Christmas Legends and Customs

Nothing connected with the popular celebration of the Feast of Christmas is more charming than the Christmas Tree, with its bright candles and sparkling ornaments. Young and old members of the family enjoy gathering round it, to sing a carol or to inspect the gifts of the season. Still, this tree to which we are so well accustomed that we take it for granted, has a long and mysterious history. Years before the birth of our Saviour, the ancients used the holly as an emblem of the life which survived through the desolation of Winter.

During the Middle Ages, the Feast of Adam and Eve, who had been driven from the tree of life, was celebrated on December twenty‑fourth. Since it was true that the Cross is the new tree of life, people began to invent pious legends, which said that the Cross had been cut from the wood of the tree which had meant so much to our First Parents. This, many declared, was the apple tree and accordingly stories were told of miraculous pippins that suddenly appeared, quite ripe, at Christmastide.

While all these stories may have been imagined, the relationship of the Cross to the Tree of Life was made very clear by them, – a truth which it was good to know. The Christmas Tree, as we are familiar with it, did not, however, make its appearance until much later. The first authentic record of one dates from the Seventeenth Century.

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In pre‑Reformation days in England, Christmas Eve, if one may trust the old chroniclers, was a rare and fascinating time. All nature was believed to unite in celebrating the Birth of Christ, and to partake in the universal joy which the anniversary of the Nativity inspires. In some places it was known as the ‘Pasch of the Nativity’ – or in old English, ‘Yule Merriment’ – the ‘Night of Song’, ‘The Great Night’, the ‘Holy Night’, the ‘Night of Mary’, or the ‘Vigil of lights’, from the large number of lights then kindled. People also sent presents of lights to one another.

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Of all Christmas legends, the loveliest is that of the French honeysuckle, which won its rose colour when the Blessed Virgin laid Our Lord in the manger. This little plant was growing there; and as soon as the Holy infant rested upon it, the tiny flowers blushed, recognising in Him the Creator of the world.

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No Catholic country in the world has more beautiful Christmas customs than Ireland. Some of them, we are told, are no longer generally observed; but they are everywhere remembered and frequently recalled. In many places it is still the habit for a man named Joseph and a woman named Mary to light a blessed candle in honour of the Infant Saviour, the Light of the World. During the Holy Night, as it is called, the Christ‑Child is supposed to wander abroad, and in thousands of Irish homes lighted candles are placed in the windows, to guide His sacred feet; and the door is left ajar in case He should seek shelter from the cold. It is said that during the ‘Twelve Days’ – from Christmas to Epiphany – the gates of Paradise remain open, and that anyone who dies within this time is quickly admitted to the sight of God. Children born within the Twelve Days are especially dear, and are supposed to possess the gift of hearing angelic music. If a baby smiles an angel has whispered to it of heaven.

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In Northern Germany, on Christmas Eve, tables are spread and lights left burning, that the Blessed Mother and Child with their attendant angel‑escort, who pass when all are asleep, may find something to eat. In some parts of Austria candles are placed in the windows in order that the Christ Child may not stumble in passing through the village. In the Zillerthal (Tyrol), it is a general custom after the Christmas Eve supper, and before going to Midnight Mass, to leave a large bowl of milk on the table, with spoons set round it. On returning from church, two spoons will be secretly moved from their places in the circle, and some good fortune, it is believed, is sure to come to their youthful owners; for the mother and Child, the parents declare, must have supped milk from those very spoons.

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Many folklore tales are current of heavenly visitants coming to man under the guise of a wayfarer at the Christmas season; and in the Ages of Faith no petitioner was ever turned away from the door unrelieved by an alms, lest it might be some one from the better world in disguise.

Folklore tales are also told of the punishments that befall those who are not ready to help Christ in His poor during Christmastide. In Transylvania, the master of the house prays that Our Lord and His Mother may visit him as they pass through the earth and bless the household. He declares that –

This night two Guests I hope to see,
And both I’m sure shall welcome be.
With me I trust they’ll deign to rest;
Of all I own they’ll have the best.

In Brittany the same pious thought prevails; and in every Catholic country it used to be considered the height of impiety to turn away a stranger from the door, as he might be even the Lord Christ Himself. It was in hopeful trust that the Great Friend might come that hospitality was never refused.

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A Polish Christmas custom, called the Jaselki or the Manger, lasts all Christmas week, and is very popular among children. It is a sort of toy theatre, elaborately trimmed with tinsel, and brilliantly lighted up with little wax candles. In this theatre scenes from the infancy and early life of our Blessed Lord are depicted and carols and songs are sung before each scene. The theatre is carried from house to house, in each of the towns and villages in the neighbourhood, and a performance given at each of them.

The custom of celebrating Christmas with so many candles, not only in Poland but in other Catholic countries, gave the feast its ancient name of the Feast of Lights. In this connection we may mention that another beautiful name for Christmas, given it or mentioned by St. Basil, was the Festival of the Theophany, or the Manifestation of God to man in visible form.

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The French crèches or cribs are often very elaborate in the churches, and are found in every Catholic household however humble. Every cottage, too, has its Christmas candle, the chandelle de Noël, which is lighted with much ceremony. In Auvergne, for instance, it is placed in the middle of the table for the meagre supper before Midnight Mass, which is as important a repast as the Christmas dinner of England. This candle is elaborately decorated with goffered paper, and is lighted by the head of the family, generally the grandfather. He first makes the Sign of the Cross, then lights the candle, extinguishes it, and hands it to the eldest son, who does the same; then he hands it to his wife who repeats the ceremony; and the same ritual is observed by every member of the family according to their ages, till the youngest child has lighted it. The candle is then placed in the middle of the supper table. This is done in memory of the “Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.” Then the children go to bed, and the elders sit up singing carols before the Yule‑log, till it is time to go to Midnight Mass.

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The réveillon is the name also given in all parts of France to the repast which follows the Midnight Mass; and is ushered in, both in Paris and in other cities and towns of France, by a peal of bells, which gives the name to this feast. In some places the service is very long, and the people need food on returning home.

In many parts of France, it is the custom for the animals as well as the people to take part in the réveillon. They are given a double portion of hay or corn, to which is added something of which they are particularly fond as a bonne bouche (‘tit‑bit’);.

The birds also are associated with the Christmas celebrations in some parts of France, as they are also in Sweden. In Provence, for instance, there is a very pretty custom. the children of the parish catch a wren and take it to the Curé, who decorates it with rose‑coloured ribbon. After the High Mass he goes into the pulpit with it in his hand, and lets it fly among the congregation. The wren is chosen because, being the smallest bird, it is supposed to remind the people of the Infant Saviour.

Anonymous (signed ‘C’) in St. Peter’s Magazine (Cardiff), December, 1926.

Christmas Box