Just what is a “Yule log” anyway? I recently wondered aloud to a group of friends. “I think it’s like a cheese ball,” one friend said. “No, it’s a branch off the Christmas tree,” suggested another.
It turns out that neither guess is correct. A Yule log, as I found out later, is an old Scandinavian tradition that, like many others, evolved over the centuries to become the custom it is today.
Many of our modern Christmas traditions — the things we eat, the songs we sing, the rituals we perform — have resulted from the convergence of customs and observances from
around the world. In fact, some — Santa Claus, for instance — were invented to purposely change the way people observed the season.
Though I grew up celebrating Christmas with my Italian Catholic family, some things still puzzled me. Was Santa really a saint? What, exactly, are the twelve days of Christmas? And why are the animals said to talk at midnight on Christmas Eve?
So, I scoured the Internet and flipped through a handful of books on the subject, and while there undoubtedly is more to these customs than space here allows, I offer some brief descriptions of some of the customs that mark our celebration of the season of Jesus’ birth.
Happy New Year: Advent is the beginning of the Church year and is the time Catholics use to prepare for Jesus’ birth and his Second Coming. We do this by prayer and penance, but also by cleaning our homes, baking and cooking, and marking the days with Advent candles that are lit each Sunday of Advent, or a calendar with little windows that are opened each day to reveal a picture underneath. These are all ways to help us wait for Christmas with what the Church calls “joyful expectation.”
In 2006, Advent lasts from December 3 to December 24. The Advent wreath, writes Meredith Gould in The Catholic Home, is made of fresh evergreens encircling four equidistant candles. Three violet candles represent penitence and one pink candle symbolizes the anticipated joy of Christ’s birth.
Twelve Days of Christmas: Though many families in our culture begin to put their decorations away after Christmas Day, the Church calendar marks the 25th as just the beginning of the Christmas season. The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas ends with Epiphany (this year on January 7), when the three Magi visited the baby Jesus and his divinity was revealed. Some families exchange a small gift on each of the days, or observe Three Kings Day on the Epiphany.
The Christmas Tree: In the Middle Ages, mystery plays were held on Christmas Eve. The plays featured a “paradise tree” representing the tree of knowledge and the tree of life from the Garden of Eden, decorated with colorful apples and candies. Today, Christmas trees are decorated with ornaments and chrismons — monograms of Christ and other Christian symbols (crosses, a lamb, fish, anchor, etc.). The tree may be decorated in advance and a nice tradition is to wait until sunset on Christmas Eve to turn on the lights for the first time.
St. Nicholas: Nicholas, an actual person, was born in what’s now known as Turkey around 260 A.D. He devoted his life to God and became a bishop, renowned for his generosity to the poor. One legend tells of a family with three daughters who were destined to be sold into slavery unless their father could provide dowries. Nicholas is said to have secretly tossed bags of gold (or golden balls) into their window. The gold landed in the daughters’ shoes and stockings, which had been set by the fire to dry. Some families celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6, his feast day (marking the day of his death), by filling children’s shoes with trinkets and candy.
Santa Claus: The evolution from the bishop St. Nicholas to the red-suited Santa Claus had many causes, which combined in the mid-1800s to give us the department- store Santa we know today. It likely began with the Protestant Reformation in the 17th century and subsequent colonialization of New England by Puritan settlers. Christmas, at that time, was outlawed in parts of Europe and the New World because the holiday had become raucous and unruly, and focused more on celebrating the excesses of the end of the harvest season and less on Jesus.
“It was a horrible holiday,” Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, told PBS in 2003. “Women and children couldn’t go in the streets. The New York City police department in the 1800s had to add extra people to their police force just to combat the looting and violence on Christmas.”
One theory, according to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, is that in the early 1800s, the upper-class British New Yorkers consciously invented Santa Claus, based on an old Dutch gift-giving tradition, in response to the nation’s newfound democracy, which they saw as an attempt to put the poor and middle class on the same plane as the rich. At least the gentry of New York, according to Washington Irving’s 1809 political satire, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which mentions St. Nicholas some 25 times, were pious and circumspect, still holding on to quaint Dutch traditions.
It was Irving’s widely read book that described St. Nicholas much as we know Santa Claus today, an image that was cemented when, a few years later, Clement Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas described him as a gift-giver who came as a passenger aboard a sleigh pulled by miniature reindeer. Moore’s poem, for the first time to a wide audience, cites Christmas Eve as the day of giving. Both Irving and Moore consciously were promoting Santa Claus to upper-class readers who previously had been compelled to give to the poor, but now began to give to their children. St. Nicholas the generous bishop (Sankt Niklaus to the Germans, and Sinterklaas to the Dutch) became Santa Claus, the fictitious toymaker.
Fasting: Christmas Eve was once a day of fasting and abstinence, and though the Church has eliminated this fast altogether, traditional Catholics still keep it in spirit, eating seafood and pasta for the Christmas Eve supper, after the Christmas Eve Mass.
The crèche: St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scenes in the 13th century, though these used live animals and people. In the days leading up to December 25, families may display a crèche, placing Mary and Joseph a good distance away. As the days pass, children may move Mary and Joseph closer to the stable. In some Nativity scenes,the baby Jesus is laid in his crib and the Christmas tree is lit after dark on Christmas Eve.
Talking animals and other blessings: At midnight on Christmas, it was thought that a mysterious universal celebration took place in nature, that a spirit of peace and adoration prevailed over the whole world, writes Francis X. Weiser in The Christmas Book.
Animals fell to their knees and spoke in Latin, praising the Christ child. Also, church bells could be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea, and the honeybees awakened to sing the 99th Psalm. The Earth’s rivers were turned to wine, trees blossomed, and the gems of the earth fell at the feet of those who were pure of heart. Babies born on Christmas are considered especially blessed and able to see spirits, and those who die at midnight are said to enter straight into heaven.
Midnight Mass: Christmas is a holy day of obligation and may be fulfilled by attending Mass at midnight Christmas Eve, on Christmas morning, or during Christmas Day. But many Catholic families make it a tradition to attend the Midnight Mass together.
And lastly, the Yule log: No, it’s not a cheese ball, but rather a tradition that stems from the belief in Scandinavian countries in a “world tree,” with one root in heaven and another in hell. A large tree-trunk-sized piece of wood was picked out the previous year to be lit at sundown on Christmas Eve, using a piece of last year’s Yule log (which has been stored under the bed of the lady of the house). The celebrations would continue as long as the log was burning. Traditions — the way they are celebrated and even the way they came about — are telling of the people and cultures that practiced them. They help us to know “who we are, where we came from, who has gone before, and where we are going,” write Shiela Kielly and Sheila Geraghty in their book, Advent & Lent Activities for Children (Twenty-Third Publications).
But more, writes Gould in The Catholic Home, traditions are a way of reflecting the awe, delight, and gratitude of living in and for Christ at home.
At an address before a crowd of 15,000 during last year’s Christmas season, Pope Benedict XVI had a request: “Let us hold on to the value of the Christmas traditions, which are part of our faith and our culture, and pass them on to a new generation.” CD