way it clings to what it grows
leaves and red berries of holly (Ilex opaca) represent the Crown of
Thorns with Christ's Blood, a reminder to us that the Holy Infant was born
on this night only to redeem us with His Blood. Earlier symbolism associates
holly with the burning thorn bush that Moses saw.
(Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album) is a poisonous parasite
that grows on hardwood trees and was considered "sacred" by the Druids and
Vikings. French tradition that holds that the reason mistletoe is poisonous
is because it was growing on a tree that was used to make the Cross that
Jesus was crucified on. Custom says that two people who find themselves under
a mistletoe plant must kiss, so mistletoe is often hung over doorways or
suspended from ceilings. In France, this custom is reserved for New Years
(Euphorbia pulcherima), called "Nativity Flower," and "Flores de Noche
buena" or "Flowers of Holy Night" in Mexico, is a New World Christmas tradition.
The shape of the leaves symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, their red color
represents the Blood of Christ and the burning love of God. A Mexican legend
has it that a poor girl wanted to give Baby Jesus something for His birthday
but could only present weeds to Him as that is all she had. As she laid them
near the Altar at church, they burst into beautiful red blooms.
To keep poinsettias fresh, don't overwater (before watering, remove
decorative wrap and let water drain thoroughly) and keep cool.
Rose (Helleborus niger) is a Christmas tradition that springs from
Germany. A legend surrounds it that is similar to that of the poinsettia:
a humble shepherdess felt that anything she gave to Baby Jesus couldn't compare
with what the Magi gave. As she sat weeping, an angel came and swept the
snow away from around her feet, and lovely cup-shaped white blooms sprang
up. The angel said to her, "Nor myrrh, nor frankincense, nor gold is offering
more meet for the Christ Child than these pure Christmas Roses." This lovely
flower can bloom all Winter long.
||In A.D. 63,
St. Joseph of Arimathea (John 19) and 11 companions were sent to England
by St. Philip the Apostle. Legend says that when he arrived at Somersetshire,
he thrust into the ground his staff which was made of hawthorn (Crataegus
Oxyacantha praecox), a plant from the Mediterranean area. The Glastonbury
Thorn sprouted from it -- a plant which has the odd ability, in Somerset,
to bloom around Eastertime and at Christmas.
The original plant was destroyed by Cromwell's Puritans (the soldier who
cut it down is said to have been blinded by a large splinter from the tree),
but many shoots had been taken from it and its progeny live in Glastonbury
to this day, heralding Christmas with its blossoms. Since 1929, blossoms
have been sent to grace the Queen's (or King's) table on Christmas Day.
|| Rose of Jericho
(Anastatica hierochuntica and Selaginella lepidophy) survives in a curled
up, dormant, brown, dessicated state for years, and then opens up and turns
green with a bit of water. After returning to a lovely green, it goes dormant
again when its water source is removed. Because of this fascinating property,
it is often kept dormant in the home and brought out at Christmas time to
blossom and then close in order to symbolize the opening and closing of Mary's
womb. Read more about this plant and see larger pictures of it in its dormant
and verdant states here.
|The legend is
that in the late 1800's a candy maker in Indiana wanted to express the holy
meaning of Christmas through a symbol made of candy. He took white peppermint
sticks and bent them to suggest both the shepherd's staff carried by the
adoring shepherds, and the letter "J" for Jesus. He let the color white symbolize
the purity and sinless nature of Jesus, but added the color red to represent
His Blood. The three small stripes symbolize the stripes of His scourging,
and that there are three of them represents the Holy Trinity; the bold stripe
represents the Blood Jesus shed for mankind.
|I don't know
if these birds are found in other parts of the world, but in North America,
cardinals have become a gorgeous symbol of Christmastide. If you live in
the right area and want to attract these sweet black-masked songbirds to
your yard, build a stationary (not a hanging) feeder with a roomy tray about
5 or 6 feet off the ground and in or very close to some bushes. Fill it up
with some sunflower seeds, (the birds' favorite) peanuts, safflower seeds,
corn, raisins, dried apples, and/or white proso millet. Have a filled bird
bath nearby, heated if possible. They will be most likely to come if you
have both evergreen and deciduous trees in your yard. Cardinals don't migrate,
so will live with you all year. Only the male has the shocking red color;
his wife has the same red beak and shape, but her body is olive-brown. To
hear a cardinal sing, click
robin is another lovely symbol of Christmas. The story is told is that Joseph
built a fire in the manger to keep Mary and Jesus warm, but the flames kept
dying. A robin fanned them with its wings so that the fire wouldn't die,
and his proximity to the fire turned his breast red.
