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© 2001-2019 by Doug Gray. All Rights Reserved.
The word “holiday” means “holy day”. It was a religious feast day. The term here is used in the truest sense of the word. The church calendar is made up of holidays. The first half of the church year is focused on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Although most of this book follows alphabetical order, the holidays are placed in the order of the church calendar.
Advent is the season which begins the Christian year; it commemorates the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Advent is celebrated for 28 days leading up to Christmas. It begins on the Sunday closest to November 30, the feast day of St. Andrew, and covers four Sundays.
The word “advent” is derived from the Latin word “Adventus” meaning “the coming.” It is a penitential season where believers are called to fast, pray and perform good works leading up to the feast of Christmas. As early as the mid-fourth century, however, the focus of Advent shifted away from penitence and fasting and instead celebrated the coming of the Messiah.
ADVENT CALENDAR – An Advent calendar is a calendar that contains 24 compartments, one compartment for each day of December leading up to Christmas Day. Each compartment displays a scene connected to the birth of Jesus. Some compartments even have room for a small treat such as a piece of candy. Advent calendars date back as far as 1851, when they were made by hand. It would not be until the early 1900’s when the first Advent Calendar was printed on a press. Gerhard Lang from Maulbronn, Germany is credited with publishing the first calendar in 1908. Early calendars were always religious in nature, dealing with the birth of Jesus.
ADVENT WREATH – The Advent wreath is a display used during the season of Advent leading up to Christmas. The Advent wreath is made up of a wreath, four candles (three purple and one pink/rose) and an optional white candle in the center.
The color of the candles is significant. The pink/rose candle dates back to a tradition where the pope gave out a rose to one person on the fourth Sunday of Advent. It was this fourth Sunday of Advent that the congregation was given a break from fasting. On this Sunday the clergy would wear pink vestments. So, making the Advent candle the color of that day made sense. After some time, this particular Sunday was moved up one week to the third Sunday of Advent. Today, the pope no longer gives out roses, but the rose colored candle remains.
The purple candles match the liturgical color of Advent. To make a break from Roman Catholicism, some churches use only purple candles. Churches may also use all white candles which is the liturgical color of Christmas. Still others use all blue candles. Blue is used in place of purple to help separate the Advent season from the season of Lent, which also uses purple. Blue symbolizes hope.
The wreath is made of various evergreen branches to symbolize the eternity of God. The wreath was initially hung from the ceiling but over time it was moved to a table/altar.
Before each candle is lit during Advent, a certain prayer is said. The first candle lit is a purple candle which represents the hope of Jesus’ coming. The second candle lit is also purple. The second candle symbolizes peace. The third candle lit is the pink/rose candle. This candle symbolizes joy and is a different color because it is on this Sunday (Gaudete Sunday) that a break is given and no fasting required. The fourth candle is a purple candle which symbolizes the love of God. At times, there is a large, white candle in the center of the wreath that is lit on Christmas eve.
The origin of Christmas as a Christian holy day is one often debated and full of speculation. For the first three centuries the Christian church did not officially celebrate Jesus’ birth. The reason for this was that the celebration of a person’s birth was considered a pagan practice. For this very reason early church father Origen was among a small minority to oppose such a holy day being established.
Despite objections, days began to emerge to celebrate the birth of the Savior. Because the Bible offers no help when it comes to determining what day is the right one, numerous dates were chosen. Writings of the early church fathers bring to light these differing dates. “Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) favored May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c. 69-c. 155) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ’s birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day.”1
Here is where the speculation comes in. Elesha Coffman says, “December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.”2
This theory of commandeering secular holy days has been most popular as of late but there is no church father who ever wrote about the church doing any such thing for Christmas.
