A Catholic blogger's meager attempt to recapture the meaning of some Christmas traditions...

As a half-German, half-Hispanic American, whose family held onto many traditions, I have a strong sense of their value. Even though many of my family's traditions may have been modified to better suit our time and needs, an emphasis was always put on our reception of what we do from our predecessors.

We do not make up the way we celebrate special occasions. What we do and how we do it has been slowly perfected over generations to be meaningful and formative. Every year around Advent we see our ancient traditions stand out. They become so overt that it seems that our entire world has changed. No other time of year can be viewed the same way.

Nevertheless, it seems that as Christians we have to fight a particular battle to try and maintain our traditions. It seems that our images, signs, and symbols have been hijacked and drained of significance. What we have been left with is a commercialized superficiality.

Our response to this attack is to avoid it. We have a knee jerk rejection of Santa Claus: It's St. Nicholas. We have a reflexive rebuff to "Happy Holidays": It's Merry Christmas. We involuntarily repudiate Christmas trees in Advent: You should have an Advent Wreath.  What we seem to do, in the end is throw out the baby with the bath water.

We avoid St. Nick any day other than Dec. 6th. We fail to wish our Jewish brothers and sisters a Happy Hanukkah (only Catholics have the Hanukkah story in their bible). We do not allow the imagery of the Christmas tree to prepare us for the celebration of Christ's Nativity.

Recapturing Meaning...

Santa Claus

Growing up I never had an issue thinking of Santa Claus as St. Nicholas. It was simply explained to me that Santa Claus was the anglicized form of the Dutch name Sinterklaas, which is itself just an abbreviated form of Sint Nikolaas. Images of the jolly ol' saint often depicted him in one of two fashions: dressed in liturgical attire or his cold weather clothing.

The Santa hat is nothing more than a derivation of the 'camauro.' Which is a red velvet winter hat with white fur trim and lining. Pope Benedict XVI himself can be seen wearing this hat on winter occasions. And Bl. John XXIII would wear one with the red velvet shoulder cape (mozzetta) with white fur trim and lining.

The imagery of St. Nick wearing red velvet and white fur, is really rooted in the traditional attire of great Churchmen, even of recent times. 
The camauro, however, is not conical and has no pom. The shape of Santa's hat comes from the pagan-Roman winter celebration of Saturnalia. In the Greco-Roman world, only free men wore the pilleus, a conical shaped hat. During celebrations of the winter solstice (Saturnalia) all people were allowed to wear the pilleus as a tribute to the god Saturn freeing them from darkness.

Many of the ancient roman symbols of Saturnalia have become associated with Christmas since, in Christ, we find their true meaning. For instance, the pilleus is associated with freedom, and Christ frees us from sin and the power of death. Saturnalia was celebrated with an abundance of candles signifying the increase in light that we experience at the winter solstice. Today, electric lights replace candles, but they still signify the increase in light that Christ brings to the world. Gift giving was a key celebration of Saturnalia and has become a central tradition of Christmas, but Christ is the Gift of gifts. His birth ushers in a new age of gifts, namely grace. 

So, St. Nicholas, who is associated with gift giving, has become a mascot of the spirit of gift giving. Should he be excluded from the celebration of Christ's Nativity as if he were a distraction from the meaningfulness of gifts and Christ, whose gift of Himself is the reason for the season? I say no. If he wants to fill my boots on Dec. 6 and my stockings on Dec. 25, so be it. If he wants to teach me about the free gift that Christ offers us with the sacrifice of Himself, by putting a box full of new socks and underwear under my Christmas tree, so be it. 

O Tannenbaum...

Wie treu sind deine Blätter. Du grunst nicht nur im Sommerzeit. Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit. How loyal are your needles. You are not only green in summertime. No, also in winter, when it snows.

The fir tree (Tannenbaum) is a perduring symbol of hope and life among darkness and death. The German hymn O Tannenbaum praises the tree for its verdancy when all the other trees have lost their leaves. It is therefore most fitting that evergreen trees, not just the fir, are used to draw us closer to the mystery of Christ's birth.

The great debate is when to put up the tree. For some, they have no problem putting it up the day after Thanksgiving if they are not to busy trampling others to get the best deals on this year's electronics. For others, it is completely inappropriate to put up a Christmas tree until Christmas eve. To do so, in Advent is anathema. Some put up the Tannenbaum and spend each day leading up to Christmas placing a new Christian symbol on the tree, this they call the Jesse tree. It is a sort of compromise to avoid anathema and commercialization. And still there are others, like myself, who put the tree up at the start of Advent, put all the decorations on it, and use it to prepare for Christmas. 

The modern Christmas tree is of German origin. Its ever-greenness makes it the perfect symbol for eternal life. Germans originally decorated the tree with apples (we have replaced the apples with glass bulbs of all colors). The apples signify the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of which Adam and Eve ate. It should also be mentioned that Christmas Eve is the commemoration of all the forefathers of Christ. It is therefore taken as the name day of Adam and Eve, and was the original day that the tree was decorated and used.

Originally, the tree was lit with real candles. God forbid we bring those fire hazards into our homes! Now, we use UL approved string lights. The candles represent two things, the light Christ brings into the world, and the stars of heaven, which remind us of the uncountable numbers of the heavenly host. So, the more lights the better. Remember that the angels appeared to the shepherds saying that Christ was born and "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men of good will." 

It was not until the tree made its way to the United States via Great Britain and Canada that the tree began to be decorated with candy canes. A German-American from Ohio named August Imgard [there's quite a bit more about the candy cane at this link] is attributed as the first to add the sugary delights to the tree. The candy cane has two meanings as well, it represents the shepherds who were called to Christ's birthplace by the angel. Its red swirls represent the blood spilt at Christ's crucifixion, which is the reason he was born in the first place, and the white represents the virgin birth. 

And adorning the top of the tree is the star. The same star that led the magi out of the east to the place of Christ's birth. This star is placed at the top of the tree to lead us also to the place of Christ's birth.  

If we recognize this imagery, there is no reason why we should not put the tree up at the beginning of Advent. If your tree is decorated with Disney characters, maybe you ought to put it up before Advent. You are obviously not concerned with the religious nature of the tree. If you stick with just apples, maybe Christmas eve is more suitable. If you're like me, however, and you try to fill your tree with all the meaning of Christ's life, Advent is a suitable time to decorate your tree. It will not take away from your Advent wreath, but only help you prepare to with joyful expectation to receive Christ on Christmas morning. 

Let's not forget, as Catholics we get this tradition from our Lutheran brothers and sisters. So, maybe now some of you may want to forego the whole tree thing altogether...

So, what goes on your tree? When do you put it up? Does St. Nicholas only come on the 6th at your home? Leave me a comment below or send me a picture of your tree. 


  1. We put our tree up a week or 2 into Advent (we always have a wreath on our dining room table and the kids take turns lighting the appropriate number of candles at dinner). Most of our ornaments represent Jesus, family members, activities and interests. We don't put much emphasis on St. Nicholas, because of the overemphasis on the secular portrayal of Santa Claus, which does push Jesus aside.
    Great blog, Abram!!

    1. Thanks, Jackie. Quick question, though. I believe that I understand that you are saying that Santa pushes Jesus out of the picture but that St. Nick doesn't. If I'm wrong and you think that St. Nick/Santa because of how they've been conflated pushes Jesus aside, I have to ask another question:

      Traditionally, the only octave of any solemnity of Christ that also celebrated the feasts of the saints simultaneously was the Octave of Christmas. The Church in Her wisdom saw that the lives of the saints testified in a special way to the Incarnation that the other Octaves did not. In which case, I'd argue that the life of St. Nicholas isn't inappropriate to the feast of the Nativity, but rather testifies to the Incarnation in a special way. Furthermore, his feast day though weeks earlier like the feasts of all of the saints during Advent point forward toward Christmas in a special was, and therefore, every Advent saint has a special connection to Christmas. St. Nicholas, however, in a distinct way stands out as preparing us to receive THE Gift. So, in fact even if he brings a gift on Christmas day, it becomes a way for us to enter into the joy of receiving Christ. Sure other presents, such as those from family and friends do this to, but the mystery of a freely given gift, with no expectation of giving a gift in return draws us deeper into the mystery of Christ's birth. So, my question is there some mysterious figure that leaves a present under the tree? My wife's family has Jesus leave the present. Or do you just exchange gifts?

  2. We use our tree as a Jesse Tree, gaining more and more decorations through Advent, and then it goes into full decoration mode for the Christmas Season.

    1. I'm familiar with how the Jesse Tree works, Casey, but I'd be interested if you could tell me more about its origins. When did the Jesse Tree tradition start? My understanding is that it is a rather modern reaction to the commercialization of Christmas during Advent. That it came about in order to keep Christmas and Advent as distinct. Is that your sense too? I think it's a cool thing to do, it's just not part of my tradition, so I don't know its history. Also, my tendency is to maintain a tradition with minimal changes for time and need. So, I don't plan on putting up a Jesse Tree anytime soon, but I'd love to learn more.

  3. Great post Abram! I didn't know the meaning of a lot of those things you mentioned. I was shocked to see Bl. John XXIII in a santa suit. :)

    We usually put up our tree after Thanksgiving. We honestly don't give the Christmas tree that much thought as to its specific meaning during the season. According to our ornaments on it I guess it represents a mix of different things; Christ's birth, winter season, family, and child-like innocence. We don't go so far as having Disney characters on it but we do have a snowman, various animals, bells, stars, and beads, along with some nativity type ornaments. I like your Christ-centered tree tradition starting at Advent. That gives the tree a lot more meaning. I don't think our tree distracts from our Advent experience, although it probably doesn't add to our Advent experience as your does. Just having its beauty present in the house does help our excitement and anticipation for Christmas day. Our Advent wreath and prayers we say around it prepare us for Christmas more than anything.

    I'm surprised you didn't mention the nativity scene in your article, especially since it is said that it was started by St. Francis. We finally just bought one and I want to do something to incorporate it more in our preparation for Christmas. I may have to research it more.

    Caitlin and I teach a middle school PSR class and I think we may do a lesson on the Jesse Tree and make one this Sunday. It is a little late to start one but it should be educational and hopefully help the kids (and us) prepare for Christmas in a meaningful way.

    1. I almost forgot to reply to your Santa Clause part. I like how you combined Santa Clause with the Christian aspect of Christ's birth. As long as you explain it to your kids in the correct light, Santa Clause can be transformed into a great symbol and a great patron saint during the season. We just saw a Christian play the other night and they were basically saying that we are giving Santa too much emphasis in our culture and it takes away from the meaning of the season. Yes, many many people are taking the commercial Santa to the extreme and forgetting about Jesus. But that Santa Clause isn't St. Nick. That Santa Clause is a marketing scheme. To protestants who don't believe in the saints, I wouldn't blame them for wanting to get rid of that Santa Clause. But to us Catholics, he is a real somebody worth celebrating.