It's also said that a robin landed on the shoulder of Jesus as He carried
the Cross on Good Friday. When the bird plucked thorns from His brow, the
birds breast was stained forever with His Blood. To hear a robin sing,
Christmas carol (as opposed to the formal
Christmas hymn) is traceable to St. Francis of Assisi, who organized different
Nativity Mystery plays. In between acts, carols would be sung, and audience
members would sing them in the streets, too. For the 12 Days of Christmas,
carols would be sung as party-goers would move from one house to the next
on their way to different parties. Later, singers would gather just for the
purpose of singing door to door, usually to be rewarded with hot drinks and
from Dom Gueranger's "The Liturgical Year"
Everything is Mystery
in this holy season. The Word of God, whose generation is before the day-star,
is born in time -- a Child is God -- a Virgin becomes a Mother, and remains
a Virgin -- things divine are commingled with those that are human -- and
the sublime, the ineffable antithesis, expressed by the Beloved Disciple
in those words of his Gospel, THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH, is repeated in a thousand
different ways in all the prayers of the Church: -- and rightly, for it admirably
embodies the whole of the great portent which unites in one Person the nature
of Man and the nature of God.
The splendour of this Mystery dazzles the understanding, but it inundates
the heart with joy. It is the consummation of the designs of God in time.
It is the endless subject of admiration and wonder to the Angels and Saints;
nay, is the source and cause of their beatitude. Let us see how the Church
offers this Mystery to her children, veiled under the symbolism of the
The four weeks of our preparation are over -- they were the image of the
four thousand years which preceded the great coming -- and we have reached
the twenty-fifth day of the month of December, as a long desired place of
sweetest rest. But why is it that the celebration of our Saviour's Birth
should be the perpetual privilege of this one fixed day; whilst the whole
liturgical Cycle has, every year, to be changed and remodelled in order to
yield to that ever-varying day which is to be the feast of his Resurrection
-- Easter Sunday?
The question is a very natural one, and we find it proposed and answered
as far back as the fourth century; and that, too, by St. Augustine, in his
celebrated Epistle to Januarius. The holy Doctor offers this explanation:
We solemnise the day of our Saviour's Birth, in order that we may honour
that Birth, which was for our salvation; but the precise day of the week
on which he was born, is void of any mystical signification. Sunday,
on the contrary, the day of our Lord's Resurrection, is the day marked in
the Creator's designs, to express a mystery which was to be commemorated
for all ages. St. Isidore of Seville, and the ancient Interpreter of Sacred
Rites who, for a long time, was supposed to be the learned Alcuin, have also
adopted this explanation of the Bishop of Hippo; and our readers may see
their words interpreted by Durandus, in his Rationale.
These writers, then, observe that as, according to a sacred tradition, the
creation of man took place on a Friday, and our Saviour suffered death also
on a Friday for the redemption of man; that as, moreover, the Resurrection
of our Lord was on the third day after his death, that is, on a Sunday, which
is the day on which the Light was created, as welearn from the Book of Genesis
-- 'the two Solemnities of Jesus' Passion and Resurrection,' says St. Augustine,
'do not only remind us of those divine facts; but they moreover represent
and signify some other mysterious and holy thing.'
And yet we are not to suppose that because the Feast of Jesus' Birth is not
fixed to any particular day of the week, there is no mystery expressed by
its always being on the twenty-fifth of December. For firstly we may observe,
with the old Liturgists, that the Feast of Christmas is kept by turns on
each of the days of the week, that thus its holiness may cleanse and rid
them of the curse which Adam's sin had put upon them. But secondly, the great
mystery of the twenty-fifth of December, being the Feast of our Saviour's
Birth, has reference, not to the division of time marked out by God Himself,
but to the course of that great Luminary which gives life to the world, because
it gives light and warmth. Jesus, our Saviour, the Light of the World, was
born when the night of idolatry and crime was at its darkest; and the day
of his Birth, the twenty-fifth of December, is that on which the material
sun begins to gain his ascendancy over the reign of gloomy night, and show
to the world his triumph of brightness.
In our Advent, we showed after the Holy Fathers, that the diminution
of physical light may be considered as emblematic of those dismal times which
preceded the Incarnation. We joined our prayers with those of the people
of the Old Testament; and with our holy mother the Church we cried out to
the Divine Orient, the Sun of Justice, that he would deign to come and deliver
us from the twofold death of body and soul. God has heard our prayers; and
it is on the day of the Winter Solstice -- which the Pagans of old made so
much of by their fears and rejoicings -- that He gives us both the increase
of the natural light, and him who is the Light of our souls.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ambrose, St. Maximus of Turin, St. Leo, St. Bernard,
and the principal liturgists, dwell with complacency on this profound mystery,
which the Creator of the universe has willed should mark both the natural
and the supernatural world. We shall find the Church also making continual
allusion to it during this season of Christmas, as she did in that of Advent.
