Some Traditions of Christmas…


Christmas is Christmas because of one event – the Birth of Christ.

There is a comprehensive list of Advent and Christmas customs in a booklet by Kevin McGloin entitled What Every Catholic Needs To Know About Advent And Christmas. The following are contained in the booklet:

The O Antiphons: These antiphons are chanted or recited after the Magnificat within the Liturgy of the Hours, known as the ‘Office’ for priests and religious. They are said for seven days before Christmas – from December 17th to 23rd inclusive. Each antiphon expresses the ‘wait’ or ‘expectation’ of Advent. The seven O Antiphons are: O Wisdom; O Adonai (ancient Hebrew name for God); O Root of Jesse (King David’s father); O Key of David; O Radiant Dawn; O King of All Nations; O Emmanuel.

(More on the O Antiphons:

Today, December 17th is the start of the O Antiphons. One is assigned to each day up to December 23rd. (Christmas Eve, 24th, heralds the start of the Christmas Season.) It is an opportunity to take a quiet moment amidst all the fuss and focus on what Christmas is really about. An Antiphon is a short prayer that assists us to focus on a particular theme.

They are traditional (in use since the eight century) Advent hymns, called the O Antiphons because the first word of each hymn is O! They are used in Christian denominations worldwide.  The O Antiphons are also used as the Gospel Acclamations at Mass from today.

The Antiphons are based on scripture writings from the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew (Old Testament) Bible and herald the coming of the Messiah. They all cite various titles afforded to the Messiah, and all anticipate the one who is to come.

December 17th = O Wisdom (Sapientia): O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge! “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness…” Is 11:2–3.

December 18th = O Lord of Israel (Adonai): O Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power! “But he shall judge the poor with justice, and shall reprove with equity the meek of the earth…” Is 11:4–5; 33:22.

December 19th = O Root of Jesse (Radix Jesse): O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay! “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root…” Is 11:1, 10.

December 20th = O Key of David (Clavis David): O Key of David, opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom: come and free the prisoners of darkness! “And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open.” Is 22:22.

December 21st = O Radiant Dawn (Oriens): O Radiant Dawn, splendour of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death. “The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen.” Is 9:10.

December 22nd = O King of the Nations (Rex Gentium): O King of all nations and keystone of the Church: come and save man, whom you formed from the dust! “And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war…” Is 2:4, 9:7.

December 23rd = O God With Us (Emmanuel): O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law: come to save us, Lord our God! “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Is 7:14.)

Holly: Traditionally used to decorate homes in the winter and believed to contain magical properties because it could ward off witches. For Christians, the red berries and thorns represent the blood and crown of thorns of Christ on the Cross.

Mistletoe: mistletoe was an all-rounder for Druids. It could heal injuries, neutralise poisons, aid fertility and act as a shield from wickedness. It is linked with the goddess Frigga whose son was killed by a spear dipped in mistletoe. She wept. Her tears landed on the mistletoe and transformed it into white berries. From that day on, Frigga said that mistletoe was to be associated with joy rather than sorrow and promised to kiss anyone who walked under the plant. Mistletoe was also used as a peace pledge between enemies and as rite of engagement between a man and a woman.

Tinsel: Once upon a time a poor widow could not afford to decorate the family Christmas tree. During the night a family of spiders weaved their webs all around the tree. Jesus then transformed the spiders’ webs into silver strands. The next morning the widow and her children could not believe their eyes. Originating in Germany in the early seventeenth century, tinsel was once made of silver wiry shreds. Today it is made from plastic.

Yule Log: In Norway, as part of the winter solstice celebration, workers would return from the forest with a large tree trunk to burn on Christmas Eve. The log was soaked in water and the fire could last up to one week. When the log was finally reduced to ashes the workers had to return to work.

