What’s the meaning of our Advent and Christmas traditions?

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer who gave us Narnia, wrote a superb parody about Christmas, describing a baffled time traveler visiting Britain and finding people forced to buy squares of decorated cardboard and mail them to one another.

It is true that many semi-obligatory things, apparently belonging to Christmas in Western countries, bear very little relation to the awesome reality of the birth of Jesus Christ and the redemption of mankind. And it’s getting even sillier: in the Britain of the 1950s that Lewis knew, churchgoing was at least still a mainstream activity — it is not so now.

The commercial pressure attached to Christmas now starts in August — and, of course, manufacturers and marketers have been busy long before that. Recent additions to the “must have” of what is now regarded as a proper traditional Christmas include plastic reindeer antlers worn on the head, piped recordings of Santa Claus songs in supermarkets and battery-operated bow ties that light up.

Preparing for Christ’s Birth

For Christians, though, the glorious reality of Christmas starts with its real place in the calendar. An important date is March 25, the Annunciation — the old name is Lady Day, and it’s 40 weeks before Christmas. A baby is 40 weeks in the womb. That’s a significant number: It’s why it’s so important in the Scriptures. Think of Noah in the ark for 40 days, the Israelites traveling 40 years to the Promised Land, and Christ spending 40 days in prayer in the wilderness.

Christmas is linked to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The Annunciation is in the spring, linked to the vernal equinox, equal day and night.

The date of Christmas, Dec. 25, was set by Emperor Constantine in 336; Jesus’ birthday isn’t recorded in Scripture. Some say Dec. 25 was chosen as the date to celebrate Jesus’ birthday because of the ancient Roman midwinter pagan festivals coinciding with the winter solstice that occurred around this date — Christian citizens of the Roman Empire no longer worshiped the Sun God, but the Son of God.

We should relish our Christmas customs, even starting with Advent, the four weeks of preparation for the great feast. The tradition of an Advent wreath comes from the snowy parts of Europe, when, in winter, the wheels would be taken off the wagons and runners put on instead. A cartwheel makes a strong base for a great Advent wreath, with four candles, one for each week. Some traditions affirm red candles, but most use three purple and one pink, the latter signifying Gaudete Sunday, its name coming from the Latin word for joy. This is the Third Sunday of Advent, when the season of solemn preparation gives way to a note of joyful expectation. Prayers around the Advent wreath, with one candle alight during the first week, two in the second and so on, are something special on winter evenings. The great Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” dates back to the O antiphons of the eighth century.

The First Sunday of Advent is called “stir up Sunday” when Christmas puddings are made in Britain. With plenty of alcohol in it, the puddings will most certainly keep until Christmas. Everyone in the household should take a turn at stirring the mixture and making a wish. The pudding originated in Britain as plum porridge and seems to date from the 18th century. Mincemeat — chopped-up dried fruit, spices, lemon and orange peel, and shredded suet — is an older dish, originally containing minced meat, dried and preserved. Mince pies are traditionally oval in shape, representing the manger, with Christ the sweetness inside.

In the United States and Northern Europe, Christmas is synonymous with wintry things, but, for most of the world, it’s not like that. For instance, in India — where Catholic tradition goes back to St. Thomas, one of Christ’s own apostles — midnight Mass is celebrated on a warm summer night and is traditionally followed by visits to family and friends with feasting.

Feasts within Advent

St. Nicholas — from whence Santa Claus came — the saintly bishop of the early church who helped the poor, has his feast on Dec. 6, and so has become linked with Christmas. In much of Europe he arrives dressed as a bishop, mitred and robed, but in America and Britain his robes have become a red and fur-trimmed outfit. Stockings are associated with Christmas because of him. Known for his charity, he dropped money down the chimney discreetly for three poor girls — and it went into their stockings, hung by the fire to dry.

Saints for Advent/Christmas
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St. Nicholas — Dec. 6
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Dec. 12 is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Coatlallope), the Patroness of the Americas. Mary appeared to the saintly Aztec Juan Diego, imprinting her picture on his tilma, or cloak. You can still see it in the great basilica in Mexico City, the most popular shrine in the Western Hemisphere, visited by millions every year. Mary is pregnant with the Savior and wears the traditional ribbon of an Aztec expectant mother. Coatlallope in Aztec dialect means “one who treads on snakes” — Mary crushed the serpent’s head as was prophesied of her in Genesis.