'On this the Day which the Lord hath made,' says St. Gregory of Nyssa, 'darkness
decreases, light increases, and Night is driven back again. No, brethren,
it is not by chance, nor by any created will, that this natural change begins
on the day when he shows himself in the brightness of his coming, which is
the spiritual Life of the world. It is Nature revealing, under this symbol,
a secreet to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to them, I mean, who
are able to appreciate this circumstance of our Savious's coming. Nature
seems to me to say: Know, O Man! that under the things which I show thee
Mysteries lie concealed. Hast thou not seen the night, that had grown so
long, suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of Sin, which had
reached its height by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day
stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward its duration shall be
shortened, until at length there shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray
thee, on the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger, and his position higher
in the heavens: learn from that how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel,
is now shedding itself over the whole earth.'
'Let us, my Brethren, rejoice,' cries out St. Augustine, 'this day is sacred,
not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of him who is the
invisible Creator of the sun... He chose this day whereon to be born, as
he chose the Mother of whom to be born, and he bade borh the day and the
Mother. The day he chose was that on which the light begins to increase,
and it typifies the work of Christ, who renews our interior man day by day.
For the eternal Creator having willed to be born in time, his Birthday would
necessarily be in harmony with the rest of his creation.'
The same holy Father, in another sermon for the same Feast, gives us the
interpretation of a mysterious expression of St. John the Baptist, which
admirably confirms the tradition of the Church. The great Precursor said
on one occasion, when speaking of Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease.
These prophetic words signify, in their literal sense, that the Baptist's
mission was at its close, because Jesus was entering upon his. But they convey,
as St. Augustine assures us, a second meaning: 'John came into this world
at the season of the year when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was
born in the season when the length of the day increases. Thus there is mystery
both in the rising of that glorious Star, the Baptist, at the summer solstice;
and in the rising of our Divine Sun in the dark season of winter.'
There have been men who dared to scoff at Christianity as superstition, because
they discovered that the ancient Pagans used to keep a feast of the sun on
the winter solstice. In their shallow erudition they concluded that a Religion
could not be divinely instituted, which had certain rites or customs originating
in an analogy to certain phenomena of this world: in other words, these writers
denied what Revelation asserts, namely, that God only created this world
for the sake of his Christ and his Church. The very facts which these enemies
to the true Faith are, to us Catholics, additional proof of its being worthy
of our most devoted love.
Thus, then, have we explained the fundamental Mystery of these Forty Days
of Christmas, by having shown the grand secret hidden in the choice made
by God's eternal decree, that the twenty-fifth day of December should be
the Birthday of God upon this earth. Let us now respectfully study another
mystery: that which is involved in the place where this Birth happened.
This place is Bethlehem. Out of Bethlehem, says the Prophet, shall
he come forth that is to be the Ruler in Israel. The Jewish Priets are
well aware of the prophecy, and a few days hence will tell it to Herod. But
why was this insignifant town chosen in preference to every other to be the
birth-place of Jesus? Be attentive, Christians, to the mystery! The name
of this City of David signifies the House of Bread: therefore did
he, who is the living Bread come down from Heaven, choose it for his
first visible home. Our Fathers did eat manna in the desert and are
dead, but lo! here is the Saviour of the world, come to give life to
his creature Man by means of his own divine Flesh, which is meat indeed.
Up to this time the Creator and the creature had been separated from each
other; henceforth they shall abide together in the closest union. The Ark
of the Covenant, containing the manna which fed but the body, is now replaced
by the Ark of a New Covenant, purer and more incorruptible than the other:
the incomparable Virgin Mary, who gives us Jesus, the Bread of Angels,
the nourishment which will give us a divine transformation; for this Jesus
himself has said: He that eateth my flesh abideth in me, and I in
It was for this divine transformation that the world was in expectation
for four thousand years, and for which the Church has prepared herself by
the four weeks of Advent. It has come at last, and Jesus is about to enter
within us, if we will but receive him. He asks to be united with each
one of us in particular, just as he is united by his Incarnation to the whole
human race; and for this end, he wishes to become our Bread, our spiritual
nourishment. His coming into the souls of men at this mystic season has no
other aim than this union. He comes not to judge the world, but that the
world may be saved by him, and that all may have life, and may have it more
abundantly. This divine Lover of our souls will not be satisfied, therefore,
until he have substituted himself in our place, so that we may live not we
ourselves, but he in us; and in order that this mystery may be effected in
a sweeter way, it is under the form on an Infant that this Beautiful Fruit
of Bethlehem wishes first to enter into us, there to grow afterwards
in wisdom and age before God and men.
