Christmas: Customs, Traditions and Holidays in the Christmas Season

Home | Category: Christian Holidays / Christmas


Ethiopian view of the birth of Christ

Christmas is a Christian holy day that marks the birth of Jesus, the son of God. Most Christians — Roman Catholics and Protestants — celebrate Christmas on December 25. Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate it in January 6th according to the Julian Calendar. Armenian Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 6, or, in the Holy Land, on January 18. Christmas Day is the Christian festival most celebrated by non-churchgoers. Churches are often completely full for services Christmas Day and late on Christmas Eve. [Source: BBC]

As early as the 2nd century Christ’s birth was celebrated on different days: January 6th, March 25th and December 25th. A feast day for Christ has its origins in Egypt. The fact that no one knew the actual date of his birthday was not so important because people didn't really care much about birthdays at that time. From Rome Christmas moved to Africa, northern Italy and Spain at the end of the forth century.

The idea of fixing the date of Christmas on December 25 was first suggested in Rome in A.D. 337. No date for the birth of Christ appears in the Bible. December 25 was chosen as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ because early Christians wanted it to displace the riotous Roman winter pagan festival of Saturnalia ("Birthday of the Invincible Sun God Mithras), which took place in late December. In the Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated with dancing in the streets, excessive drinking and cross dressing. Dancing and other forms of merry-making were later discouraged because of their association with pagan rituals.

In England the festival celebrating the birth of Christ became known as “Christes Masse” (Christ's mass) because a special Mass was held on that day. In 1657 Cromwell outlawed Christmas as part of Puritan effort to stamp out the excessive partying that went along with the holiday. It was also banned in New England from the 1620s through the early 1800s by the Puritans there because there no date for the birth of Christ appears in the Bible and the date that was chosen was taken from the Roman calendar.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity ; History of Christianity ; BBC on Christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible

Birth of Jesus

Scholars don't know for sure when Jesus was born. They believe his birth took place sometime between 4 B.C. and 7 B.C. The Gospel of Mathews says that Jesus was born in the last two years of Herod's reign, which would place his birth around 4 B.C. Some scholars believe the reference to Jesus being born at the time of the first registration in Judea around 7 B.C. or 6 B.C. is probably more accurate.

The Birth of Christ by Carlo Saraceni
Jesus was probably born in the spring, summer or the fall, which is when shepherds [are] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks." There is a reference to shepherds watching over their flocks at night, something they usually do in the hottest months of summer or during the lambing season in spring not in winter. In the winter the animals were kept in corrals. The December 25th date was ascribe to Jesus's birth in the 6th century ostensibly to coincide with local winter solstice festivals.

There are a lot of discrepancies in the telling of the Christmas story. In Matthew’s Nativity, the angel’s Annunciation is made to Joseph. In Luke’s it is to Mary (See Annunciation below). Matthew offers the Three Wise and places the baby Jesus on a horse. Luke features shepherds and a manger. Mark and Luke place the birth in Bethlehem but have different stories on how that happened to be.

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark describe the story of Jesus’s birth using different traditions. The “infancy narratives” that describe the Christmas story were prologues added to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark long after the other parts of the Gospels were written.

Although a big deal is made about Christmas and the virgin birth what happens after Jesus died that lies at the heart of Christianity.

See Jesus

Christmas Season

In the United States the Christmas shopping season has traditionally begun the day after Thanksgiving (a day now known as Black Friday) at the end of November and the Christmas Season last until to January 1. In other places The Christmas Season lasts from St. Nicholas Day in early December to Epiphany on January 6th.

According to the BBC: “Advent is the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and begins on Sunday nearest to 30th November. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus meaning coming. Traditionally it is a penitential season but is no longer kept with the strictness of Lent and Christians are no longer required to fast. Advent wreaths are popular especially in churches. They are made with fir branches and four candles. A candle is lit each Sunday during Advent.” [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

Bethlehem Star
In many Latin and Mediterranean countries the heart of the Christmas Season lasts from December 24 or with winter solstice (around December 21 or 22) to Epiphany on January 6th (also known as Twelfth Night). This period closely follows the ancient Roman Saturnalia Festival. In Italy today children receive gifts from La Befana, a witchlike figure, on Epiphany instead of from Santa Clause on Christmas. Gift-giving is attributed to the Christ child and Santa Claus is called Father Christmas. Spaniards also exchange gifts on Epiphany rather than Christmas Day, with presents for children coming from the Three Kings (the Three Wise Men).

