By Fr. M.S. Skariah, Abu Dhabi
The original authentic joy of Christmas
"Glory to God in the
highest and on earth peace, good will towards man" is absent in our
modern Christmas celebration. Christmas greetings cards, tree,
cakes, carols, exchange of presents etc. are of pagan origin and
nourished in Western culture. The religious significance of
spiritual renewal has become of least importance and market forces
dominate in our present Christmas festivity with an intention of
The English word "Christmas" is indebted to "Cristes Maesse" which
goes back to its origin in AD1038. It means "the Mass of Christ."
The word in the Dutch language is "Kersmis" which means the Mass of
Christ. The Original Latin names of Christmas are Festum Nativitatis
Domini Nostri Jesus Christi ( The feast of the Nativity of our Lord
Jesus Christ) and the shorter form Dies Natalis Domini (The Birthday
of our Lord). The French word Noel can be explained as either coming
from the Latin Natalis (birthday) or from the word Nowell which
means "news". The German word for Christmas is Weihnacht or
weihnachten which means the blessed (or holy) night. Similar terms
meaning :the holy night" are used in some slavic languages. The
Lithuanian word Kaledos is derived from the verb Kaledoti (to beg, to
pray) and has the meaning "Day of prayer".
The Greek Genethlia and Syriac "Elda" means Nativity as do the names
for Christmas in Hungarian( Karacsong) and in most of the Slavonic
languages; Rozhdestvo Krista (Christ's birth) in Russian and
Christmas became a feast of great importance from the fifth century.
The Emperor Theodosius in 425 stopped the cruel circus games on
Christmas day, and Emperor Justinian in 529, prohibited work and
public business, declaring Christmas a public holiday.
Decline and Revival of Celebration in the West:
The sixth century reformation made a sharp change in the Christmas
celebration for many European countries. The Holy Eucharist, the
liturgy of Divine office, the (Sacraments) and ceremonies all
disappeared. Gone were the colorful and inspiring procession, the
veneration of the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God and the saints.
All this was ridiculed and forbidden as superstition. In many
countries all that remained of the once rich and glorious religious
festival, was a sermon and prayer service on Christmas day.
On the other hand some sects including German Lutherans preserved
devotion and celebrated the birth of Christ in a deeply spiritual
way within their churches, homes and hearts.
In England, the puritans condemned even the reduced religious
celebration which was held in the Anglican church after the
separation from Rome. They were determined to abolish Christmas
altogether, both as a religious and as a popular feast. It was their
contention that no feast of human institution should ever out rank
the Sunday. For them Christmas was the most important for the non-
Sunday festivals. Pamphlets were published denouncing Christmas as
pagan and its observation was declared to be sinful. In this anti
Christmas campaign these English sects were encouraged by similar
groups in Scotland, where the celebration of the feast was forbidden
as early as 1583, and punishment inflicted on all person observing
When the Puritans came to political power in England they issued
ordinance in 1642 forbidding church services and civic festivities
on Christmas day. Speeches, pamphlets and other publications,
sermons and discussions were directed against the celebration of
Christmas, calling it "anti Christ mass', idolatry, abomination and
similar names. Each year, by order of Parliament, the town criers
went through the street a few days before Christmas reminding their
fellow citizen that Christmas day and all other festivals should not
be observed, that market should be kept and stores remain open on
December twenty-fifth. In 1647 riots broke out in various places
against the law suppressing Christmas, especially in London,.
Oxford, Ipswich, Canterbury and the whole country of Kent. The
government however stood firm and suppressed Christmas celebration
by force of arms. But in spite of these suppressive measures many
people still celebrated the day with festive meals and merriment in
the privacy of their homes. The observance of Christmas was returned
in 1660 with the restoration of the Monarchy.
The Latin countries, many nation of central Europe, especially the
rural section of southern Germany and Poland, the Alpine Provinces
of Austria and Bavaria celebrated Christmas blending charmingly the
tradition of medieval times with the best of modern Christmas
custom. In commemoration of the legend that tells how the birds and
beast of field came to worship the infant Jesus. The young Polish
peasants dressed up various creatures such as stork and the bear and
go from house to house singing the traditional carols. They are paid
with gifts of food.
