Holiday customs come from various origins

By Clyde Davis: Columnist

During the first week of December, as part of the routine of decorating our home for the holiday season, we placed the Advent wreath in its usual place, arranged in the middle of the dining room table.

Because our wreath is “modular” for storage purposes, it could be arranged in several formats, so my 6-year-old grandson asked the logical question, “Why do we put it out in a circle?” It put me on the pattern of thinking about some of our customs, especially those that blend secular and religious traditions.

The wreath, in its circular format, can be traced in several directions, one of which leads to the ancient celebration of the solstice. Both the use of evergreens and the circular (sun) shape reminded people in the pre-Christian world, especially northern parts of Europe, that winter would not be as endless as it seemed. The sun would return; the evergreens thrived even when other foliage seemed to die.

For the Christian, the evergreen may represent God’s care and nurture over all of creation. The circle may represent God’s love, which has no beginning and no end. The candles, which traditionally are part of the Advent wreath, are four in number, representing the four weeks of Advent, as the church awaits the coming of the Christ child. The color of the candles, traditionally purple, represents the royal color, for the King of Kings. Recently it has become common, as well, to use blue candles.
I am told this is because of the color blue’s traditional association with the Blessed Virgin.

The middle candle, which is generally white, is lit on Christmas Eve. This is the Christ candle, with white for purity. The candles themselves are symbolic of the light of the world.

Christmas trees are another matter, having taken some bad press recently in certain circles. During my childhood, artificial trees were pretty tacky, but the current ones offer a fine alternative to the real thing.

Though the origins of the Christmas tree seem to be largely pre-Christian, there are some lessons about stewardship and creation care that can emerge, if a family chooses a live tree.

The first might be the actual live tree with roots, which one can then plant. A second possibility, with cut trees, involves using the tree for habitat after the holiday season. Many towns near lakes or rivers encourage dropping the trees offshore, thus providing fish with cover and homes.

I recently went pheasant hunting in an area where the farmer had piled successive years’ worth of trees to slowly build a windbreak and cover for small animals.

Regardless of its origins, the Christmas tree can become a lesson in the care and stewardship of creation.

Many holiday customs, especially those of folk religion, have more than one origin or possible origins. Perhaps this is good, as it allows each family or group some freedom in interpreting those customs. Whatever your customs, may your season be joyous.