The Catholic Christmas cycle begins with Advent on the forth Sunday, and sometimes all the Sundays in December, before December 25th. It is happy time characterized by feelings of anticipation for the upcoming events. For Catholics, Christmas takes place nine months after the Annunciation (March 25), when Mary is informed her pregnancy by the angel Gabriel.

Some people say that January 1st marks the day Jesus was circumcised. Immaculate Conception Day — commemorating is the idea that Mary was exempted from original sin by virtue of a special grace from God — is marked on December 2 or December 8 with processions with an image of the Virgin Mary and other festivities. Kings Day is held on the Sunday before Advent. Is honors Christ as the King who gave his life for us. It’s mark the beginning of the period of preparation for a new year.

Father Christmas, Santa Claus and St. Nicholas

According to the BBC: “An important part of today's Christmas is the myth of Father Christmas (called Santa Claus in America). His origins are in Christian and European tradition. But the visual image of Father Christmas that we have today is the one popularised by American card-makers in the Victorian era. Traditionally, Father Christmas visits houses at midnight on Christmas Eve, coming down the chimney to leave presents. Children hang up stockings - nowadays usually large socks with Christmas patterns knitted into them - for Father Christmas to fill with little toys and presents ('stocking fillers'). Some traditions surrounding Father Christmas pre-date Christianity. His sleigh, pulled by reindeer, is left over from Scandinavian mythology. The practice of leaving mince pies and a glass of milk or brandy for him on Christmas Eve may be a remnant of Pagan sacrifices made to mark the end of winter and the coming of spring. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

Sinter Klaas

“The USA has the figure of Santa Claus, whose name comes from Saint Nicholas via the Dutch Sinterklaas. Saint Nicholas of Myra (a location in modern-day Turkey) is, among other things, the patron saint of sailors. A famous story has him anonymously delivering bags of gold coins to a man who could not afford dowry for his daughters to get married. Some versions of this story even have Saint Nick dropping the bags down the chimney. In modern times the figures of Father Christmas and Santa Claus are indistinguishable. |::|

St. Nicholas Day on December 6th commemorates the day when the saint brought back to life three children who had been cut up into little pieces. In Greece it is celebrated by children making rounds singing Christmas carols accompanied by tin drums and tinkling triangles. In Fribourg, Switzerland a man dresses as St. Nicholas, the bishop, and is paraded through the streets on the back of a donkey led by a black-robed figure. After the parade is over the bishop stands on platform and give a satirical speech with some rather nasty remarks.

The Feast of St. Nicholas on December 5th is a major holiday in the Netherlands. On the night before the feast children leave their shoes by the fireplace with lumps of sugar and carrots for Sinterklaas's horse. The next morning there are small tarts in their shoes and a large gift. Family friends often leave gift at the door, ring he doorbell and run away. Family members exchange chocolates with a person's initials and gifts, often with a humorous or teasing poem attached.

Cribs for Christmas

According to the BBC: “The telling of the Christmas story has been an important part of the Christianisation of Christmas. One way that the Christmas story has been maintained is through the crib, a model of the manger that Jesus was born in. The tradition of crib making dates back to at least 400 AD when Pope Sixtus III had one built in Rome. In many parts of Europe in the 18th century crib making was an important craft form. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

According to Cribs are used in Churches all over the world and even in some homes (we have a wooden one in my house) to remind people of the story. Sometimes religious pictures and statues are called icons. Some Catholic and Orthodox Christians have icons of Mary and the baby Jesus in their homes. [Source:]

In some countries such as Italy and Malta, and many South American countries, the crib is the most important Christmas decoration. The city of Naples, in Italy, has used cribs to decorate houses and Churches since the 1020s! That's even before St. Francis of Assisi put on his play. Naples is also the home to the worlds largest nativity crib scene. It's in the 'Museo Nazionale di S. Martino' and has 162 people, 80 animals, angels, and about 450 other smaller objects. Find out more about Nativity cribs in Naples in Italy. Cribs also have a long tradition and importance in Malta, where they are called 'Presepju'. There's a special society that keep the tradition alive.

Nativity Scenes

nativity scene in Denmark

Nativity scenes, called “presepios” , or “créches”, are very popular in Italy. St Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first re-reenactment of the Nativity Scene in 1223 in Greccio near Terni in the Lazio region of Italy. St. Francis reportedly was appalled by elaborate re-creations of the Christmas birth in noble courts and sough to create something more basic humble, using borrowed straw and farm animals. But this seems unlikely in that the elaborate re-creations appeared centuries after his death. The word nativity comes from the latin word 'natal' which means birth (and is also where we get the word 'native' from).

