As it is Christmas I thought we would take a break from the normal format of these Bible Studies and have a look at some Christmas traditions, to see how the fit into our faith and the spiritual Christmas. Please pardon me if I miss any of the US traditions or explain traditions that we only have in the UK or Europe, either way we may all learn something if members add their traditions in the posts boxes below.
In the middle ages, Mince Pies were originally small pies that were filled with meat, normally lamb, not the dried fruit suet and spices of the ones we have today. The earliest pies were always oval in shape and supposedly meant to represent the manger or crib that the baby Jesus was laid in. The pastry on top of the pie was arranged to represent the swaddling clothes, some even had a pastry baby on top. Although these pies were the poor's equivalent to our Turkey, they were later adopted in the UK in Georgian times as a status symbol, by very rich people having pies made in different shapes ( stars, crescents, hearts, tears, & flowers) which fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. Here the religious significance was lost as it was a display of who could employ the most expensive pastry cooks. These days they are round in shape, contain fruit and are eaten hot or cold, with a big dollop of thick cream.
Christmas, or Plumb Pugging is the traditional end to the British Christmas meal, it contains mainly fruit, with peal, carrot, and either wine or brandy, traditionally cooked in a cloth making the pudding ball shaped. That however was not how the pudding started, it originated back in the fourteenth century and was called a 'frumenty' and was made of beef and mutton, with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. The pudding was used as a preparation for the fast leading up to Christmas. By 1595 the frumenty was transforming into a plumb pudding and was being thickened by adding breadcrumbs and eggs, together with beer and spirits to give it more flavour. By the middle of the sixteen-hundreds the pudding had become the quintessential Christmas desert, but in 1664 the Puritans banned it, until 1714 when King George I, brought the pudding back as a part of the Christmas feast. The pudding evolved into the Victorian times, which is what we have to day.
There have been many superstitions surrounding the Christmas Pudding, one is that they should be made with thirteen ingredients, representing Jesus and the twelve. Another, that the pudding should be stirred from east to west, in honour of the Wise Men. The Sunday before Advent was called 'Stir-up Sunday' because the opening words of the Collet in the Book of Common Prayer (1549) says:
"Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
The sprig of Holly on top of the pudding referrs more to Easter than Christmas, and is a reminder of the 'Crown of Thorns'
The first Candy Cane seems to have been from the 1837 exhibition in Massachusetts, USA as a plain white sugar stick, a few years later the red stripe was added. In 1866 came the first connection with Christmas and the name 'Candy Cane', now flavoured with mint or wintergreen. In 1920 Bob McCormack from Georgia made the canes for his friends, Bob's brother-in-law was a Catholic priest and invented a machine that turned the straight canes into ones with a hook. They formed a company which was bought our by Farley and Sathers in 2005, who continue to make them today. It is thought that a German choir master, in 1670, gave the choir children candy to keep them quiet through the long Christmas service, as a reminder he made them shaped like a 'J' to remind them of Jesus, and a hook to remind them of the shepherds, the white sugar was to remind them of the Purity of Jesus and the red to remind us of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, the pepermint flavour is to remind us of the hyssop plant that was used for purifying in the Bible.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree has been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years, both pagan and Christian, pagans decorated their home with branches as encouragement to the green springtime to come. The Romans decorated their temples with Fir Trees during the festival of Saturnalia, and the Christians used it as a sign of everlasting life. The Christmas Tree started about a thousand years ago in Northern Europe and hung upside-down from the ceiling by chains. In other parts of Europe different trees were used by Christians, a plant or branch of cherry or hawthorn, placed in a pot with the hope that they would flower at Christmas time. The poor used pyramids of branches or logs, which were decorated to look like trees with paper angels and candles and apples, and often carried from house to house, and represented the Paradise Tree from the garden of Eden. In those days the day before Christmas D was called 'Adam and Eve's day'.
We know little about the origin except a few scattered traditions, it is likely that first real Christmas trees appeared in Tallinn in Estonia or Riga in Latvia. A regional society called the 'Brotherhood of Blackheads' ( unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners), provided a tree for the village square each year, around which people danced. The tree was then set on fire, so it similar to the custom of the Yule Log, with it's associations with the god Odin. There is an old picture from Germany (1521) that shows a tree being paraded through the streets with a bishop riding a horse behind it, possibly St. Nicholas. The first person, as far as we know however, to bring a fir tree into the house, as we do today was German preacher Martin Luther, in sixteenth century. Shortly before Christmas Luther was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful, that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. Another story about a Devonshire (UK) preacher, St. Boniface of Crediton, who traveled to Germany and saw a group of pagans about to sacrifice a child. In anger he cut the Oak tree down and saved the boy, then a young fir tree sprang up from the roots of the oak, which he took as a sign of his Christian faith, after that his followers decorated the tree with candles so that St. Boniface could preach to the pagans at night. The first Christmas trees were imported to Britain in the 1830's by Prince Albert (Queen Victoria's German husband) had a Christmas Tree set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a picture of the tree appeared in the Illustrated London News. The drawing of the Victorian tree helped Christmas Trees become popular in the UK and USA.
The tradition of exchanging Christmas cards started in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a senior government officer in the early Post Office, who was keen to get the service used more by ordinary people. It was Sir Henry who came up with the idea with his friend John Horsley, between them designed the very first card (above left), selling them for one shilling each (about 5p or 8 cents today). The card had no Christian representation at all, and depicted people caring for the poor and a family having Christmas dinner inside. People objected because it showed a child being given wine.
