Thursday of this week will host the shortest day of the year. It is a strange title to load on any day as every day has twenty-four hours! Short as in the least light it will definitely be. This means that the days will be getting longer from Friday. That is good news. Darkness into light. We can sing goodbye to the winter solstice before the week is out.
Yuletide is an Anglo-Saxon term that celebrates the shortest day of the year and the sun’s rebirth. Burning the yule log celebrated the Great Mother goddess. The yule tree decorations are symbols of the sun, moon and stars along with representing the souls of those who died throughout the year. Hanging gifts on the tree are deemed as offerings to the (pagan) gods and goddesses.
Christmas is about welcoming the light. It was a clever Christian ploy to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 to announce Him as the light of the world, greater than any or all of the ‘pagan’ celebrations.
The Advent Wreath (preparing for Christmas) started in the 16th century among German Lutherans who lit four candles on a wreath. The wreath is laden with symbolism – the green represents eternal life while the circle is a reminder of the unending love of God for humanity. Lighting a candle for each of the four weeks of Advent represents the victory of light over darkness – three violet and one rose candle, used on Gaudete or Praise Sunday.
The Giving Tree is another tradition. It is erected in a church porch and contains cards with details of items required by poorer families. Parishioners take a card and purchase the item, placing it at the tree. The gifts are distributed accordingly on Christmas Day in the parish.
There is also the Jesse Tree, named after King David’s father. David lived in the Golden Age of Judaism, circa 1,000BC. Jesus is a descendent of David. The tree idea is rooted in scripture: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of its roots.” (Isaiah 11.1).
This ‘shoot’ refers to Jesus. During Advent the line of ancestry of Jesus is depicted on the Jesse Tree. It starts with the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve, and on to Noah; it includes Abraham, the great father of the three main faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and on to Moses, David, Ruth, Isaiah, Mary and Joseph.
Christmas trees, originally called Paradise trees, came from religious theatrical productions in Germany in the Middle Ages. The Paradise tree depicted the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Paradise). These trees were decorated with apples and wafers (symbolising the Eucharist) and pastries which represented the sweetness of eternal life. Over time, other items were placed on the trees – angels, stars, flowers and animals. Candles signified the Light of Christ. Lights eventually replaced the candles.
Christmas cards were introduced around the time the postal system was set up in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. British postal worker Henry Cole is credited with producing the first Christmas card. He commissioned artist John Horsley to paint a Nativity scene.
Christmas carols can be traced back to the Middle Ages in England. The (Greek) word ‘carol’ means a circular dance in which people hold hands and sing. A candy cane, (found in all good sweet shops), was originally made by a sweet maker to commemorate the life of Christ. The white stripes represent that Jesus was born without sin, the three small red stripes symbolise the scourging on the road to Calvary and the large red stripe is the blood of Jesus, shed on the Cross. The candy cane, similar to a shepherd’s staff, is a reminder of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Upside down, the candy cane looks like the letter ‘J’ – the first letter of Jesus’ name.
Christmas will bring sadness, the vacant chair and missing face, but at its heart is hope. Beannachtaí na Nollag.
With the divinest Word, the Virgin
Made pregnant, down the road
Comes walking, if you’ll grant her
A room in your abode…