The nativity scene custom was popularized in Naples, where prespios became an art form and the premier hobby in the baroque period in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bourbon royals and nobleman set up huge and elaborate displays in their homes. Over the year the prespeios became more irreverent as the Holy Family was joined by politicians, clowns, local craftsmen and workers and popular personalities of that day. Some had hundred of figures, the majority wearing Italian rather Middle Eastern clothes.

The main figures in the nativity scenes are usually made from ceramic or terra-cotta. It the past they were made of hemp or oakum wrapped around a framework of iron wire that allowed for poses to be changed, and had wooden heads. Some were made by famous sculptors and craftsmen and featured exquisite details. Ranging in size from 8 to 18 inches, they often wore exquisitely-made silk costumes.

The scenes often feature tiny, finely-crafted reproductions of antique porcelain, silver censors, and baskets of waxed fruit. The backgrounds are usually made from cork, wood and plaster and trees are made of branches of bonsai trees and moss. Landscapes are usually associated more with southern Italy than the Holy Land and the houses have details like pealing paint, drooping balconies and cracked windows.

Modern day creches feature Italian Communist leaders dressed as executioners, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi carrying wads of cash, the actresses Sophia Loren and Gina Lollibrigida and film directors Federico Fellini and Franco Zephirelli.

A Christmas-time tradition in Italy is for mothers to take their children shopping for painted plaster animals, figures and huts for the family Nativity scene. During Christmas houses are decorated with lights, flower arrangements, and plastic Madonnas with crowns of small electric lights in addition to nativity scenes. Friends give each other tree branches called “strenne” to express their best wishes for the holiday season. Some people have Christmas trees but that is regarded as a German tradition. A traditional Italian Christmas dinner includes seafood antipasto, pasta with fish sauce, panettone (fruitcake).

History of Nativity Scenes

Mary and Joseph in a Nativity scene
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. One account of Francis’ nativity scene comes from “The Life of St. Francis of Assisi” by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death. According to Bonaventure, St. Francis received permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”) Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences. [Source: Rachel Nuwer,, December 14, 2012]

L.V. Anderson wrote in Slate: While this part of Bonaventure's story is dubious, it's clear that nativity scenes had enormous popular appeal. Francis' display came in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment and education for European laypeople. These plays, originally performed in churches and later performed in town squares, re-enacted Bible stories in vernacular languages. Since church services at the time were performed only in Latin, which virtually no one understood, miracle plays were the only way for laypeople to learn scripture. Francis' nativity scene used the same method of visual display to help locals understand and emotionally engage with Christianity. [Source: L.V. Anderson,]

“Within a couple of centuries of Francis' inaugural display, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe. It's unclear from Bonaventure's account whether Francis used people or figures to stand in for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, or if the spectators just used their imagination, but later nativity scenes included both tableaux vivants and dioramas, and the cast of characters gradually expanded to include not only the happy couple and the infant, but sometimes entire villages. The familiar cast of characters we see today—namely the three wise men and the shepherds—aren't biblically accurate. Of the four gospels in the New Testament, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth, the former focusing on the story of the wise men’s trek to see the infant king, the latter recounting the shepherds’ visit to the manger where Jesus was born. Nowhere in the Bible do the shepherds and wise men appear together, and nowhere in the Bible are donkeys, oxen, cattle, or other domesticated animals mentioned in conjunction with Jesus’ birth. But early nativity scenes took their cues more from religious art than from scripture. “After the reformation, crèches became more associated with southern Europe (where Catholicism was still prevalent), while Christmas trees were the northern European decoration of choice (since Protestantism—and evergreens—thrived there). As nativity scenes spread, different regions began to take on different artistic features and characters. For example, the santon figurines manufactured in Provence in France are made of terra cotta and include a wide range of villagers. In the Catalonia region of Spain, a figure known as the caganer—a young boy in the act of defecating—shows up in most nativity scenes. In 20th- and 21st-century America, nativity figurines became associated with kitsch rather than piety, with nonreligious figures like snowmen and rubber ducks sometimes occupying the main roles.

