It's that time of year again. Leftover turkey dinner tonight after hauling out the boxes from the attic so the kids can start to decorate. Either you love it or you hate it, but every year this whirlwind-of-a-season takes hold of us and we go for a ride. Philipovka begins on November 15 and we begin to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the birth of our Savior, and before long, we get so caught up in the frenzy of the season that we wonder how it came upon us so fast! We hardly had time to prepare! There’s so much to do! So much to bake, buy, craft and wrap! Did we even get a chance to decorate? Ughhh!!!!
But wait…what is it we are celebrating again? How will He find us when He comes? When we finally take the time to settle down and remember what the season is really all about, the question, “Are we prepared?”, takes on a whole new meaning. Did we properly craft a gift for Him? Did we decorate our souls with spiritual adornments for the occasion? Amid all the holiday noise, did it even occur to us to do so? Then I think to myself, "Of course, I would have prepared properly if someone had only reminded me. If I didn’t already have so much to do, I surely would have taken the time. Why didn’t someone remind me?"
Well, if you’re waiting for the world to nudge you in that direction, you’ll most likely wait a long time. Public schools nearly bend over backwards to remove all reference to the occasion for fear of alienating those who do not observe it, and students are forbidden to even mention it. Government buildings display “holiday” trees and “winter festival” displays during the Christmas season, packing up Nativity scenes and wise men who aren’t considered to be “politically correct”. Retailers go crazy selling tremendously outrageous amounts of gifts and merchandise for the occasion, all the while wishing you a “happy holiday”. But exactly to what holiday do they refer? Why are there lights and decorations in the first place? Why are there carols sung? Why the gifts and the tree and the feasting? Why the celebration if not for the Celebrated One? ...boggles the mind of a dedicated Christian.
All the holiday sights, smells and sounds are an integral part of the memories we have at Christmas and for this reason we, as mothers and fathers, often go to great lengths and expend great energy to secure them in the memories of our children, and rightfully so! But if we take a little time to really think about why we are doing what we are doing, it can make these beautifully crafted memories even more meaningful.
For example, why do we put up a tree? We have all been taught that Martin Luther, the apostate monk who began the protestant reformation, was the one who began the tradition of the Christmas tree, and that German immigrants eventually brought the tradition to America. But did you also know that it was the influence of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of the “Paradise Tree” that inspired Luther? During the Middle Ages, Passion plays such as the Oberammergau play in Germany in which the townspeople act out the Passion of Christ every 10 years during lent, were very popular.(I saw the play myself in 1990...wow!) It so happened that December 24, in Eastern Orthodoxy, is observed as the Feast of Adam and Eve and on this feast, it was traditional to put on a play depicting the fall of our first parents, the chief prop of which was a tree decorated with fruit (apples) and round white discs symbolizing the Body of Christ. In this way, our forefathers connected the fall of Adam and Eve with the salvation which would be possible now through the “new Adam” (Jesus) and the “new Eve” (Mary). This was the tree that Martin Luther was so captivated by, and which he desired to imitate. Remember this when you put up your tree.
Why do we decorate with wreaths? Evergreens like pine and holly are symbolic of eternal life, as is the shape of the circular Christmas wreath. God commanded his chosen people to decorate their homes with them during feasts!
Leviticus 23:40 "Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. “
Legend says that the crown of thorns was made of holly, the berries having been originally white, turned red because of the Precious Blood. When we decorate with this symbol, we remember the sacrifice that this newborn King would make for us. As you can see, this is also a Christian symbol.
Why do we give gifts? When we as Christians give one another gifts in honor of the feast of the Nativity, we are commemorating the gifts brought to the newborn King by the Magi.
Matthew 2:11 "And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh…"
Unfortunately, this beautiful commemoration is the chief component of the Feast that the modern Christian usually finds so distasteful and distressing. Society takes this concept and runs wild with it, making the focus on material give and take, rather than on giving gifts of love from the heart. We as Christians must be vigilant and not let the modern interpretation of this tradition get the best of us!