The date for the feast isn’t accidental — it’s God’s timing, linking with Christmas. Many celebrate the feast with a piñata, essentially a pineapple shape made out of papier-mâché, filled with toys and sweets, hung up over the heads of partygoers, who bash at it until it breaks, showering the gifts down on everyone.

Scandinavians especially celebrate St. Lucy — her name means “light” — on Dec. 13, the date for midwinter in the old Julian calendar. Girls dress in white robes, with red sashes to symbolize her martyrdom, and crowns bearing candles on their heads. They bring sugary pastries, fresh coffee and treats to hospitals and community groups.

Trees, Carols and More

Christmas trees began with the eighth-century St. Boniface, who converted the pagan Germans. They saw their great evergreens as sacred because the trees did not shed their needles or appear to die in winter like other trees. St. Boniface — his Latin name means “one doing good” — taught them to worship, not the evergreen tree, but Christ who died on a tree, and who thereby offers us eternal life. Eventually, he was martyred, but meanwhile an evergreen decorated with candles became the Christmas tree. Many centuries later Prince Albert, who was of German descent and married Britain’s Queen Victoria, brought the custom to England, and from there it went to other lands.

Why Do We Set Up Nativity Scenes
Nativity scenes are certainly staples of the season. Many of our homes and churches would not be the same without them. It’s surprising to realize, then, that displaying mangers at Christmas didn’t happen for over a millennium after Christ’s birth — when St. Francis of Assisi set up the first one on Christmas Eve in 1223. Such a novel idea at the time, he even obtained the pope’s permission in advance.

Many cultures celebrate the Christmas season until Feb. 2, which is Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. Before the revisions of the liturgical calendar following the Second Vatican Council, that’s when the season ended. Many homes retain some Christmas decorations — certainly the manger — all through that time. Crib scenes, in churches and homes, are said to have begun with St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 (see sidebar). While the manger is empty all through Advent, many places are known to have faithful bring the Christ Child to be blessed at Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Advent — Bambino Sunday — before traditionally placing him in the manger on Christmas morning.

Many cultures traditionally mark Christmas Eve by abstaining from meat. Italian-Americans are known for celebrating the “Feast of Seven Fishes” on that day. Roast beef or pork used to be standard in English-speaking countries on Christmas Day, but now turkey or ham is commonplace.

Christmas games, quizzes and jokes all date back to medieval times as ways of making merry in the long dark evenings of winter. Even today, with television dominating our lives, Christmas is still a time for singalongs, special programs and games.

Many carols are medieval in origin, but the 17th century gave us “While Shepherds Watched” and the 19th gave us “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Incidentally, a legend that the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was a code used by Catholics in the days of persecution is untrue: that story only started in the 1970s.

Epiphany — remembering the arrival of the Three Kings — is a big celebration in Spain. Still fixed on Jan. 6, freshly polished shoes of Spanish children are left ready on the previous evening, wherein the kings will deposit presents. Meanwhile, the Three Kings arrive at household manger scenes around the world, often having traveled from room to room around the house. The French have given us the galette des rois — a delicious pastry with a small king embedded inside. Whoever gets him is king or queen for the evening, wears a golden paper crown and chooses the first game to be played. These are known today in the United States as king cakes in many regions claiming French ancestry, such as Louisiana, where they are eaten all the way through Mardi Gras.

Christmas is a time for storytelling, family reminiscences, tales of Christmases past. Some are bittersweet, such as the World War I Christmas 1914 truce in the trenches — where soldiers on both sides put down their arms in observance of the Lord’s birth. It really happened and is a symbol of the whole heartbreaking tragedy of that war.

And Christmas is indeed bittersweet: after Christmas Day comes the feasts of the first martyr, St. Stephen (Dec. 26), and the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28).

Christ’s birth is joyful, but our redemption was won through his suffering — and through that, all suffering is redeemed and is redemptive. Christmas for some is a time of loneliness, poignant memories or mild regrets.

But Christ knows about all of that, for He came to bear our sins and bring us new life. As a British folk carol says: “For the holly bears a berry, as red as any blood / And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, to do poor sinners good.”

Joanna Bogle is a British Catholic journalist, writer and broadcaster. In 2013, she became a Dame of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great. She has authored several books, including “Book of Feasts & Seasons” and blogs at joannabogle.blogspot.com.