“What about those nativity plays that children often perform at Christmastime? They are an obvious outgrowth of the miracle plays of the Middle Ages, but the reason children (rather than adults) perform in them isn’t clear. However, it’s possible the tradition stems from the Victorian Era, when Christmas was recast in America and England as a child-friendly, family-centered holiday, instead of the rowdy celebration it had been in years past.”

Saint Francis and the Nativity

St. Francis Honors Christ with the First Nativity Scene

Thomas of Celano wrote: “His highest intention, greatest desire, and supreme purpose was to observe the holy gospel in and through all things. He wanted to follow the doctrine and walk in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to do so perfectly, with all vigilance, all zeal, complete desire of the mind, complete fervor of the heart. He remembered Christ's words through constant meditation and recalled his actions through wise consideration. The humility of the incarnation and the love of the passion so occupied his memory that he scarcely wished to think of anything else. Hence what he did in the third year before the day of his glorious death, in the town called Greccio, on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, should be reverently remembered. [Source: Translation by David Burr,]

“There was in that place a certain man named John, of good reputation and even better life, w ham the blessed Francis particularly loved. Noble and honorable in his own land, he had trodden on nobility of the flesh and pursued that of the mind. Around fifteen days before the birthday of Christ Francis sent for this man, as he often did, and said to him, "If you wish to celebrate the approaching feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and do w hat I tell you. I w ant to do something that w ill recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by." Upon hearing this, the good and faithful man hurried to prepare all that the holy man had request ed.

“The day of joy drew near, the time of exult at ion approached. The brothers were called from their various places. With glad hearts, the men and w omen of that place prepared, according to their means, candles and torches to light up that night which has illuminated all the days and years with its glittering star. Finally the holy man of God arrived and, finding everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced.

“The manger is ready, hay is brought, the ox and ass are led in. Simplicity is honored there, poverty is exalted, humility is commended and a new Bethlehem, as it were, is made from Greccio. Night is illuminated like the day, delighting men and beasts. The people come and joyfully celebrate the new mystery. The forest resounds with voices and the rocks respond to their rejoicing. The brothers sing, discharging their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night echoes with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the m anger 12 full of sighs, consumed by devotion and filled with a marvelous joy. The solemnities of the mass are performed over the manger and the priest experiences a new consolation.

young adult nativity play

“The holy man of God wears a deacon's vestments, for he was indeed a deacon, and he sings the holy gospel with a sonorous voice. And his voice, a sweet voice, a vehement voice, a clear voice, a sonorous voice, invites all to the highest rewards. Then he preaches mellifluously to the people standing about, telling them about the birth of the poor king and the little city of Bethlehem. Often, too, when he wished to mention Jesus Christ, burning with love he called him "the child of Bethlehem," and speaking the word "Bethlehem" or "Jesus," he licked his lips with his tongue, seeming to taste the sweetness of these words.

“The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied here and a marvelous vision is seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger, and he saw the holy man of God approach and arouse the child as if from a deep sleep. Nor was this an unfitting vision, for in the hearts of many the child Jesus really had been forgotten, but now, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life and impressed here by loving recollect ion. Finally the celebrat ion ended and each returned joyfully home.

“The hay placed in the manger was kept so that the Lord, multiplying his holy mercy, might bring health to the beasts of burden and other animals. And indeed it happened that many animals throughout the surrounding area were cured of their illnesses by eating this hay. Moreover, w omen undergoing a long and difficult labor gave birth safely when some of this hay was placed upon them. And a large number of people, male and female alike, with various illnesses, all received the health they desired there. At last a temple of the Lord was consecrated w here the manger stood, and over the manger an altar was constructed and a church dedicated in honor of the blessed father Francis, so that, w here animals once had eaten hay, henceforth men could gain health in soul and body by eating the flesh of the Lamb without spot or blemish, Jesus Christ our Lord, who through great and indescribable love gave him self to us, living and reigning with the Father and Holy Spirit, God eternally glorious forever and ever, Amen. Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Nativity Plays

children's nativity play

The tradition of Nativity plays began in churches where they were used to illustrate the Christmas story as told in the Bible. According to “It is traditional in the UK for Primary (Elementary) schools to perform Nativity Play for the parents and local people associated with the school. The Nativity Play recreates the scene of Jesus' Birth and tells of how Mary and Joseph were visited by the Shepherds and Wise Men. The parts of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men are played by children. If the school is attached to a Church, the play often takes place in the Church. Sunday Schools in Churches also sometimes put on Nativity Plays. [Source:]

“In the past, it was common for live animals including an ox and donkey and other farm animals (but not pigs) to be used in the plays. Sometimes they still are, but it is now more common for children to dress up as the animals in costumes or to have animal props.

