by Lois Donahue
by Lois Donahue
My original plan was to title this piece “CHRISTMAS TRIVIA” but reconsidered when I reminded myself that anything relating to such a wondrous feast, at least anything that was love-formed, well-meaning, culturally framed or devotionally sincere, really shouldn’t be trivialized whether it be fact, legend or even superstition. So I chose the above title which simply reflects the reality that each of the following examples I cite – which somewhere in the world, at some point in time and for whatever reason became part of the celebration of Christmas – came as a ‘surprise’ to me when I first heard about it. (Here I must confess that some of the ‘surprises’ I encountered seemed hard to believe, even somewhat ridiculous, until it occurred to me that long years from now there may well be someone with a reaction similar to mine when they read that folks once associated songs like “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Jingle-Bell Rock” and “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” with the birth of Christ.)
Speaking of songs, I think one of the greatest surprises I had was when I first learned the story behind “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and here’s what I discovered —
Under the law of England, 1558 to 1829, Catholics were forbidden to practice their faith. In order to help to hold on to their own beliefs and to teach their children, they came up with the coded lyrics we now find so familiar.
The TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS are December 25 (Christmas) to January 6 (Epiphany) and MY TRUE LOVE, which is repeated over and over, refers to God and His ongoing gift-giving to us.
The PARTRIDGE, which is strongly protective of its defenseless young, is a symbol of Jesus Christ, our protector against the Devil and the PEAR TREE symbolizes our salvation much as the fruit tree in the Garden of Eden signifies our downfall. The TWO TURTLE DOVES symbolize the “offering of the poor” given by Joseph and Mary at the presentation of Jesus in the temple according to the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. THREE FRENCH HENS, rare, beautiful and consequently valuable, call to mind the gifts of the three Wise Men as well as the three gifts of Faith, Hope and Charity. The FOUR CALLING BIRDS represent the four major prophets who announced the coming of the Messiah and the four evangelists who proclaimed His message. The FIVE GOLDEN RINGS help remember both the five crucifixion wounds of Christ and the first five books of the Old Testament (Pentateuch). SIX GEESE A-LAYING were meant to represent both the six days of creation as well as the number of days of the week on which humans labor. The SEVEN SWANS A-SWIMMING were meant to be a reminder of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit as well as both the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. (I was surprised this didn’t in some way include the seven Sacraments but there must have been a reason.) The EIGHT MAIDS A-MILKING are representative of the Eight Beatitudes. I found two opinions regarding the NINE LADIES DANCING. One says the nine ranks of angel choirs who surround God’s throne while the other says the Fruits of the Holy Spirit as found in Gal 5:22. TEN LORDS-A-LEAPING represent the Ten Commandments. ELEVEN PIPERS PLAYING are the eleven apostles, without Judas, proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection and finally we are told the TWELVE DRUMMERS DRUMMING are to remind us of the twelve articles of Faith found in the Nicene Creed, of the 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament, the 12 tribes of Israel and, again, another source, includes the 12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit (listed according to “the tradition of the Church” in the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH #1832)
Since this first example was, of necessity, so long, I will add only a few more and do my best to make them brief.
Christopher Columbus and his crew celebrated the first Christmas in the New World aboard their ship, the Nina.
For twenty-two years, beginning in 1659, with a law passed by the Pilgrims, Christmas celebrations were forbidden in America.
Christmas Carols were not and have never been hymns despite the fact that they are sometimes confused with them. They began with the great religious revival led by St. Francis of Assisi.
While the ceremonial Christmas drink today is often punch, it was formerly ‘lambswool’ which was a mixture of hot ale, sugar, spices, eggs and roasted apples to which thick cream was sometimes added.
Christmas cards as we know them are little more than a century old and were preceded by what in England were called ‘Christmas pieces’. These were sheets of paper with colored boarders and headings on which schoolboys, no doubt with some reluctance, were expected to write to their parents at the end of the winter term, not only to send them greetings but to show them their progress in the art of writing.
AS TO LEGENDS AND SUPERSTITIONS
The raven was believed to be the first bird to know what happened when Jesus was born because he was flying over Bethlehem and saw the sky filled with angels. Supposedly the wren brought moss and feathers to make a coverlet for the Christ Child in the manger and the cow helped warm Him with her breath (and it is added that since then the cow’s breath has been sweeter than that of any other animal – which I have as yet been unable to verify.)
In France the Christmas rose is said to have sprung up when the Angel Gabriel touched the ground with his staff so that a little girl who accompanied the shepherds might have flowers to give Jesus.
One of those same shepherds had nothing to give but a daisy he had picked on the way. Jesus touched it with His lips and the petals turned red along the edges and since then many daisies have rose tipped petals.
In England some once believed that on Old Christmas Eve, January 5th, — the night before the Feast of the Epiphany (which was when Christ’s birth was commemorated for the first three centuries) — no witch or evil creature had power to harm while in Scandinavia trolls were said to have a great time that night and that even the dead returned to their homes.
One ancient belief held that all greenery for decorations should not be brought in until Christmas Eve and must be taken down at Candlemas (Feast of the Purification/Presentation) or bad luck would follow.
Bread and cakes baked on Christmas morning were thought to have special virtues – one being that they never went moldy and another that if kept until dry and then powdered in hot water, could be used as a remedy for illness.
In Ireland it has been said that those who die at Midnight on Christmas Eve are most fortunate because at that time the gates of heaven stand wide open and their soul can pass straight through without having to spend time in Purgatory.
So much for my listing of “only some” Christmas surprises but in re-reading them, I think it would be fair to say that in the whole scheme of things such surprises might well be considered somewhat trivial compared to what, in my opinion, had to have been the unparalleled surprise connected with God sending His Trinity-Son to earth to live among us as a human. Just try to imagine what a surprise it must have been to that young, teenage girl – living a very plain, unassuming life in a small, kind of pass-through village resting in the hills of Galilee when an angel suddenly appears and tells her SHE has been chosen to be the mother of his son. Talk about a surprise – WOW!!!