It doesn't need me to tell you that the reason we give presents at Christmas is to remind us of the gifts that the Magi brought to the child Jesus, Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. Gold because He was a king, Frankincense because He was God, and Myrrh because of what He was to suffer (Myrrh was used on dead bodies to stop them smelling) [Matthew 2:11 also Mark. 15:23 and John19:39]. But there is even more to this Christmas giving, and that is what Christmas is really about, what God gave us nearly two-thousand years ago. John 3:16 tells us that:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.“
Across the Christian world people give presents to each other, and the young believe in some 'gift bearer', some believe in St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas. In Germany they believe in the Christkind, in Spain it's the Wise Men, and in Italy it's an old woman called Befana. Presents are also left in different places, in Europe presents are left in shoes, boots or in the UK and US and Italy presents are left in stockings, sacks or pillow-cases. In many houses presents for friends and adult family members are left under the Christmas tree, opened in a communal family moment. Some in Holand, open presents on St. Nicholas Eve ot on St. Nicholas day (December 6th). In Orthodox countries they are opened on January 6th (Epiphany).
The first Carols were sung in Europe thousands ago but they were noy Christian, they were pagan songs, sung at the winter solstice as people danced around the stone circles. The word 'Carol' actually means 'dance or a song of praise and joy', these were sung to celebrate all four seasons, but only Christmas carols have survived. The first Christians took over solstice celebrations and substituted Christian songs; a Roman Bishop in 129 AD decreed that a song called "Angel's Hymn" should be sung at Christmas in Rome. Comas of Jerusalem wrote a song for Christmas in 760 AD for the Greek Orthodox Church, and after this many composers across Europe started to compose Christmas Carols, these were written in Latin, so were not popular, as they could not be understood by ordinary people. By the eleventh century most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas, but was revived by St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis wrote and started Nativity Plays when songs were sung, these were often taken up by travelling minstrels, who popularised the songs. The words of the songs were changed to suit different people as the minstrels travelled, one of these songs that has survived is 'I Saw Three Ships'.
After the English Civil War Oliver Cromwell and his puritans came to power in 1647 and Christmas and singing carols was banned, but the carols survived as people met in secret and continued to sing them. The carols, however remained unsung by the general population until Victorian times when two men, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert undertook a project to collect as many of the old carols as possible from across Europe and local villages, and the Christmas Carol never looked back.
The Star of Bethlehem
It seems that no Christmas Tree is complete without a fairy, angel or star at its summit point, the star obviously represents the star that guided the Magi to the Christ child. Sadly many of the stars are five pointed, pagan pentagrams, a pentagram is a star that can be drawn using six straight, equal lines without taking the pencil from the surface of the paper. This star is an occult symbol and is drawn on a floor as protection for the person who sits in the centre. What was this star that hovered over the place where Jesus was born? The origin of this star is unclear, to say the least, but theories abound, including comets, super novas, a conjunctions of planets or something entirely supernatural, which is not impossible with God. The only real evidence we have are the twelve Bible verses that tell us about the star and the Magi, in Matthew 2:1-12. These verses tell the story that during the time of Herod, Magi from the east visited Jerusalem looking for the 'King of the Jews, who wished to worship Him. They consulted with Herod, who consulted with his advisors as to where this 'king' was to be born. The advisors informed Herod that prophesy told them that it would be Bethlehem. Herod told the Magi to find the child and report back to him, he obtained from them the exact date that the star appeared and sent them on their way. The star then led them to Bethlehem and stopped over the place where Jesus was, and they were joyful. The Magi bowed down a worshipped Jesus and presented Him with the gifts (above) and returned to their home countries avoiding Herod. Note that verse eleven it says the Magi found the 'house', not the stable or tent or cave, which indicates that Mary Joseph and Joseph had returned to their 'house'. Also worth mentioning is that Herod obtained the date when the star had appeared, so it obviously was not the day of Jesus' birth, but some time later. Herod orders children to be killed who were less than two years old, so Jesus' birth must have been up to two years earlier [Matthew 2:16].
There are no astronomical records, other than the Gospels, of any comets or other phenomena appearing in the skies that coincide with any of the birth dates we have. It is likely to have been a local event, but even so, several countries had very advanced astronomy, China and the Moore's (Muslims) record nothing. The Magi most probably came from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the Yemen (then known as Persia, Arabia and Sheba), many of which had astronomers. So we can only conclude that the Bethlehem star was a supernatural event, and one that the Magi would have been looking for. They assuredly knew the prophesy of the arrival of the Messiah because in those days it was believed that the constellation of Pisces represented, or was associated with the Jewish nation, so when something unusual happened in that constellation it told the astrologers that something was about to happen in Israel. Now it happens that around that time, 7 BC, that there were three conjunctions within Pisces, all involving Saturn and Jupiter (the royal planet), which is an unusual event. A conjunction is when two or more planets or stars appear close together, mainly planets. Such an event as this happens only once in every 900 years. It may be that the May conjunction was associated with the birth of John the Baptist, and the September event with the birth of Jesus. Jupiter was the ``star'' of royalty and luck, whilst Saturn was the star of the Mesopotamian deity who protected Israel, both of which any astrologer worth his salt would have known.
Well that's about it, as I have run out of space and time, I hope you have found the above interesting and wish everyone a very blessed and peaceful holiday, when you can worship Jesus and thank God for Him in any way you are led. You know I don't do Christmas any more, but I do respect your right to believe that Christmas is a celebration of our Saviour's birth, we celebrate that in October at Sukkot. There will be no Bible Study next week but we will return after Christmas with a brand new series of studies. Have a blessed holiday in God's love, and thank you for joining us here on CLM Bible Study.