By Beth Anderson
As the holidays near, do you ever find yourself transported back to childhood? All it takes is the scent of a favorite dish, the notes of a particular carol, a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or a precious ornament in your hand. Suddenly, you are back in your parents’ living room in slippered feet staring at a tree covered in handmade decorations and tinsel, sitting beside Grandma watching a flame flicker as she croons “Silent Night” by candlelight, or rearranging the figurines of Mom’s Nativity set for the hundredth time.
Why is it that the traditions and rituals of our past stay with us? Mary Antin wrote, “It’s not that I belong to the past, but that the past belongs to me.” The routine of doing something over and over again instills in us a sense of security and continuity. Traditions also help communicate beliefs and values from generation to generation. So, the dependability of holiday traditions provides us a sense of belonging and rootedness. They foster connection and deepen relationship.
Holiday traditions are usually the source of nostalgia and deep meaning, but for some, memories associated with the holidays can be painful. Establishing new traditions, however, can be a healing process. Starting a new ritual that brings joy can create new memories that inject a sense of anticipation, even hopefulness, into what might be a difficult season.
Since memories built through holiday traditions can be a powerful gift to those we love, we thought it might be fun to explore the beginnings of a few common Christmas traditions.
Have you noticed candles flickering in front windows of homes at Christmastime and wondered what they symbolize? In the late 17th century, British rule in Ireland forbid practicing of the Catholic faith and ordered all Catholic clergy to leave the country. Since gathering openly for Mass was impossible, faithful Irish Catholics developed another way to signal to any local priest that he was welcome to come offer the sacraments and find safety in their home. Doors were left unlocked. Sometimes a single candle would appear in several windows. Or three candles would be placed in one window, representing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. When asked about the candles, homeowners explained them away as a sign to the Holy family wandering on Christmas Eve that they were welcome in the home and the hearts of all who resided there. The lit candle in the window continues today signaling the awaited homecoming of a loved one or as a general invitation of hospitality promising warmth and welcome on a dark winter night.
Christmas Tree and Lights
The centerpiece of many a home this time of year is the Christmas tree bedecked with lights and ornaments. Throughout time and cultures, the evergreen has symbolized life in the midst of winter. The tradition of the Christmas tree comes from Germany. According to one legend, late one winter night the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther was strolling home ruminating on a sermon when he gazed heavenward. As he looked up, he was struck by the beautiful sight of the stars sparkling through the evergreen boughs. Awe-inspired, he cut down a fir tree, carried it home, set it up inside, and wired candles to the branches to recreate the beauty of God’s creation for his family.
A frequent sight this time of year is the Nativity scene. Whether a children’s Christmas pageant, an outdoor manger scene, or a Nativity set with figurines gracing the mantle of the home, the Nativity scene depicts the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Nativities have been part of the Christmas season for almost 800 years and are found the world over. The first is credited to St. Francis of Assisi. In 1223, Francis received the Pope’s permission to set up a manger scene with live animals in a cave near the Italian village of Grecio. Villagers came to view the scene while Francis preached about the birth of Jesus. And thus began a new tradition.
We hope that this holiday season you find a tradition that brings you joy. Whether you continue a holiday tradition that has been around for centuries, or start a brand new one, may you find one that fosters a sense of belonging, reaffirms what is most important, helps you look forward to the holidays, and builds memories that make your heart smile for years to come.
Beth Anderson is a diaconal minister in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The joys in her life include her husband, Dallas, and their two beautiful girls. Beth loves cooking and getting lost in a good novel. You’ll find her cross-country skiing during the winter.