Do you know why we hang stockings on the fireplace? Our beloved patron St. Nicholas began this tradition when he flung bags of gold down the chimneys of the poor to save them from destitution and humiliation. The gifts often ended up in the stockings that were hung by the fire to dry! Nicholas gave his gifts in secret so as to gain as much merit for them as possible and offer a gift to Christ as well.
Why do we celebrate with candy canes? There once was a cantor and choir director in 1670 who had some special Christmas treats made for his children’s choir in the hopes of keeping them occupied and well behaved during the long Christmas service. They were shaped like shepherds crooks to remind the children of the humble birth of the savior. By the early 1900’s the tradition included red stripes and peppermint.
How did we begin caroling for Christmas?
Obviously, singing the praises of the newborn Jesus began on the night He was born!
Luke 2:13-14: "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'"
Travelling from house to house singing such carols can be traced to our own traveling Kubi, a tradition introduced to our Ruthenian Slavic people by missionaries from Kiev. The author of The Life of St. Vladimir the Great, the Prince of Kiev (980-1015) mentions such caroling, saying that our ancestors, “during the Christmas festivities used to come together and sing joyous songs, commemorating the birth of Christ." (Nestor the Chronicler)
Star Carolers would dress as shepherds and angels and carry a model of the Star of Bethlehem from house to house as they sang to spread Christmas cheer Bethlehem Carolers would do the same, dressed as other characters from the Nativity story such as the Magi, King Herod, the Holy Family, or even the devil who so tempted St. Joseph. These would carry a miniature Nativity scene.
Merry “X”-mas? How rude is that, to cross out the name of the Birthday Boy! Not so fast! This abbreviation is from the Greek “Xhristos” which we Byzantine Catholics use all the time! In the 16th century it became a popular abbreviation, known widely among all the Christians of the day to stand for the name of Christ. Nowadays, few people make the connection, and mistake it for disrespect.
How sad it is that disrespect is so common in our day, especially towards Christ and His Church. Reality is hard to accept sometimes. It is becoming increasingly clear that most of creation feels completely comfortable in celebrating the ancient holy day, but can also reject Christ, Himself and what He stands for. They have no problem feasting, singing and decorating, but for Whom? We, as devoted followers of Christ, owe it to ourselves to celebrate the coming of Our Lord.
In the eight treatises known as the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, written from 375-380 AD, Section 3, 13, it says,
"Brethren, observe the feast days; and first of all the Birth of Christ, which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month." In another place it also says, "Celebrate the day of the Nativity of Christ, on which unseen grace is given man by the birth of the Word of God from the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world."
St. Clement of Alexandria, in the second century, notes that the Nativity is to be celebrated by the faithful on December 25
St. Hippolytus of Rome, in the third century discusses the gospel readings for the feast in his writings.
St. John Chrysostom, in a sermon given in 385 AD, says that the Feast of the Nativity is an ancient one. Later in that same century, a Church dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lord would be built by St. Helen, mother of Constantine, over the spot where our Lord was born.
The early church thought it proper to celebrate the coming of the Savior. Since that time, it has become one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church. For centuries upon centuries, those Christians who came before us didn’t hesitate to rejoice with the shepherds, sing with the angels and adore and give gifts with the magi. We owe it to our children, the next generation of the Church, to keep the holy celebration well, secure the warm Christmas memories in their minds and hearts, and make sure they understand for Whom it is that we strive so hard to create such a perfect day. We parents understand that we commemorate the first and wondrous coming of the newborn savior as a vulnerable yet powerful newborn in a humble manger in Bethlehem, but we also commemorate the second and terrible coming of that same Savior as a mighty and powerful judge Who will come, not on a donkey, but on a thundercloud. If He were to come in this way this Christmas day, how would he find His creation? And are we prepared to receive Him?