The first nativity play was performed in a cave in Italy by St. Francis of Assisi and some of his monks in 1223 to remind the local population that Jesus was born for them, as he was born into a poor family like theirs and not to a rich family. St. Francis told the part of each character in the story himself using wooden figures in the play. After a couple of years, the play had become so popular that real people played the parts of the characters in the story. Songs were sung by the people taking part and they became what we call Christmas carols today!

Christmas Trees and Presents

The custom of gift giving on Christmas has it origins in ancient festivals such as the Roman midwinter festival. It honors the gifts given by the Wise men to Jesus. The story of St. Nicholas has one episode in which he provides three daughters of an impoverished nobleman with doweries. Some people believe this was the basis of the Christmas gift giving.

Some people open presents on Christmas morning. Others open them at night on Christmas Eve. Those that do the latter in Spain and Latin American countries often invite people to Christmas Eve dinner at 7:30pm but they usually don't show up until 8:30 or 9:00. Dinner is usually served around 10:00pm. Presents are often opened before midnight to appease nagging children and so some people can attend midnight Mass. Toasts and partying often extend late into the night and people often spend much of Christmas day sleeping.

The idea of the Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree, comes from Germany. The custom may have been derived from maypoles. The first trees were hung from the ceiling like a chandelier. The custom was exported to America. Yule logs also come from Germany. Holly is used in Christmas, some say, because thorns and red berries are symbols of the crown of thorns and blood. A traditional German Christmas dinner includes goose stuffed with apples and leeks, potato dumplings, red and green cabbage, light and dark beer, “stolen” (a sweet bread with candied fruit) and “pfeffernusse” (old-fashion German Christmas cookies),

History of Christmas Trees

German Christmas tree

According to “Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. [Source: |+|]

“Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. |+|

“Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans. |+|

“It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims’s second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy. |+|

tallest Christmas tree in Germany in 2017

“In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived. By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling. |+|

“The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition. |+|

Christmas Traditions from Germany

Many Christmas traditions practiced around the world today started in Germany. According to “It has been long thought that Martin Luther began the tradition of bringing a fir tree into the home. According to one legend, late one evening Martin Luther was walking home through the woods and noticed how beautifully the stars shone through the trees. He wanted to share the beauty with his wife so he cut down a fir tree and took it home. Once inside he placed small lighted candles on the branches and said that it would be a symbol of the beautiful Christmas sky. Hence, the Christmas tree. [Source: |+|]

“Another legend says that in the early 16th century, people in Germany combined two customs that had been practiced in different countries around the globe. The Paradise tree (a fir tree decorated with apples) represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Christmas Light, a small, pyramid-like frame, usually decorated with glass balls, tinsel, and a candle on top, was a symbol of the birth of Christ as the Light of the World. Changing the tree’s apples to tinsel balls and cookies; and combining this new tree with the Light placed on top, the Germans created the tree that many of us know now. |+|

“Today, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) is traditionally decorated in secret with lights, tinsel, and ornaments by the mother and is lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under its branches.” |+|

Christmas Wreaths and Kissing Boughs

Christmas wreath in the UK

According to “Hanging a circular wreath of evergreens during mid winter seems to go back a very long way. It might have started back in Roman times when wreaths were hung on their doors as a sign of victory and of their status. Rich Roman women also wore them as headdresses at special occasions like weddings and to show they were posh. Roman Emperors also wore Laurel Wreaths. They were also given to the winners of events in the original Olympic Games in Greece. [Source:]

“The word 'wreath' comes from the Old English word 'writhen' which means to writhe or twist. Christmas Wreaths as we know them today, might have started life as Kissing Boughs (see below) or come from the German and Easter European custom of Advent Wreaths.

“In the UK, before Christmas Trees became popular and dating back to the middle ages, another popular form of Christmas/mid winter decoration was the Kissing Bough or Bunch. These were made of five wooden hoops that made the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and then the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were covered with Holly, Ivy, Rosemary, Bay, Fir or other evergreen plants. Inside the hoops were hung red apples (often hung from red ribbons) and a candle was either put inside the ball at the bottom or round the horizontal hoop. The bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball. (For a simpler bough you could also just have a horizontal hoop decorated and hung with apples and the mistletoe.)”

