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    The Symbols of Christmas



    In the time of darkness surrounding the winter solstice, in the long cold month of December, candles were an important source of light and heat. Ancient Romans lit candles to ward off evil, and to convince the sun to shine again.


    In Victorian times, candles came to represent good will for those less fortunate during the holiday season. Candles were often placed in windows during the Christmas season as a sign to passersby that shelter and warmth could be found within.

    It is said that Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Church in 16th Century Germany, was the first person to put candles on the Christmas Tree. While walking one evening he noticed the stars twinkling through the tree limbs and was so inspired that upon returning home, he set up a tree and put candles upon it.



    Christmast Cards

    The tradition of sending Christmas cards is thought to have originated in the mid-1800's, when a few people began designing handmade cards to be sent to friends and family. But a man named John Calcott Horsely is often credited as being the first Christmas card creator.

    Horsely printed his Christmas card in 1843 for Sir Henry Cole, the friend who had given him the idea. The card depicted a typical English family enjoying the holiday, as well as scenes of people performing acts of charity, an important part of the Victorian Christmas spirit. The card was inscribed, "Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You."

    A thousand copies of the card were printed, selling for one shilling a piece. This is reportedly the first Christmas card to be produced and sold to the public.





    A well known English plant, the Christmas rose, is a true Christmas flower. It is sometimes called the Snow or Winter Rose. It blooms in the depths of winter in the mountains of Central Europe. Legend links it with the birth of Christ and a little shepherdess named Madelon.

    As Madelon tented her sheep one cold and wintry night, wise men and other shepherds passed by the snow covered field where she was with their gifts for the Christ Child. The wise men carried the rich gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense and the shepherds, fruits, honey and doves. Poor Madelon began to weep at the thought of having nothing, not even a simple flower for the Newborn King. An angel, seeing her tears, brushed away the snow revealing a most beautiful white flower tipped with pink - the Christmas rose.

    Also in central and northern Europe it is the custom to break off a branch of a cherry tree at the beginning of the Advent and keep it in water in a warm room; the flowers should burst into bloom at Christmas time.




    The Christmas tree is of German origin. The tree was brought into the home for good luck and fertility. The white pine was chosen as the Christmas tree because it had limbs far apart for easy decorating with sweetmeats, almonds and fruits. The tree was illuminated with small wax candles, and toys were placed on the tree limbs. This was the original way in which presents were displayed on Christmas morning.



    Gingerbread House

    Gingerbread has been a holiday tradition for thousands of years. It was originally eaten during Winter Solstice Festivals. But the tradition of the house made of Gingerbread originated in Germany.

    It is believed that in the early 1800's, Germans began shaping their Gingerbread into festive holiday creations. Gingerbread Houses soon became very popular, and remain so today. The Gingerbread House has now become a favorite Christmas tradition all over the world.



    The Glastonbury thorn legend ties in Christ's death as well as the celebration of his birth. The legend goes that soon after the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain to spread the message of Christianity. When he traveled there from the Holy Land he brought with him his staff. Being tired from his journey, he lay down to rest. In doing so, he pushed his staff into the ground beside him. When he awoke, he found that the staff had taken root and begun to grow and blossom. It is said he left it there and it has flowered every Christmas and every spring . It is also said that a puritan trying to cut down the tree was blinded by a splinter of the wood before he could do so. The original thorn did eventually die but not before many cuttings had been taken. It is one of these very cuttings which is in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey today.




    Greenery refers to trees and plants that remain green and flourish year round. Holly, ivy, mistletoe and, of course, the Christmas Tree, are all common Christmas greenery.

    Ancient people revered evergreens for their ability to stay alive during the cold winter months. Often considered magical, they came to symbolize good luck and prosperity. Greenery often adorned the inside and outside of homes during the Winter Solstice Festivals. As Christmas evolved into the holiday we celebrate today, the use of greenery as a means of decoration has remained constant.




    In ancient times, holly was considered magical and sacred because of its shiny leaves and ability to bear fruit in winter. It was often believed that if you hung holly over your bed, you would have good dreams. At one time, holly was connected to the mythical Holly King - patron king of the winter solstice. As the Winter Solstice Festivals evolved, holly remained a part of holiday celebrations. And, along with ivy and mistletoe, it remains a popular form of decorative Christmas greenery today.




    Ivy, too, has been a symbol of eternal life in the pagan world and then came to represent new promise and eternal life in the Christian world. Ivy is more of an English Christmas green than an American one. It is considered a feeble clinging plant, rather feminine in nature, not at all like the masculine sturdy holly leaf. It was the ancient symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry.