I would like to suggest a new theory, one devised by scholars Louis Duchesne and Thomas Talley. The theory centers around three dates. The first date is that of Jesus’ death. The Bible tells us it was during the Jewish Passover celebration. Church Father Tertullian, using the Hebrew calendar, came up with the 14th of Nisan for the day Jesus was crucified. According to the Roman calendar that would be March 25th. That leads us to our second date, the date of the Annunciation. The Annunciation is when the angel appeared to Mary to announce that she would be with child and the child would be the Son of God. The date of Annunciation, considered the moment of Jesus’ conception, was the same date as His death by the church. March 25th leads to our final date, the date of Jesus’ birth. If Jesus was conceived on March 25th then he would have been born nine months later on December 25th. Church Father Augustine affirms this. “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December 25th.”3
This theory is further substantiated by looking to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which celebrates His birth on an equally old date of January 6th. Instead of using the Hebrew calendar and arriving at March 25th, they use the Greek calendar and arrive at the date of April 6th for his conception and crucifixion. Nine months after April 6th is January 6th. While I understand the popularity of the first theory, the second theory has a great deal of historical documentation going for it. For further reading see Andrew McGowan’s excellent article in Biblical Archaeology Review. http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp
CANDY CANE – A Christmas candy made of hard white candy in the shape of a stick. It dates back to the 15th century. Legend tells us that it was not until 1670 that the straight stick of white candy received its crook. Apparently a choir master at Cologne Cathedral in Germany had them specially made for the children who attended the Christmas services (one account have the children participating in a live nativity scene).
The cane would remain white until the mid-19th century when it would receive one red stripe. Peppermint was also added at this time. Additional stripes were added to the cane in the 20th century.
In the United States, a German immigrant by the name of August Imgard, in Wooster, Ohio is credited with having been the first person to put candy canes on his Christmas tree. He “had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments and candy canes. The American Confectioners’ Association officially recognizes Imgard as the first ever to put candy canes on a Christmas tree; the canes were all-white, with no red stripes.”4
At first candy canes were made by hand, leading to a wide variety of sizes and shapes. In the 1920’s Bob McCormack, a candy maker in Albany, Georgia, would begin passing out candy canes to his family and friends. In the 1950’s, Bob’s brother-in-law, Father Gregory Keller, would invent a machine that could quickly make the candy canes. In 1958, two employees at the company, Dick Driskell and Jimmy Spratling, perfected the candy making machine by modifying it to make the crooks, something that had previously been done by hand.5 At this point the modern candy cane, complete with additional stripes, was born.
Some readers are probably wondering, “But what about the story of a candy maker in Indiana who invented the candy cane as a witnessing tool?” Well, the story is an American folk tale. It simply isn’t true. Even so, Christians have played a pivotal role in its creation and survival. I would encourage Christians to continue to use the candy cane to tell the story of Jesus.
Today’s version of the candy cane has many meanings. The white candy represents purity. The large red stripe represents the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. The three smaller red stripes represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of whom play a role in our salvation. The shape of the candy cane turned upward like a staff represents Jesus, our Good Shepherd. The cane can also be turned down, making the letter “J” for Jesus.
CHRISTMAS TREES – The origin of Christmas trees is somewhat hazy. Over the years its roots have been tied to pagan practices of bringing evergreens into houses to protect the homes from evil spirits. But is this the true reason we use trees to celebrate Christmas?
The Christian history of the Christmas tree begins with a German missionary named Boniface, born in 675 A.D. in England. He grew up a godly man, with a heart for missions. After Boniface spent several years in Germany as a missionary, the pope would make Boniface bishop over all of Germany extending east of the Rhine River.
With his new office, Boniface decided to strike a devastating blow to paganism. He challenged Thor, the god of thunder, head on. While tribesman watched, Boniface chopped down the sacred oak dedicated to Thor. Nothing happened. No bolt of lightning struck him down. Boniface then took a fir tree growing in the roots of the oak (some accounts say growing nearby) and quickly chose it as a replacement to the oak. “He told the heathen tribes: ‘This humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide.’ So the fir tree became a sign of Christ amongst the German peoples, and eventually it became a world-wide symbol of Christmas.”6
Tradition tells us that the first decorated tree was in Riga, Latvia in 1510. Tradition also tells us that it was Martin Luther, while viewing the stars one night, who got the idea to put candles on the tree.
Christmas trees grew in popularity in Germany in the 1600’s. “Medieval mystery plays, designed to entertain the masses while teaching them Christian doctrine, often featured ‘paradise trees’ decorated with apples. Apples and other fruits made their way onto Christmas trees quite early, first in natural forms and later made from marzipan, glass, and other materials. Mystery play trees also featured unconsecrated Communion wafers, representing the antidote to the forbidden fruit. Wafers appeared on early Christmas trees, too.”7
Christmas trees appeared in England in 1789 and became popular by 1829. It would be Charles Dickens’ work “A Christmas Tree” and Prince Albert putting up a tree at his palace that would solidify the tree as a Christmas tradition in England. Several accounts exist regarding the first Christmas tree in America, with the earliest dating back to 1777. The Pennsylvania Dutch most likely introduced Christmas trees to America. The first documented account is Matthew Zahm, living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1821.