Holly, Ivy and Christmas Plants

According to “Holly, Ivy and other greenery such as Mistletoe were originally used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival and ward off evil spirits and to celebrate new growth.When Christianity came into Western Europe, some people wanted to keep the greenery, to give it Christian meanings but also to ban the use of it to decorate homes. The UK and Germany were the main countries to keep the use of the greenery as decorations. Here are the Christian meanings: [Source:]

Christmas Holly: The prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. The berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns. In Scandinavia it is known as the Christ Thorn. In pagan times, Holly was thought to be a male plant and Ivy a female plant. An old tradition from the Midlands of England says that whatever one was brought into the house first over winter, tells you whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year! But it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve.

Christmas Ivy: Ivy has to cling to something to support itself as it grows. This reminds us that we need to cling to God for support in our lives.In Germany, it is traditional that Ivy is only used outside and a piece tied to the outside of a Church was supposed to protect it from lightning!


Laurel has been worn as a wreath on the head to symbolise success and victory for thousands of years. It symbolizes the victory of God over the Devil. Fir and Yew trees are evergreen and so signify everlasting life with God. Fir is also very commonly used for Christmas Trees.

Rosemary was connected with the Virgin Mary (because it was thought to be Mary's favorite plant) and people thought that it could protect you from evil spirits. It is also sometimes called the friendship plant and it was the most common garnish put on the boar's head that rich people ate at the main Christmas meal in the Middle ages! It is also known as the remembrance herb and was used at Christmas as this is the time that we remember the birth of Jesus. In the late 1700s a special Christmas Rosemary Service was started in Ripon Cathedral School where a red apple, with a sprig of Rosemary in the top of it, was sold by the school boys to the members of the congregation for 2p, 4p or 6p (depending on the size of apple!).

When should you take the greenery down? It is traditional to take down the decorations after Twelfth Night (5th January) on Epiphany (January 6th). But during the middle ages, greenery (including Mistletoe) was often left hanging up until Candlemas (when Christians celebrate Jesus going to the Jewish Temple as a baby) in early February!


Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, Mistletoe are partially parasitic plants that steal water and mineral nutrients from a host tree, but have their own leaves to perform photosynthesis. There are dozens of species distributed worldwide, the most famous of which is the common European mistletoe (Viscum album). European mistletoe is a branching evergreen shrub with thin leaves that attach in opposing pairs at each node of the branch. Small yellow flowers bloom at the tip of the branch in very early spring, in the crotch between the leaves. The fruits, small milky white berries, mature from early to mid-winter. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, December 20, 2012]

“Mistletoe berries are poisonous to humans, but are eaten by birds. The seeds are coated with thick mucus that allows them to stick solidly when wiped off or excreted onto tree branches. The mucus later hardens, and when the seed germinates it sends out a special tap root that penetrates right into the branch of the host tree, where it funnels up water and mineral nutrients to the mistletoe leaves.

Under the Mistletoe

“Mistletoe has since antiquity been considered a sacred plant in Celtic, Nordic and other European cultural traditions. The first-century Roman soldier and natural historian Pliny the Elder described a ceremony in which Celtic druids climbed up an oak tree to cut down sprigs of mistletoe using a golden sickle. The falling mistletoe was caught in a blanket by people waiting under the tree, and two white bulls were slaughtered as a sacrifice. The mistletoe appears to have been used in ceremonies conducted to ensure the fertility of domestic livestock. The milky white berries may have been symbolic of male sperm and fertility.

“Even today, sprigs of mistletoe are widely used as decorations during the Yuletide or Christmas season. According to tradition, girls caught standing under the mistletoe may be kissed. This custom may have some base in the plant's deep association with fertility in the Celtic tradition. Another theory is that the custom actually derives from Scandinavian mythology.

“Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg, was a gentle handsome youth with a sunny disposition. A seer, however, foretold that he would be killed by a wooden spear or dagger. Frigg, anxious to protect her darling son, traveled all over the nine worlds of Norse cosmology, extracting promises from all the trees never to harm him. Unfortunately, she somehow bypassed the mistletoe. The evil trickster Loki, jealous of Baldur's good looks and popularity, learned of this, and had the boy killed with a shaft made from mistletoe wood.

“In the classic Norse myth mistletoe is responsible for the death of the peaceful Baldur. In later popular folklore, however, mistletoe conversely became associated with love and good will. Enemies that found themselves dueling under a mistletoe shrub were required to make peace; while lovers who embraced under the shrub were assured a long, happy and fertile married life.”

