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Our Christmas traditions have some ancient beginnings

Did you ever wonder who wrote the first Christmas Carol? Or perhaps when the first nativity scene, so common in our churches here in Stafford, became popular? Or, maybe the tradition of Christmas trees and lights? None of these instantly popped into being as Christianity began to spread in the second and third centuries. For that matter, in those early years there wasn’t even agreement on when, or for that matter, if, the birth of Jesus should be celebrated. But, by the middle of the first millennium, Christmas celebrations slowly began to emerge. For example, the tradition of Christmas Carols began with rhyming stanzas composed by Roman churchmen in fourth century Milan. The familiar Christmas Hymn, “Adeste Fidelis,” or in translation, “Oh Come all Ye Faithful” probably began with verses written by monks in the 13th century. The modern

version, which most people can at least hum if asked, was written in the early 18th century. Other more secular tunes, Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls, weren’t written until the 19th century. One of the more modern carols, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, was first performed by Gene Autry in 1949. And of course, the list of Christmas songs composed over the last fifty years, secular and religious, numbers in the hundreds. But, they all began with those first rhyming stanzas.

Nativity scenes have been a Christmas tradition for at least a thousand years. The first references to carved wooden and ceramic figures depicting Jesus’ birth are in 10th century Rome. Later, St. Francis of Assisi, in the early 1200s strongly encouraged Christians to create manger scene displays. And by the late Middle Ages the practice became common in what is now modern day Germany and France. In later years the tradition of the manger scene, and later the Christmas pageant, spread to the United States, and South America. I was always a shepherd in our church pageants. In many homes the individual pieces of the manger scene are prized family heirlooms. My grandfather’s family treasured the ceramic pieces of a manger scene that came with the family from Scotland in the 19th century. He called the delicate little figures his “Christmas Jewels.”

There are all sorts of stories about the origins of the Christmas Tree. Early pagan religions in Europe and in Britain believed that trees had magical powers. One of the stories about the history of the Christmas Ttree gives the credit to St. Boniface in the 7th century. Boniface, a missionary in Germany took an axe to an oak tree local pagans had dedicated to the god Thor. Boniface’s prospective converts weren’t happy about this and Boniface, realizing that he was in a prickly situation, quickly suggested that a nearby fir tree would be a good Christian alternative because it “pointed towards Heaven.” The Christmas Tree became popular in Germany, but didn’t find its way to England until Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s popular German born husband, introduced it to the British. However, in the United States, with so many German settlers, the tradition began as early as the late 18th century.

All over our community these traditions are alive and well. There are Christmas Trees for sale, nativity scenes are in homes and churches, and Christmas carols are all over the radio dial. And just like they did when I was that slightly bedraggled Shepherd back in 1966, Christmas pageants are still just as common. It’s all a part of the season. But these traditions, whose origins we rarely consider, began a long time ago.

 

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