What You Need to Know About Christmas
What Is Christmas?
More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born to fulfill a mission: to save us from sin and death by his death and resurrection. Christmas, which takes place on December 25 every year, is a time when we remember the birth of Jesus and reflect on God’s amazing generosity. It’s a time of joyful celebration and love. Catholics eagerly anticipate Christmas by spending the four weeks prior (a season called Advent) preparing for the coming of Jesus.
The History of Christmas
The story of Christmas is captured in the nativity scene displays you see during the Christmas season. More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus’ mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph, traveled to Bethlehem and needed a place to stay for the night. There was no room for them at the inn, so they stayed in a stable nearby. Jesus was born there, and Mary placed him in a manger.
The Gospel tells us that angels shared the Good News of Jesus’ birth with shepherds who were watching their flocks that night. The shepherds hurried to the stable to see Jesus. Later, a group of wise men, or magi, were led by a star to Jesus. They offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
During the Christmas season we can all take some time to reflect on the birth of Jesus and the great love God showed us by sending his son to earth. We can follow the example of the magi and shepherds by welcoming Jesus into our lives.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
The Catholic Church celebrates the season of Christmas over a span of twelve days. The twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 and end on January 5, the day before the feast of the Epiphany (which celebrates the day when the magi discovered Jesus). These two important feast days and the twelve days of Christmas give us time to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Mass and discover how we can bring his love to people in our everyday lives.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a popular Christmas song. In the sixteenth century, the religious wars in England made it dangerous to be a Christian. The well-known song was used to teach children about the Catholic Church. Although the lyrics may sound like nonsense, the song actually contains hidden references:
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
Two Turtle Doves
The Old and New Testaments
Three French Hens
The Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love
Four Calling Birds
The Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Five Golden Rings
The First Five Books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Six Geese A-Laying
The Six Days of Creation
Seven Swans A-Swimming
The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord
Eight Maids A-Milking
The Eight Beatitudes:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Nine Ladies Dancing
The Nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control
Ten Lords A-Leaping
The Ten Commandments:
- I am the Lord your God: You shall not have strange gods before me.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.
Eleven Pipers Piping
The Eleven Faithful Apostles: Peter, Andrew, James the Elder, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the Younger, Simon, and Jude
Twelve Drummers Drumming
Twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed:
- I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
- I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
- He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
- He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.
- On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
- He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
- I believe in the Holy Spirit,
- the holy catholic Church,
- the communion of saints,
- the forgiveness of sins,
- the resurrection of the body,
- and life everlasting. Amen.
Popular Christmas Traditions
People celebrate Christmas in many different ways, but some Christmas traditions can be found all over the world. Each of these traditions has a unique story and a unique way of reflecting the real meaning of Christmas.
Where Did the Christmas Tree Come From?
For thousands of years, the evergreen tree has been a sign of hope and life. For ancient people, it was a reminder in the winter that sunlight and good weather would come again. For Christians, it's a reminder that Jesus came to bring us the hope of eternal life.
While sixteenth century Germans are said to be the first people to bring Christmas trees into their homes, St. Boniface, an eighth century Catholic missionary to the Germans, is credited with creating the first Christmas tree. This happened one Christmas Eve when he chopped down a large oak tree that the Germans used for pagan worship. He pointed to a nearby evergreen tree, saying that it represented peace and eternal life. He told the crowd of Germans to gather around evergreen trees in their homes in a spirit of kindness and love, to commemorate the child Jesus.
In the early 1800s, German settlers brought the Christmas tree tradition to Pennsylvania. The rest of America adopted the tradition in 1846, and slowly but surely the Christmas tree gained popularity. Now, Christmas trees are seen in homes and on display all over the world. Their beauty and light remind us of the hope we have in Jesus.
Why Do We Decorate with Lights?
Candles and lights are prevalent at Christmas time. Glowing warmly at the darkest time of year, they symbolize the light of Jesus shining through the darkness of sin and death.
Today’s strings of electric Christmas lights evolved from candles. It’s not clear when candles first became a Christmas tradition, but one historical record mentions that a large candle was used in the Middle Ages as a symbol of the star of Bethlehem.
During the 1500s, Christians began using candles to decorate their Christmas trees. The flickering glow of the small flames amid the evergreen branches created a beautiful image of hope, but it was a fire hazard. In 1882, Thomas Edison’s friend Edward H. Johnson created the first string of electric Christmas lights, making it much safer for people to light their trees.
Why Do We Exchange Gifts?
When Jesus was born, there were wise men, or magi, who came from distant lands to worship him. They offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. One reason we give gifts at Christmastime is to follow the example of the magi.
Giving gifts is also a way to remember how, on that first Christmas night in a stable in Bethlehem, God gave us the greatest gift of all—his only son, who would die for our sins about three decades later. When we give gifts at Christmas, it is a wonderful opportunity to give of ourselves, imitating God’s amazing generosity and showing his love to others.
This Advent, we want to help you prepare for Christmas in a new way. We prepare for everything important in life, and that includes Christmas. We shop for gifts, bake cookies, decorate our trees, and visit family and friends until we’re ready to drop.
This year, slow down and focus on what matters most. Join Dynamic Catholic for our free email program Best Advent Ever: Rediscover Christmas. You’ll receive . . .
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