Christmas in Bethlehem

20120508-Nativity church Bethlehem_BW_2.JPG
Entering the Nativity
Church in Bethlehem
Describing Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem in 2006, AP reported: “Thousands of people joined by marching bands clergymen in magenta skullcaps and children dressed as Santa Claus celebrated Christmas Eve in the center of Bethlehem...In an annual tradition, Bethlehem’s residents enacted Christmas rituals that seem out of place in the Middle East, Palestinian Scouts marched through the streets, some wearing kilts and pom-pom-topped berets, playing drums and bagpipes. They passed inflatable Santas, looking forlorn in the West Bank sunshine.”

“Manger Square and the surrounding buildings were decorated with bright lights” payed for in part with a $50,000 donation from Hamas. “Bands performed on a stage, and a large screen beams image of Palestinian flags and officials, But few foreign tourists appeared to be among that crowds.”

“To get to town, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Church’s highest official in the Holy Land, rode in his motorcade through the a huge steel gate in the Israeli barrier that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem...The robed clergymen was led into Palestinian-controlled territory by a formal escort of five Israeli policeman mounted on horses, two Israeli Border Police troops closed the gate behind him, Sabbah, wearing a flowing gold and burgundy robe, led a procession into St. Catherine’s Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity.”

The Bethlehem Christmas Eve service televised worldwide is held at the new St. Catherine’s Church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity not the Church of the Nativity itself. AP reported: “Hundreds of worshipers packed the cavernosus hall for the service, as clergymen chanted in Latin amid the sound of bells and organ music. In his homily, Sabbah...appealed to Palestinian to halt their recent “fratricidal struggles”.


20120508-Three wise menMagi_(1).jpg
Three Wise Men
Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night, commemorates: 1) the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, marking the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry; and 2) the visit of the Wise Men; and 3) Jesus’s first miracle at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Epiphany is celebrated by Western Christians on January 6, 12 days after Christmas. Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 18.

Epiphany come from the Greek word “epi-plainein”, “to show” or “reveal.” Known in many Catholic countries as the “Feast of the Three Kings,” it honors the visit of the Three Kings (the Three Wise Men) to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. It is usually celebrated with processions, plays with the Three Wise Men present gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense to cribs and Twelfth Night cakes, which are blessed at a special mass, symbolize Christ, bread and life. In places that celebrate Epiphany presents are usually exchanged on Epiphany rather than Christmas or Christmas Eve. Epiphany, some scholars believe, evolved out of a pagan winter solstice festival celebrated by the Egyptians and Arabs, and christianized by Gnostic sects around A.D. 120-140.

For Orthodox Christians, Epiphany marks the day that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Describing a celebration of the event in Jericho in the West Bank, AFP reported, “Thousands of Orthodox Christians braved rain on the banks of the Jordan plunge into plastic tubes filled its murky water to celebrate Jesus’s baptism. Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III led a ceremony attended by the faithful from several eastern denominations” and “tossed a cross adorned with flowers into the river and released doves at the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptized...Many followers then immersed themselves in the tubs and poured buckets of water over their heads as Israelis security forces prevented them from approaching the river itself.”

According to the BBC: “The Western Church began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century where it was, and still is, associated with the visit of the magi (wise men) to the infant Jesus when God revealed himself to the world through the incarnation of Jesus. According to Matthew 2:11 they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.For many Protestant church traditions, the season of Epiphany extends from 6 January until Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent leading to Easter. Other traditions, including the Roman Catholic tradition, observe Epiphany as a single day, with the Sundays following Epiphany counted as Ordinary Time. In the Spanish speaking world Epiphany is also known as Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day). [Source: October 7, 2011 BBC |::|]

Festivals at Epiphany in the 4th Century

Egeria, Etheroiua or Aetheria was a woman, widely regarded as the author of Peregrinatio (pilgrimage) – a detailed account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the A.D. 380s — from which this description is from. Scholars believe she is either from Spain or Gaul (France).


Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “1. Night Station at Bethlehem. “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, and the rest which follows. And since, for the sake of the monks who go on foot, it is necessary to walk slowly, the arrival in Jerusalem thus takes place at the hour when one man begins to be able to recognise another, that is, close upon but a little before daybreak. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, ]

“7. And on arriving there, the bishop and all with him immediately enter the Anastasis, where an exceedingly great number of lights are already burning. There a psalm is said, prayer is made, first the catechumens and then the faithful are blessed by the bishop; then the bishop retires, and every one returns to his lodging to take rest, but the monks remain there until daybreak and recite hymns.

