Happy Christmas Eve! What a great day of anticipation and wonder! Even though, isn’t it interesting, the first Christmas Eve was completely unknown to the world, outside of expectant mother and father as they awaited their son’s birth. I thought I might share some origins of different customs in the Christmas universe for you today, to help you prepare expectantly. My hope is that as it is every Christmas, you would be caught up, not in the trappings that lay on top of the story and the event, but that you would be again in awe of just exactly what God has done for you, and for this world.
Also, I wanted to let you know that after over four months straight of writing (besides one day), with over 480 pages of a column, I’m going to take a little Christmas vacation for this next week. Cheri is off work at noon today, and I want to spend some time spoiling her rotten. I’ll drop in before the New Year, but I thank you in advance for your indulgence, and I pray your Christmas season (which goes until January 6, remember!) will be truly blessed.
The work of going out into the forest and chopping down a tree to bring inside the house at this time of the year belongs to the Germans, although the first Christmas tree lot in America opened up in 1851, probably because folks were tired of people chopping down their landscape… by the way, the tradition of “trimming the tree” did not mean you cut branches down. It’s from the Middle English, trimmen, which mean to put in order. We trim the tree just as we have all the “trimmings” of the feast, which helps to round out and make things more beautiful.
One crazy tradition that goes back to the 1800s was to place a glass pickle as one of the ornaments on the Christmas tree. Apparently, although the Germans don’t know what we are talking about, FW Woolworth imported glass ornaments, including pickles from Germany, and the tradition was that the first child to find the ornament on the tree would get another gift. I hope it wasn’t a pickle.
The lighting of a Christmas tree has many legends. The oldest perhaps is that Martin Luther coming home from church, was struck by the beauty of the stars seeming to twinkle in the trees, so he went home and tied lit candles to the branches of his Tannenbaum. Risky business. For many folks who carried on that tradition, on Christmas eve, they would gather folks around the tree, light the candles on the tree, sing a song (like O Tannenbaum), and then blow out the candles quickly so they didn’t set fire to the tree. The first electric lights for a tree came into being in 1882 in America. Again, they were not the cute tiny amped little lights that are part of most trees today – they were hot and bright, and were supposedly only lit with people around on Christmas eve and Christmas morning. That’s a little different than our tree, which spends hours lit so the cats can sleep underneath in a nice warm Christmas cat look.
When the Brothers Grimm wrote the terrifying children’s story of Hansel and Gretel, who are one shove of a witch into the oven away from being supper themselves, the tradition of making edible tasty houses began. Made of gingerbread, they really had nothing to do with Christmas, except for the gingerbread and tasty part.
Once again, the Germans came up with the Advent Calendar, right around 1905, to keep the children occupied and anticipating throughout the Advent season by opening a door that revealed some kind of treat or Christmas scene. When I think of the fact that Mom and Dad wouldn’t put up our tree until around December 21st, since it would set off the four-day anticipation with seven kids, I can’t imagine yanking the old Advent calendar out, thinking it would calm everyone down…
The tradition in the church of having the retelling of the Nativity story, with living members creating the scene around the manger is very old. It’s reported to have begun around 1223ad. That’s nearly 800 years of people dressed up in bathrobes, carrying boxes and bottles to give to the plastic baby Jesus. Back in the early 90s, at Faith United Methodist, they would offer a Live Nativity scene on the lawn of the church. The apparent tradition was that when it was scheduled, the weather would show up like this morning in the Dakotas -- -8 degrees, with a windchill of -30. Everyone in the scene looked pretty sturdy and well-fed, due to the fact that their would wear parkas under the costumes. I was always given the role of 2nd king. Aaron was frequently disappointed that I only carried frankincense (whatever that was!) and I never got my hand on the gold. Ah, gentle Christmas memories.
By the way, the creation of Christmas wreaths was to create the circle that represented eternal life. The holly and ivy attached was a symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns. One of our crown of thorns blew off the front of the house yesterday in our blizzard, and son Adam bravely went out and retrieved it from the front lawn…
Finally, in 1670, a choirmaster in a German town became fed up that year after year, as they were holding the Christmas eve service with Live Nativity, that the children of the congregation didn’t know how to keep quiet, so that, of course, the beautiful music the choirmaster led the choir to sing could be heard. He came up with the idea of asking a candymaker in town to make some “sugar sticks” that he could hand out to the children to suck on during the service, and therefore keeping them quiet. I’m not sure how thrilled the parents were to then get hopped up kids with a sugar high to go home and get to sleep with visions of sugarplum dancing in their heads.
Apparently, to justify handing out candy to children for worship, the choirmaster had the candymaker put a crook on the end of the stick, supposedly to remind the children of the shepherds watching their flocks by night. The colors, eventually red and white, came to symbolize both the purity of Christ, and his sacrifice on the cross. Suck on that, you little imps.
I’m sure you have your own family’s traditions. One that I have carried on from my father was that he had to go into the living room first and “check and see if Santa had come.” We found out later it was so he could turn on the tree before the hoard came rushing in. After his task, he would come back to all of us lined up in the hall and announce, “Well, Santa didn’t come – we might as well go back to bed…” which was met with a resounding “NO!” and the racing of the kids into the living room to witness the sight of what could only be described as parent’s love and Christmas wonder.
As I said, my hope and prayer is that you – wherever you are – will know that you are loved by the One who made you, and who brought the Son into this world for your sake, and for your eternal life. The greatest gift of Christmas, surely, has already been opened and shared. May Joy be in this world, and may you find your home this Christmas in the light of God’s powerful and tender love. Merry Christmas – we’ll see you soon.
Word for the Day: creche. You know how it’s pronounced – you can make it fancy and have it sound like its origins in French, but today apparently we leave off the accent to the last “e.” Anyway, “creche” sounds much gentler than “feeding trough,” or “fodder bin,” which is what it originally meant in the 13th century. Spelling was kind of an optional art at that time, so sometimes it would be called a “cratch,” as in “She brought forth her firstborn son, and laid him in a cratch…”
When I toured Israel, in Jerusalem, they showed us a manger. It was a big block of limestone, which was the building material there, that had the top hewn out to make a place where the straw or hay could be dropped in for the cattle. Up in the Galilee, we saw another, but since that area has lots of volcanic rock, it was a black manger made of that material. Quite the different image than the alpine logs nailed together! I also expect the cattle were lowing because the baby was in their food dish…
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.