In 1851, a Lutheran pastor by the name of Reverend Henry Schwan would place a Christmas tree inside the Zion Church of Cleveland, Ohio. His actions of bringing a “heathen” tree into the church caused great commotion among his congregation. Henry was instructed by the church to find out the origins of the tree and to remove it from the church if the origins were not Christian. After many interviews, he found that the tradition of the tree was new to Americans; to European immigrants, however, it was a tradition that had been connected to Christianity for centuries though they were not sure why. Henry caught a break when his good friend Reverend Edwin Canfield returned from a trip to Canada. While making inquiries there he ran across a monk who knew of a legend of the tree recorded in a Sicilian monastery in the Middle Ages.
“The legend told of the holy night when Our Lord was born. All creatures came to worship at Bethlehem. And the trees did likewise. None of the other trees came so far as the least among them, a small spruce. It was so weary that it could hardly stand, and the bigger, leafy trees all but obscured it. But the stars took pity on it, and a rain of them fell from Heaven, and the bright Christmas star alighted in the top of the spruce. And the Child in the manger saw the spruce and blessed it with a smile.”8 Reverend Schwan was allowed to keep his tree.
Today, the Christmas tree and what it represents is up to the individual. Most Christians view the Christmas tree as either a harmless decoration or a sign of everlasting life in Christ. Some American churches have chosen to display what are called chrismon trees in their churches. A chrismon tree is a Christmas tree decorated only with monograms of Christ. The chrismon tree was created by Frances Kipps Spencer in 1957 and placed in the Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia, where she attended. The monograms are always white and gold in color so as to not distract the viewer from the meaning of the symbols. If lights are added, the lights are white also.
Churches have also display-ed Jesse Trees. The Jesse Tree dates back to the middle ages when the lineage of Jesse (father of David from whom would come Jesus the Christ) was displayed in large stained glass windows. The tree can literally be seen growing out of Jesse at the bottom. Today the symbols of each of the ancestors of Jesus are added to the tree each week leading up to Christmas.
NATIVITY SCENE (Crèche) – The modern nativity scene (also called a “crèche,” meaning “manger”) helps to tell the story of the birth of Jesus. They are very popular as a Christmas decoration. However, the assembly of characters and animals is not entirely accurate.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was born in a manger (Luke 2:12). The manger was a feeding trough, probably carved out of stone, for feeding and watering the animals. Troughs are found in stables so it was assumed Jesus was born in a stable. Yet some traditions suggest that Jesus was actually born in a cave, not a stable. “From the earliest times, moreover, ecclesiastical writers bear witness to this tradition. Thus St. Justin, who died a martyr in 165, says that ‘Having failed to find any lodging in the town, Joseph sought shelter in a neighbouring cavern of Bethlehem,’ About half a century later, Origen writes: ‘If any one desires to satisfy himself without appealing either to the prophecy of Micheas, or to the history of the Christ as written by his disciples, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, let him know that, in accordance with the Gospel narrative, at Bethlehem is shown the grotto where he first saw the light.’”9
Concerning the shepherds, Luke 2:8-20 tells of the shepherds hearing the good news from angels and going to see Him. They may or may not have had sheep with them as is shown in nativity scenes, but it is possible.
Nativity scenes show three wise men at the stable at Jesus’ birth. However, Matthew 2:1-12 tells us that when they arrived, they found Jesus and his family living in a house. So they must have arrived some time later. The number of wise men shown is usually connected to the number of gifts they brought (three). Sometimes camels are shown at the scene though they are not mentioned in the Biblical account. Still, it is likely the wise men did travel by camel. Apocryphal legends dating back to the 8th century reveal the three names of the wise men: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. However, this is not verified by Scripture.
The placing of an ox and a donkey in the scene is based on Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib.”
The earliest nativity scene supposedly dates back to 343 A.D. but the explosion of popularity it received dates to the Middle Ages. St. Francis of Assisi in Greccio, Italy is credited with solidifying the nativity in Christian tradition. In 1223 A.D., with the help of his friend Giovanni Velita, he built a crèche for the Christmas Eve Mass. That evening he brought in Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and an ox and a donkey to complete his live nativity.
Today, the nativity scene remains a popular way for parents to tell their children the greatest story ever told.
