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Modern Day Christmas Celebrations
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 commercialization.

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 Ukrainian.

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 it.

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.

Christmas Crib:

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.

Christmas Tree:

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 office.

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 immigration.

Christmas Decoration:

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".

Christmas Cake:

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.

Boxing Day:

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".

Greeting Card:

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 affection.

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.

Fr. M.S. Skariah. is vicar of St. George Orthodox Church, Abu Dhabi. The above article was originally published in the Parish Bullettin of Abu Dhabi Parish.

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