And when, having thus visited us by his grace and nourished us in his love,
he shall have changed us into himself, there shall be accomplished in us
a still further mystery. Having become one in spirit and heart with Jesus,
the Son of the heavenly Father, we shall also become sons of this same God
our Father. The Beloved Disciple, speaking of this our dignity, cries out:
Behold! what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that
we should be called, and should be the Sons of God? We will not now stay
to consider this immense happiness of the Christian soul, as we shall have
a more fitting occasion, farther on, to speak of it, and show by what means
it is to be maintained and increased.
There is another subject, too, which we regret being obliged to notice only
in a passing way. It is, that, from the day itself of our Saviour's Birth
even to the day of our Lady's Purification, there is, in the Calendar, an
extraordinary richness of Saints' Feasts, doing homage to the master feast
of Bethlehem, and clustering in adoring love round the Crib of the Infant-God.
To say nothing of the four great Stars which shine so brightly near our Divine
Sun, from whom they borrow all their own grand beauty -- St. Stephen, St.
John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, and our own St. Thomas of Canterbury:
what other portion of the Liturgical Year is there that can show within the
same number of days so brilliant a constellation? The Apostolic College
contributes its two grand luminaries, St. Peter and St. Paul: the first in
his Chair of Rome; the second in the miracle of his Conversion. The Martyr-host
sends us the splendid champions of Christ, Timothy, Ignatius of Antioch,
Polycarp, Vincent, and Sebastian. The radiant line of Roman Pontiffs lends
us four of its glorious links, named Sylvester, Telesphorus, Hyginus and
Marcellus. The sublime school of holy Doctors offers us Hilary, John Chrysostom,
and Ildephonsus; and in their company stands a fourth Bishop -- the amiable
Francis de Sales. The Confessor-kingdom is represented by Paul the Hermit,
Anthony the conqueror of Satan, Maurus the Apostle of the Cloister, Peter
Nolasco the deliverer of captives, and Raymond of Pennafort, the oracle of
Canon Law and guide of the consciences of men. The army of defenders of the
Church deputes the pious King Canute, who died in defence of our Holy Mother,
and Charlemagne, who loved to sign himself 'the humble champion of the Church.'
The choir of holy Virgins gives us the sweet Agnes, the generous Emerentiana,
the invincible Martina. And lastly, from the saintly ranks which stand below
the Virgins -- the holy Widow -- we have Paula, the enthusiastic lover of
Jesus' Crib. Truly, our Christmastide is a glorious festive season! What
magnificence in its Calendar! What a banquet for us in its Liturgy!
A word upon the symbolism of the colours used by the Church during this season.
White is her Christmas Vestment; and she employs this colour at every service
from Christmas Day to the Octave of the Epiphany. To honour her two Martyrs,
Stephen and Thomas of Canterbury, she vests in red; and to condole with Rachel
wailing her murdered Innocents, she puts on purple; but these are the only
exceptions. On every other day of the twenty she expresses, by her white
robes, the gladness to which the Angels invited the world, the beauty of
our Divine Sun that has risen in Bethlehem, the spotless purity of the
Virgin-Mother, and the clean-heartedness which they should have who come
to worship at the mystic Crib.
During the remaining twenty days, the Church vests in accordance with the
Feast she keeps; she varies the colour so as to harmonize either with the
red Roses which wreathe a Martyr, or with the white Amaranths which grace
her Bishops and her Confessors, or again, with the spotless Lilies which
crown her Virgins. On the Sundays which come during this time -- unless there
occur a Feast requiring red or white or, unless Septuagesima has begun its
three mournful weeks of preparation for Lent -- the colour of the Vestments
is green. This, say the interpreters of the Liturgy, is to teach us that
in the Birth of Jesus, who is the flower of the fields, we first received
the hope of salvation, and that after the bleak winter of heathendom and
the Synagogue, there opened the verdant spring-time of grace.
With this we must close our mystical interpretation of those rites which
belong to Christmas in general. Our readers will have observed that there
are many other sacred and symbolical usages, to which we have not even alluded;
but as the mysteries to which they belong are peculiar to certain days, and
are not, so to speak, common to this portion of the Liturgical Year, we intend
to treat fully of them all, as we meet with them on their proper Feasts.