ST. NICHOLAS – St. Nicholas was a native of Patara, Lycia (modern day Turkey). After entering a monastery at Sion he became bishop of a church in Myra, Lycia. It was once thought that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea, but his name does not appear on any of the oldest lists of attendees. After his death, Nicholas was buried in Myra. In the 11th century his remains were moved from Myra to Bari, Italy, where his burial place is a shrine to this day.
The most popular St. Nicholas legend tells of a very poor man who was the father of three young women. He did not have money to give them for dowries so they were unable to marry. Women who could not marry often turned to a life of sin to earn a living. One night, St. Nicholas came by their house and secretly left gifts for the girls so they could properly marry. Some accounts tell of him throwing the gifts through the window where they landed in the stockings hanging by the fire to dry. From this came the tradition of giving secret gifts on the eve of St Nicholas (December 6).
The centuries following would find St. Nicholas becoming the patron saint of merchants, sailors, bakers, travelers and children, as well as of countries such as Greece and Russia. Being the patron saint of sailors and travelers explains how his story spread around the world. In paintings and sculptures, Nicholas was portrayed as an orthodox priest, with priestly cap and a short, brown beard.
Over the centuries, St. Nicholas’ characteristics became melded with pagan winter superstitions. The Viking god Odin added a great many of his traits to what became Santa Claus. The Vikings believed Odin “in the guise of his December character came to earth dressed in a hooded cloak, to sit and listen to his people and see if they [were] contented or not. It was said that he carried a satchel full of bounty which he distributed to the needy or worthy. He was portrayed as a Sage with long white beard and hair.”10 Nicholas was also melded with Father Frost, who rode in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
The St. Nicholas we know today can be attributed to the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” also known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. It would be the etchings of St. Nicholas by Thomas Nast for Harpers Weekly that would solidify this image. His first etching was published in 1834-35.
Distortions continue to this day, with the story of St. Nicholas being almost fully corrupted. The modern day Santa Claus has absolutely no significance to the Christian church.
This holiday celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the wise men. This is an early sign that the message of salvation would not be limited to the Jewish nation but given to the Gentiles also. Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th, the twelfth day after Christmas.
IV. PRE-LENTEN SEASON
“The period between Epiphany and Lent, which contains three Sundays known simply by Latin numbers; namely, Septuagesima (70), Sexagesima (60), and Quinquagesima (50), each of which is designated according to the approximate number of days by which it precedes Easter. The number indicated, in each case, is derived, not exactly, but according to the decade of days in which the Sunday falls. Quadragesima (40) is the name of the first Sunday which falls within the forty-day Lenten period.”11
V. SHROVE TUESDAY
This is the holiday before Lent. Because Lent is a time of reflection and denial, it is a good practice to confess one’s sins before entering into Lent. Shrove Tuesday is used for this confession. In the Roman Catholic Church, a person is to be subject to penance (shriven) on Shrove Tuesday.
This season begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts for forty days. The forty days are in memory of the days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. It is a time of penitence, self discipline and reflection. The term “Lent” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “lengten”, meaning “spring”. It is observed in most Protestant churches. It is a time of fasting in Roman Catholic churches.
ASH WEDNESDAY – This holiday is the first day of Lent. It is practiced in the Roman Catholic Church by having ashes placed on a person’s forehead by a priest. While placing the ashes, he says “Remember, O man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
PALM SUNDAY – This holiday is celebrated on the Sunday before Resurrection Sunday. It commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Palm branches were waved and thrown down in front of Him as he entered the city, riding on a donkey.
MAUNDY THURSDAY – This holiday is celebrated on Thursday, the day before Good Friday. It is a day of remembering the Lord’s Supper, instituted by our Lord on the eve of His death. The name is derived from a statement Jesus made during the last supper, later translated into Latin, “Mandatum novum do vobis” which means “A new commandment I give to you” (John 13:34). The day has also been called the “Day of Foot Washing.”
GOOD FRIDAY – This is a holiday of introspection and sorrow as Christians remember the death of Jesus on the cross. The day is always observed on the Friday before Resurrection Sunday.
VII. RESURRECTION SUNDAY (Easter)
The spring celebration was originally called “Pascha” (Passover) referring to the Jewish Passover celebration. After the death and Resurrection of Jesus, His followers would celebrate the Passover by observing the Lord’s Supper.