“Morning Services at Jerusalem. “8. But after the people have taken rest, at the beginning of the second hour they all assemble in the greater church, which is in Golgotha. Now it would be superfluous to describe the adornment either of the church, or of the Anastasis, or of the Cross, or in Bethlehem on that day; you see there nothing but gold and gems and silk. For if you look at the veils, they are made wholly of silk striped with gold, and if you look at the curtains, they too are made wholly of silk striped with gold. The church vessels too, of every kind, gold and jewelled, are brought out on that day, and indeed, who could either reckon or describe the number and weight of the cereofala, or of the cicindelae, or of the lucernae, or of the various vessels?

“9. And what shall I say of the decoration of the fabric itself, which Constantine, at his mother's instigation, decorated with gold, mosaic, and costly marbles, as far as the resources of his kingdom allowed him, that is, the greater church as well as the Anastasis, at the Cross, and the other holy places in Jerusalem ?

“10. But to return to the matter in hand: the dismissal takes place on the first day in the greater church, which is in Golgotha, and when they preach or read the several lessons, or recite hymns, all are appropriate to the day. And afterwards when the dismissal from the church has been made, they repair to the Anastasis with hymns, according to custom, so that the dismissal takes place about the sixth hour. 11. And on this day lucernare also takes place according to the daily use.

Epiphany Octave and Mass in the 4th Century

Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “On the second day also they proceed in like manner to the church in Golgotha, and also on the third day; thus the feast is celebrated with all this joyfulness for three days up to the sixth hour in the church built by Constantine. On the fourth day it is celebrated in like manner with similar festal array in Eleona, the very beautiful church which stands on the Mount of Olives; on the fifth day in the Lazarium, which is distant about one thousand five hundred paces from Jerusalem; on the sixth day in Sion, on the seventh day in the Anastasis, and on the eighth day at the Cross. Thus, then, is the feast celebrated with all this joyfulness and festal array throughout the eight days in all the holy places which I have mentioned above. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, ]

Epiphany celebration

“12. And in Bethlehem also throughout the entire eight days the feast is celebrated with similar festal array and joyfulness daily by the priests and by all the clergy there, and by the monks who are appointed in that place. For from the hour when all return by night to Jerusalem with the bishop, the monks of that place keep vigil in the church in Bethlehem, reciting hymns and antiphons, but it is necessary that the bishop should always keep these days in Jerusalem. And immense crowds, not of monks only, but also of the laity, both men and women, flock together to Jerusalem from every quarter for the solemn and joyous observance of that day.

“XXVI The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honour, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw Him,-- treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which His parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”


Candlemass is held on February 2, forty days after the birth of Jesus Christ. A celebration of light, it commemorates the purification of the Blessed Virgin and presentation of Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. Taking children to the Temple was an old Jewish custom that Jesus’s family followed A blessing of candles, followed by a procession lies at the heart of the Candlemass celebration. Believers who hope to become “children of light” generally carry holy candles with them. These are burnt beside the dead, a sign of hope for eternal life.

According to the BBC: “Candlemas commemorates the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of her son Jesus. This day also marks the ritual presentation of the baby Jesus to God in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was met by Anna and Simeon. Simeon held the baby Jesus and called him a Light to the World. [Source: June 23, 2009 BBC |::|]

Candlemas circumcision

“Ritual purification stems back to a Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after the birth of a child. For 40 days for a boy, and 60 days for a girl, women weren't allowed to worship in the temple. At the end of this time, women were brought to the Temple or Synagogue to be purified. After the ceremony women were allowed to take part in religious services again. |::|

“The festival is called Candlemas beacuse this was the day that all the Church's candles for the year were blessed. On Candlemas night, many people place lighted candles in their windows at home. Like some other Christian festivals, Candlemas draws some of its elements from Paganism. |::|

“In pre-Christian times, it was the festival of light. This ancient festival marked the mid point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox. Some people lit candles to scare away evil spirits on the dark winter nights. People believed that Candlemas predicted the weather for the rest of the winter:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again. — Traditional |::|

“For some people, different superstitions surround this festival. For instance, if a candle drips on one side when carried in church on Candlemas, this denotes a death of a family member during the year. If someone brings snowdrops into the house on Candlemas day it symbolises a parting or death. Any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 5th) should be left up until Candlemas Day and then taken down.” |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.