The word "carol" comes from the Greek word Choraulein ( Chorus, the
dance, aulein to play the flute) and refers to a dance accompanied
by the playing of flute. Such dancing, usually done in ring form,
was very popular in ancient times among the Greek and Roman people.
The Romans carried those customs and names every where.
In medieval England "Carol" meant a ring dance accompanied by
singing. The dancers would form a circle and joining their hands,
walk in rhythmic dance step while keeping the form of the circle.
Gradually the meaning of carol changed and the word was applied to
the song itself.
Carol vs Hymn:
A hymn is essentially solemn, carol in the modern sense, is
familiar, playful or festive, but always simple. The distinction
between hymn and carol is often overlooked and carol has come to
denote all vernacular songs pertaining to Christmas.
The first hymn in honor of the Nativity was written in the fourth
century by St. Ephrem, the Syrian, probably soon after the Christmas
was fully established as one of the feast in East, especially in
Edessa, Syria and Palestine. A hymn of the Greek church written in
fifth or sixth century which in English translation is till
available as "o gladsome light…" is used in many Western churches at
Christmas candle light service. The early Latin hymn on the Nativity
were written in the fifth century.
The custom of singing carols in public was received in America at
the beginning of this century. In Canada the caroling is performed
either a few days before Christmas or on New Years eve, by young men
and women, dressed in old style and country costumes, who go from
house to house, singing and collecting gifts of food and clothes for
the poor of the town. In Hungry, Poland and other slavic countries,
singers go from house to house carrying a huge star lighted inside,
just as we see in Kerala, India.
The making of the Christmas crib is an old custom in most European
countries. Within the past centuries it has been adopted by many
different groups and churches in Western countries. The crib in the
present form and its use outside the church is credited to St.
Francis of Assisi. He made the Christmas crib popular through his
famous celebration at Greccio (Italy) on Christmas eve, 1223, with a Bethlehem scene including live animals. In many towns of Italy,
Germany and Austria as well as in South America, there are clubs
where children learn to build cribs of various styles and shapes,
using their imagination.
The Christmas tree is the main feature of modern Christmas
celebration. The Asian Age News paper dated 9th December 1996
reported that the highest Christmas tree of 1996 was in Taiwan with
a height of 100ft. about 10 stories, in front of the Taipei city
The origin of Christmas tree goes back to the medieval German
mystery plays. One of the most popular mysteries was the paradise
play, representing the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin and
expulsion from paradise. After the suppression of the mystery play
in churches, the paradise tree the only symbolic object of the play,
found its way into the homes of the faithful.
A reminder of the origin of our modern Christmas tree may still be
found in sections of Bavarian where fir branches and still trees,
decorated with lights, apples and tinsel are still called paradises.
The original home of the Christmas tree was the left bank of the
upper Rhine in Germany during the fifteenth century. It was
introduced into France in 1837, when princes Helen of Mecklenburg
brought it to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. It
came to England around the middle of the 19th century when Prince
Albert of Saxony, the husband of Queen Victoria, had tree set up at
Windsor Castle near London in 1841. From the royal court the fashion
spread, first among the nobility, then among the people in general.
The tree reached America as cherished companion of the German
The custom of decorating houses during Christmas originated from a
pagan background as an expression of worldly joy. When the early
Christmas began to use laurel branches for festive decoration, the
church discouraged that because of the display of laurel had been
associated with the feast of Saturnalia and other Pagan festivals of
the Roman empire. Tertullan, the third century father and writer
says in his treatise on idolatry, " let those who have no light burn their (Pagan) lamps daily. Let those who face the fire of hell affix
laurels to their door-posts…. You are a light of the world, a tree
ever green, if you have renounced the Pagan temple make not your
home such a temple".