What would become difficult to determine, however, was the date to celebrate the Resurrection. The eastern bishops used the Old Testament Hebrew calendar and celebrated the Resurrection on the 14th day of Nisan, regardless of what day it fell upon. The western bishops used the Roman calendar and celebrated the Resurrection on the first day of the week (Sunday) following the 14th day of Nisan.
It would not be until the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. that a firm date would be established based on the Roman calendar. “The feast of the Resurrection was thenceforth required to be celebrated everywhere on a Sunday, and never on the day of the Jewish passover, but always after the fourteenth of Nisan, on the Sunday after the first vernal full moon. The leading motive for this regulation was opposition to Judaism, which had dishonored the passover by the crucifixion of the Lord.”12
In Europe, spring celebrations practiced by the Anglo-Saxons were devoted to the goddess of fertility and the spring, “Eostre,” during the vernal equinox. The word “Easter” is derived from her name.
The integration of the pagan name “Easter” to the Christian celebration is most likely the work of 2nd century Christian missionaries to Europe. They quickly noticed the advantage of celebrating their Christian holiday on a pagan spring festival day, eventually helping to move the pagans away from their paganism and towards Christian practices.
Today, the name “Easter” is virtually inseparable from the Christian holy day exercises.
EASTER BUNNY – Rabbits have been symbols of fertility for a very long time and are connected with the spring fertility celebrations. The transition from a very productive rabbit to a rabbit that lays eggs appears to have happened in Germany but how this transition happened is unclear.
“Eighteenth-century German settlers brought ‘Oschter Haws’…to America, where Pennsylvania Dutch settlers prepared nests for him in the garden or barn. On Easter Eve, the rabbit laid his colored eggs in the nests as payment. In Germany, old Oschter lays red eggs on Maundy Thursday.”13
Today, telling stories of the Easter bunny and displaying bunny decorations are popular. However, these practices have absolutely no significance to the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection.
EASTER EGGS – Eggs have been viewed as symbols of new life and fertility. Such ancient societies as the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Romans all used eggs during their springtime celebrations.
In Medieval Europe during the Lenten season all forms of meat, eggs and dairy products were forbidden. To preserve the eggs laid during that time, they were boiled. With Easter ending the fasting of Lent, the eggs would be gladly eaten. Eggs were thus considered a wonderful treat at Easter meals.
Today, the practice of hiding Easter eggs is popular. However, this practice has absolutely no significance to the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection.
VIII. ASCENSION DAY (Holy Thursday)
This holiday is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter. It commemorates Jesus being taken up into Heaven (Acts 1:9-10).
IX. PENTECOST (Whitsunday)
1. This holiday is celebrated on the seventh Sunday following Easter. It celebrates the day the Holy Spirit, in the form of tongues of fire, descended on Jesus’ disciples. 2. The day is also referred to as “Whitsunday” because of the white baptismal robes worn by those entering the church. 3. The Israelites celebrated Pentecost in the Old Testament. It not only celebrates the day the Torah (Law) was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai; it also brings to a close the celebration of Passover. Pentecost is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover and is so named because “Pentecost” means “fiftieth.”
X. TRINITY SUNDAY
This is the Sunday following Pentecost. It is a day that celebrates the Trinity.
XI. REFORMATION SUNDAY
This holiday is celebrated in Lutheran and Reformed churches. It is held on the Sunday on or just before October 31st. It celebrates the Reformation movement, started by Martin Luther, who set out to correct what he felt were erroneous doctrines and practices found within the Roman Catholic Church. It was on October 31st that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany, starting the Reformation.
XII. ALL SAINTS DAY (All Hallows Day)
This holiday started in the fourth century. It is celebrated by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some liturgical Protestant (Lutheran, UMC, etc.) churches. The holiday celebrates all the saints of the church and remembers the inspiring lives they lived while on earth.
The celebration originally took place on May 13th; however, Pope Gregory III changed that. Long irritated by the pagan celebration of Samhain celebrated on October 31st, “Gregory moved All Saints, or Hallows Day from May 13 to November 1 (which made October 31 All Hallows’ Eve, i.e. Hallowe’en) and instructed revelers to dress as saints instead of evil spirits. Goodies that once had been offered to propitiate wandering devils were instead offered to poor people, who in turn vowed to pray for the souls of departed relatives.”14 The move had limited effect.
Today All Hallow’s Eve is as pagan as ever and it’s celebration has absolutely nothing to do with the celebration of All Saints Day.