    Among the Romans who remained pagan, the laurel leaf was sacred to the sun god Apollo. In the Christian sect it came to symbolize the triumph of Humanity as represented by the Son Man. Bay is also a name used for laurel. As the bay tree, the true laurel of the Ancients, is scarce in England. substitutions such the common cherry laurel, the Portugal laurel, the Aucuba and others are often used. A British Christmas carol about the three kings leans heavily on the word "laurel".

    Rosemary is yet another Christmas green. Though now it is used to mainly season foods, during the Middle Ages it was spread on the floor at Christmas. As people walked on it, the fragrant smell arose filling the house. The story associated with the shrub is that Mary laid the garments of the Christ Child on its branches and cause it to have such a wonderful aroma. It is also said that rosemary is extremely offensive to evil spirits, thus, being well suited to the advent of their Conqueror. The name rosemary is given, too, an association to the Virgin Mary's name, making it all the more fitting for the Christmas season.




    The ancient custom of the mistletoe dates back to the Druids and Romans. The Druids and Romans believed mistletoe had the magic power of peace, symbolizing "peace to all who enter." Opposing soldiers who found themselves under the mistletoe quickly laid down their arms, and declared peace for the day.

    The custom of the mistletoe has remained popular in England and the United States. Mistletoe is placed over the doorway, and those who pass under the doorway are given a kiss.





    When German immigrants came to America, they brought with them the tradition of hanging small toys, candies and other goodies on the Christmas tree. Between 1800 and 1920, blown-glass ornaments called kugles were sent to the United States, where they were eventually popularized by dime store chains.




    A favorite flower in the United States is the poinsettia, with its beautiful, red, star-shape. It is called the "Flame Leaf" in Central America or "Flower of the Holy Night" and was brought here over a hundred years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett, our first ambassador to Mexico. Most of the poinsettias used now come from California.

    The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.

    One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course they were teased by other children when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and so we see them today.



    Sleigh and Reindeer

    The first written story about the legend of Santa Claus and his eight reindeer was "A Visit from St. Nicholas," penned by Clement C. Moore in 1823. The legend is taken from Russian stories of Father Frost arriving in villages in a sled drawn by reindeer.

    The legend also existed in Holland, where children believed St. Nicholas would ride through the air, checking on children who misbehaved. The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, did not come along until 1939, in a story by Robert L. May.



    The tradition of hanging stockings from the fireplace originated from one of the most famous Christmas stories of St. Nicholas.


    The story comes from the 1800's, when the father of three young maidens could not afford a dowry for his daughters to be married. From his castle, St. Nicholas heard of the poor misfortune of the maidens, and secretly threw three bags of gold coins down their chimney. It is said that the gold coins landed in the girls' stockings, which were hanging in the fireplace to dry.

    Later, in Holland, children would leave out their wooden shoes in hopes that St. Nicholas would fill them with goodies.



    The stars that appear in the sky today are the same ones that were there two thousand years ago. Was there a nova at the time of Jesus' birth? The exact time of His birth is not known, but astronomers cannot place a new star appearance anywhere near the possible time. Could it have been a shooting star? Again, the astronomers say it was not likely. A meteor lasts only a few seconds or minutes at best. The wise men followed the star for weeks looking for Jesus. We can rule out comets as well. They can be seen by the naked eye for a week or months. But modern astronomers know which comets were close enough to earth hundreds and thousands of years ago and there was no comet visible to humans around the time of Christ's birth.

    Some star gazers suggest that if we move the birth of Jesus to the springtime of 6 B.C., we can attribute the star to the time the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were close together in the heavens. They formed a triangle in the group of stars known as Pisces.

    The wise men, themselves, were astrologers and studied the stars and planets and knew, according to Jewish rabbis, of the triangle and that it had appeared before the birth of Moses. Perhaps they interpreted it as a sign of a great event in the land of the Jewish people. This may have been the star of Bethlehem. Pisces became the special constellation of the Hebrew people.

    Still, many people prefer to believe that the strange star did appear, and that it was simply a miracle and throughout the world today, the Christian holiday has usually begun with the appearance of the first star of Christmas Eve.

    The Festival of the Star is held in Poland. Right after the Christmas Eve meal, the village priest, acts as the "Star Man" and tests the children's knowledge of religion. In Alaska, boys and girls carry a star shaped figure from house to house and sing carols in hopes of receiving treats. In Hungary a star-shaped pattern is carved in a half of an apple and is suppose to bring good luck.

    In general, the Christmas star symbolizes high hopes and high ideals - hope for good fortune, hope for reaching above oneself. For all human beings, regardless of religion, stars have special meaning for all share the heavens, no matter what barriers keep them apart on earth.












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