Christmas Traditions

by Shonnie Scarola

Christmas Crib

The Christmas Crib (creche) dates back to St. Francis of Assisi (Feast October 4). It was in 1293 that the first creche was celebrated in the woods of Greccio near Assisi, on Christmas Eve. There lived in that town a man by the name of John (Messier Giovanni Velitta), a very holy man who stood in high esteem. Blessed Francis loved him with a special affection because he despised the nobility of the flesh and strove after the nobility of the soul.

Blessed Francis called upon John about two weeks before Christmas and said to him, "If you desire that we should celebrate this year's Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem and how He was bedded in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox. I want to see all of this with my own eyes." The good and faithful man departed quickly and prepared everything that the Saint had told him.

The Friars who had come from many communities, gathered around St. Francis as did the men and women of the neighborhood. They brought candles and torches to brighten the night. St. Francis arrived and saw that everything had been prepared. The crib was made ready, hay was brought, the ox and the donkey were led to the spot.Greccio became a new Bethlehem. The crowds gathered and rejoiced in the celebration.Solemn Mass was sung.

St. Francis, dressed in deacon's vestments, (it is said that out of humility he never attempted to become a priest) sang the Gospel. Then he preached a delightful sermon to the people. It is recorded that after the Mass, St. Francis went to the crib and stretched out his arms as though the Holy Child was there, and brought into being by the intensity of his devotion, the Babe appeared and the empty manger was filled with the radiance of the new born King.

St. Francis' idea of bringing Bethlehem into one's own town spread quickly all over the Christian world, and soon there were Christmas cribs in churches and homes. The Moravian Germans brought this custom to the United States. They called it Putz. The oldest known picture is a "Nativity scene" dating from about 380 that was a wall decoration in a Christian family's burial chamber, discovered in the Roman catacombs of St. Sebastian in 1877.

There is a legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals have the gift of speech. This gift was bestowed because the humble farm animals gave the infant Jesus His first shelter, and warmed him with their breath, thus they were rewarded with the gift of human speech.

However, in most countries it is considered bad luck to hear them conversing, so no one has ever reported doing so. Cattle bow to the East, and bees hum the I00th Psalm in their hives. Some legends insist that this occurs on Old Christmas Eve, January 5. St. Francis, who loved animals because they, too, were God's creatures, extended special kindness to animals at Christmas. He urged farmers to provide their oxen and donkeys `with extra rations of corn and hay "for the reverence of the Son of God, whom on such a night the Blessed Virgin did lay down in the stall between the ox and the donkey." At Christmastide, St. Francis scattered crumbs of bread under the trees, so the tiny creatures could feast and be happy.

The Legend of the Candy Cane

Many years ago, a candy maker in Indiana had an idea to show through the candy he made, that Jesus Christ was born among us, lived and died to save us all.

So he created the candy cane. He began with a stick of pure white, hard candy. White to symbolize the Virgin Birth and the sinless nature of Jesus; hard to symbolize the Solid Rock, the foundation of the Church, and the firmness of the promises of God. The candy maker made the candy in the form of a "J" to represent the precious name of Jesus, who came to earth as our Savior. It could also represent the shepherd's staff, reminding us that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

Thinking that the candy was somewhat plain, the candy maker stained it with red stripes of the scourging Jesus received by which we are healed. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that we could have the promise of eternal life.

The Christmas Candle

A large candle symbolizing the Lord was placed in homes on Christmas Eve to bum through the Holy Night. The candle was lit every night during the holy season.

In the Slavic nations, the candle is put on the table after being blessed by the priest in Church. The Ukrainians put their Christmas candle in a loaf of bread. In parts of South America, the candle is put in a paper lantern with symbols and pictures of the Nativity on its sides. In France and England, the candle was often made of three candles twisted together in honor of the Holy Trinity. In Germany, the candle was put on top of a wooden pole decorated with evergreens or small candles were placed on the shelves of a wooden structure shaped like a pyramid, adorned with fir or laurel. In Ireland, a large holly bedecked candle is lit on Christmas Eve, and the entire family prays for all its dear ones, living and dead. The Irish place candles in the windows on Christmas Eve and leave the door open to invite Mary and Joseph into their homes. In Labrador, tun and other vegetables hold lighted candles to celebrate Christ's birth.

"A Visit From St. Nicholas"

Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of Greek and Oriental literature who had been appointed to the General Theological Seminary in New York City, composed a poem in 18, known as "A Visit From St. Nicholas", to please his children. Inspired by his surroundings on a snowy Christmas Eve in Manhattan, he made up the 56 lines on his way home from a market trip to buy a Christmas turkey. Santa's sleigh and bells were suggested by the jingling of his own horse and sleigh, while his famous description of St. Nicholas was apparently derived, in part, from the appearance of a farmer friend, Jan Duyckinck. Moore read the poem to his children that very evening.

The verses were a great success. A cousin was so enthralled that she showed the poem to a friend who in turn took the poem to the editor of the Troy, New York newspaper. A copy of the newspaper was sent to Moore who was annoyed that the verses that he had written to amuse his children were printed. The poem soon became famous and has been reprinted innumerable times. In the early 1860's, the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew for Harper's Illustrated Weekly a Santa Claus in line with Moore's characterization. It was the combination of Moore's poem and Nast's illustrations that created the Santa Claus so popular today.

"Night Before the First Christmas"

It is said that Clement Moore wrote the "Night Before Christmas" for the enjoyment of his children. The same motive was the inspiration behind this poem by Sister Mary Thomas many years ago. Thus the true story of the "Night before the First Christmas. "

T'was the night before Christmas and all through the town
St. Joseph was searching, walking up roads and down.
Our Lady was waiting, so meek and so mild.
While Joseph was seeking a place for the Child.

The children were nestled, each snug in his bed,
And the grownups wouldn't bother. There's no room, they said.
When even the innkeeper sent them away
and Joseph was wondering where they would stay.

He thought of the cave in the side of the hill
Let's go there," said Mary. It's silent and still."
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow
Made a pathway of light for their tired feet to go.

And there in the cave in a cradle of hay
The Saviour was born on that first Christmas Day.
The Father was watching in heaven above
And sent for His angels, His courtiers of love.

More rapid than eagles God's bright angels came,
Rejoicing and eager as each heard his name.
"Come Powers, come Cherubs, come Virtues and Raphael,
Come Thrones and Dominions, come Michael and Gabriel.

"Now fly to the earth where my poor people live,
Announce the glad tidings My Son Comes to give."
The Shepherds were watching their flocks on the night
And saw in the heavens an unearthly light.

The angels assured them they'd nothing to fear.
"It's Christmas," they said. "The Saviour is here!"
They hastened to find Him, and stood at the door,
Till Mary invited them in to adore.

He was swaddled in bands from His head to His feet,
And never did shepherds see a Baby so sweet!
He spoke not a word but the shepherds all knew.
He was telling them secrets and blessing them too.

Then softly they left Him, the Babe in the hay,
And rejoiced with great joy on that first Christmas Day.
Mary heard them exclaim as they walked up the hill,
"Glory to God in the highest; Peace to men of good will."

For Christmas Traditions, Part One
For Christmas Traditions, Part Two
For Christmas Traditions, Part Three

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