The veneration of agriculture cults was common among the ancient
nation of Europe. The winter solstice was celebrated in pre-
Christian times for ten to twelve days in December (Julmond, the
month of Yule). The ritual expression of reverence for the gift of
bread was one of the main features of the celebration for winning
the favor of the field gods. Invocation, display of wheat in homes,
baking the special kinds of bread and cakes, symbolic action to
increases the fertility of the soil, honoring the sprits of
ancestors who had handed down the fields, these customs were all
part of their ritual. Probably the European Christianity incorporated the practice of baking cake into Christmas celebration
with a Christian flavor.
Santa Claus - The Father Christmas:
Santa Claus, man with a long white beard, dressed in the vestment of
a bishop with miter and crozier a friendly figure comes once a year
to visit the children. He chit chats with them, questioning them on
their catechism and listening to their prayers. He distributes candy
and chocolates and departs with a loving farewell, leaving the
little ones filled with holy awe and happiness. Saint Nicholas, a
Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox Church was the saint who is known
as Father Christmas . He was born in the year 270 ad at costal
region of the present Turkey and became bishop of Myra in Asia
Minor. He was cast into exile and prison during the persecution of
Emperor Diocletion and released by Constantine the Great, and he died
at Myra about AD 340 or 350. The Byzantine Church celebrates his
feast on 6th December, the day he was called to the eternity. Some
years ago his name was removed from the Roman Catholic calendar.
Nicholas was revered for his myriad miracles and acts of charity and
regarded as a friend of the children.
Dutch settlers in America brought this saint with them as Santaclas
which later became Sankt Klaus. Finally his bishops robe was altered
to long red coat, his head gear became a fur cap and name
westernized as Santa Claus.
The Exchange of Presents:
The exchange of presents is an indispensable custom of Christmas
celebration in the Western world. They spent the whole savings for
buying presents for kith and kin within the family. The custom of
giving presents dates back to the ancient Roman civilization
called "Strenae". On New years day the people of ancient Rome
exchanged gifts of sweet, pastry, lamps, precious stone, gold and
silver coins as token of their good wishes for a happy year. This practice, and even its name (etrennes) has been preserved among the
French people. In most Western countries, the present giving has
become a major apart of the actual Christmas celebration.
A popular custom in Britain is "boxing" on December Twenty-sixth for
family get together and opening of Christmas presents kept under the
Christmas tree inside the house. It originated in medieval times
when the priests would empty the alms boxes in all churches on the
day after Christmas and distributes the gifts to the poor of the
parish. The workers, apprentices, and servants stores their savings
and donations through out the year in their own personal boxes made
of earthen ware. Then, on the day after Christmas, the box was
broken and the money counted. This custom was eventually
called "boxing day".
In the middle of the nineteenth century when postal rates were
cheaper, people began to send written greetings and good wishes to
their relatives and friends before the feast of Christmas. The
modern custom of sending Christmas cards had originated in private
school context. It was customary of young pupils to present their
parents with a hand made card on the eve of Christmas. It is claimed
that the first Christmas greeting card was engraved in 1842 by a
16year old London artist, William Maw Egley. A few years later,
special cards were privately printed in Britain by a few individuals
who designed them for their personal use. In 1864 J.C. Horsley made
a card the size of a lady's visiting card for Sir Henry Cole. By
1860 Christmas greetings cards were on the market and were common by
1868. Now sending of Christmas cards has become more of a burden of
social requirement than a token of good will and brotherly
The Eastern traditional observance of Nativity of Christ as the
manifestation of divine love with an aim of establishing peace on
earth which was close to hearts of all Christian today, is on the
verge of turning to secular dimension and western influence with
overwhelming commercialization. The shepherd said one to
another "let us go Bethlehem and see this things that has come to
pass, which the Lord has made known to us." (St. Luke 2:15). We turn
down the invitation of angels, shepherd and church bells for
Christmas night liturgy and spend that time of adoration at clubs and
parties without the presence of the New born Babe in our heart. Our
priority goes to worldly shallow feast instead of the Eucharistic
banquet, to amusement instead of divine liturgical music, to sing in
praise of plum pudding, cakes, goose, minced pie and roasted Turkey.
A new approach, spiritual renewal based on the Eastern Ethos, is the
need of the time.