Christmas customs

Piotr Sosnecki

It is worth directing our thoughts towards our family homes, which many a time smell of the newly brought hay, newly baked cakes and Christmas tree under which we found desired presents. It was exactly there, in the glitter of the Christmas Eve candle, that we learnt to discern faces of our relatives, many of who passed away. The mood of those days will fill our flats and houses soon.
Perhaps a Christmas manger, a beautifully decorated Christmas tree or a carol joyfully sung by people turn out to be some unique means to see God himself. And we will again have a unique opportunity to return to the sources of our faith, to our childlike trust in God. Therefore, all Christmas customs are to lead us to better lives in the context of the faith we confess. Consequently, the customs assume proper sense when they flow from the fact that God was really born for us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The manger - stable

From the beginning the Bethlehem grotto, the place of Christ's birth, was a place revered by Christians. In the 4th century, Saint Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great, ordered to build a basilica above the grotto. Since the 6th century the wooden crib, where Baby Jesus was laid, has been revered. It was placed in the special chapel of Saint Mary Major Basilica in Rome.
We owe to St Francis of Assisi the idea of building Christmas mangers in parish churches. In 1223 he built a large stable in the vicinity of Greccio. In the stable there was enough room for a donkey and an ox. The Bernardine Fathers brought this beautiful custom to Poland in the 17th century. The most famous mangers are the so-called Krakow Christmas Cribs and their annual exhibition has been organized at the monument to Mickiewicz on the Market Square since 1927.

The wafers of bread

The traditional dinner on Christmas Eve is preceded by breaking white wafers of bread, i.e. wafers of unleavened thin bread. This simple custom is characterized by deep symbolism, and its beginnings are rooted in early Christianity.
At first the custom was not connected with Christmas but referred to the Eucharist. Since people in Eastern and Western Churches knew the custom of 'blessing bread' (during Mass and outside of it) and eating it as a kind of spiritual communion. These blessed pieces of bread were called 'eulogies'. By sharing them people showed love and cordiality. This gesture meant belonging to the same local ecclesiastical community.
The ancient practice related to the eulogies vanished due to the decrees of the so-called Caroline synods in the 9th century. The Church feared that the difference between the consecrated bread, the Eucharist, and the bread that was blessed outside of Mass would disappear. Today the tradition of breaking Christmas wafers is only a Polish custom and its beauty was described by Cyprian Kamil Norwid:
There is a custom in my country that on Christmas Eve
When the first evening star appears in the sky
People of common nest break biblical bread
Expressing in this bread their most tender feelings.

The Christmas tree

It is hard to show the reasons why people began associate an evergreen with the celebrations of Christmas. In many cultures and religions the Christmas tree is regarded as a symbol of life, renewal and fertility. One of the oldest images of Christmas tree is on the copperplate by the famous painter and graphic artist Lucas Cranach (d. in 1553). At first the custom spread in bourgeois German families as well as in Tyrolean and Austrian families. And from them it was brought to other European countries towards the end of the 18th century.
The specific theology of the Christmas tree is interesting. The white lights placed on the tree are to point directly to Christ who came to the world as ' a light of revelation for the gentiles' and the evergreen fir tree is to symbolise Christ as the Source of all life. Unfortunately, contemporary people lost the old meaning of this sing under the influence of changing esthetical-cultural requirements and for practical reasons.

The carol

Currently, by carols we mean first of all songs about Christmas. But the Polish word 'koleda' (carol) also means pastoral visits of priests in households; the visitation will begin soon. The term 'koleda' in ancient Rome meant the first day of each month. People celebrated the so-called calendae (in January), which thanks to Julius Caesar became the beginning of a new administrative year. During those days people paid visits and gave various presents, singing occasional songs. Carols are a specific literary genre of sung theology in which there is some kind of fraternizing with God in the person of Jesus Christ. In every carol there lies dormant a strong emotional charge that makes carols close to everyone.

Empty place at the table

'And three chairs, according to the Polish custom, are empty at the table and every person goes to them holding his own wafer of bread in order to show his gratitude and puts crumbs on the plate of the Angelic Bread because ghosts are sitting on these chairs' (Wincenty Pol). Leaving one empty place setting at the table for an unexpected guest goes back to the very old and carefully preserved custom, which refers to the memory of the dead, the memory which people always have at the Christmas Eve table. It also expresses a symbolic presence of Christ among the participants of the festive dinner.

Christmas presents

According to numerous sources we owe the present day tradition of giving Christmas gifts to Martin Luther who in 1535 demanded that Protestants give up their custom of 'Saint Nicholas' and give their children presents as the gift of 'Baby Jesus' himself. With time all Christian countries, including the Catholic ones, have adopted this practice.
Some trace of the old tradition of St Nicholas is recognized in the figure of the so-called Star, dressed in the bishop's robe with a mitre and crosier, who brings children presents on Christmas Eve. A different tradition is found in Italy. It is called 'Befana' (from the feast of the Epiphany).
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that the biggest Christmas present, offered to our closest family and friends, is our presence itself. We should never forget that. And especially at Christmas we should become, literally and metaphorically, gifts for our neighbours following the example of Jesus of Nazareth, who was born in Bethlehem in accordance with the New Testament texts.

"Niedziela" 52/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: