Father Tirso

Picking up on last week’s article, here is an explanation of some more Christmas symbols that have become popular in our current time. We may use them so often that we again never realize that these symbols were rooted in pagan practices that became Christianized—that is, became infused with Christian meaning as to transform their significance and meaning.

We may have heard of the Yule tree or even heard the Christmas season be referred to as Yuletide. The roots of the Yule tree are slightly different than those of the Christmas Tree.

The word “yule” is believed to have its roots in the Anglo-Saxon word “geol” which was a word that meant feasting and drinking. The celebration and festivities connected with the Yule Tree became a longing for “green things” during the cold, dark winters that oftentimes could be long and harsh. It became so popular that eventually Yuletide became another name for the Christmas season. The burning of the Yule log was adapted from an ancient Scandinavian custom of bonfires to mark the winter solstice.

Another symbol/decoration that is a part of many Christmas Carols is the mistletoe. Even as we hear references to mistletoe in the beloved Carols of the season, the use of it may not be as prevalent today as it once was. Either way, mistletoe has become a plant synonymous with acts of affection and even merriment. After all, the custom goes that two people who find themselves standing underneath the mistletoe are obligated to show affection to one another either through a kiss or some other gesture. However, the custom finds its origins in pre- Christian times.

Among the Druids, a pre-Christian religious group in the parts we now know as Ireland, Scotland, and Britain, mistletoe was considered to be a sacred plant with powers to heal and to protect. Because mistletoe was so highly revered as being sacred, enemies who happen to meet under the mistletoe were thereby expected to pledge themselves to a truce. The sacredness of the mistletoe strengthened the bond between the foes to the point that if either party ever broke the truce it was considered to be an unforgivable sin. It was from this pagan custom that mistletoe eventually was placed over the doorways of homes as a reminder that those who passed through those doors were bound to show peace, good will, and hospitality to one another. It was only after Britain became Christian that mistletoe began to be used as a Christmas symbol because of its revered reputation of having healing powers and became reminiscent of the healing that Jesus has come to give to all who believe in him.

Another plant or flower that has become associated with Christmas is, of course, the poinsettia. This plant has become synonymous with Christmas as the lily has become synonymous with Easter. The plant actually originates in Mexico where it blooms at Christmastime. It was introduced to the United States in the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries by the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett after whom the plant was eventually named. He grew them in his own greenhouse and gradually the plant became so popular around Christmastime that in the early 20 th century until now the poinsettia has become so essential in the Christmas décor both in religious settings as well as secular.

The poinsettia plant originally only came with scarlet red leaves although science has allowed the plant to grow with different hues of red and even white. It was perhaps the scarlet red leaves of the poinsettia that made red the customary color of Christmas. However, the use of red at Christmastime really ought to be more a secular practice than a religious one. In the liturgical life of the Church, the official color of Christmas remains white—or its equivalent of gold, silver, or even yellow. White as a liturgical color at Christmas is a reminder of the life we share with Jesus who truly remains the reason for the season.

Fr. Tirso S. Villaverde, Jr.

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