The Twelve Days of Christmas:  Catholics living in England between 1558 and 1829 were not allowed to express their faith publicly. The handing on of the faith continued, albeit in various ways. One of the ways was through song. Song words had layers of meaning – straightforward and symbolic. The symbolic meaning was used as a sort of catechism for the younger generation.   One such song or Christmas carol is The Twelve Days of Christmas. Skipping through the Twelve Days the symbolism is: My true love (God); a partridge in a pear tree (Jesus); two turtledoves (Old and New Testaments); three French hens (faith, hope and love – 1 Cor. 13.13); four calling birds (the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John); five golden rings (the Torah, also called the Law, which is the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy); six geese a-laying (the six days of creation – Gen. 1:1-25); seven swans a-swimming (the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – Prophecy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership and Mercy – Rom. 12:6-8); eight maids a-milking (the Eight Beatitudes – Matt. 5:1-12); nine ladies dancing (the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit – Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control – Gal. 5.22); ten lords a-leaping (the Ten Commandments – Ex. 20:1-17); eleven pipers playing (the eleven Apostles who remained faithful to Jesus); twelve drummers drumming (the twelve points of belief in the Apostles Creed).

Emmanuel: This is a Hebrew word that means ‘God is with us.’ The prophet Isaiah used it in telling about the coming of Jesus as the Messiah (Is. 7:14).

Noel: The word came from the French les bonnes nouvelles, which means the good news.

Messiah: Comes from the Hebrew, meaning anointed one. The Greek equivalent is Christos, from which the word Christ comes.

Son of David:  Jesus is a descendent of King David. David was the greatest King in the Old Testament. He lived circa 1,000 BC and was anointed King in Hebron (2 Sam. 2:4).

Santa Claus: Santa is also known as Father Christmas, lives in the North Pole and is helped by his army of elves and his faithful reindeer, especially his beloved Rudolph. Many people are aware also of his links with St Nicholas, who was a bishop from Myra in the fourth century. Myra is in present-day Turkey. Legends abound about this man who grew up an orphan and eventually became rich, but always looked after the poor. One story has him helping a poor family whose daughters had no dowries. Without dowries they would face lives of slavery and prostitution. Nicholas was able to supply sufficient gold for the ladies concerned who were then able to ‘afford’ their dowries. Nicholas was beaten and jailed as Bishop of Myra because he refused to worship pagan gods. The myth of his red rosy cheeks developed. These were the cheeks that bore his torture in the name of Christ. The Dutch name for St Nicholas was Sint Nikolass, which abbreviated to Sinterklass when the Dutch emigrated to America. Then children changed the word to Santa Claus. The rest is history and with the passage of time the story got better!

Crib: St Francis of Assisi is credited with the introduction of the Crib. A nativity scene was used as a backdrop for religious plays. St Francis used a living crib in 1224. Eventually, churches and homes introduced the crib, using statues in place of people and animals.

Midnight Mass: Traditionally people would gather in monasteries for Mass on Christmas night, after which there were huge feasts. The practice then spread to parish churches. O Holy Night is normally sung during Midnight Mass.

Boxing Day: In this country December 26th is known as St Stephen’s Day, in honour of the first Christian martyr (Acts 6:8-7:60). The Boxing Day tradition started around 800 AD. Several weeks before Christmas people would place money in alms boxes for the poor. These boxes would be opened the day after Christmas and the money distributed to the poor – hence Boxing Day.

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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Some traditions of Christmas.

    There is a more comprehensive version of the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus story in this month’s Africa magazine (St. Patrick’s Missions, Kiltegan).

  2. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Some Traditions of Christmas…

    What Are We Waiting For?
    Father Richard Rohr describes how Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) shaped Christianity’s celebration of Christmas.

    In the first 1200 years of Christianity, the most prominent feast was Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Around 1200, Francis of Assisi entered the scene, and he felt we didn’t need to wait for God to love us through the cross and resurrection. He believed God loved us from the very beginning and showed this love by becoming incarnate in Jesus. He popularized what we take for granted today, the great Christian feast of Christmas. But Christmas only started being popular in the 13th century.

    The main point I want to make is the switch in theological emphasis that took place. The Franciscans realized that if God had become flesh and taken on materiality, physicality, and humanity, then the problem of our unworthiness was solved from the very beginning! God “saved” us by becoming one of us!

    Franciscans fasted a lot in those days, as many Christians did, and Francis went so wild over Christmas that he said, “On Christmas Day, I want even the walls to eat meat!” [1] He said that every tree should be decorated with lights to show that that is its true nature. That’s what Christians around the world still do eight hundred years later.

    But remember, when we speak of Advent or waiting and preparing for Christmas, we’re not simply waiting for the little baby Jesus to be born. That already happened two thousand years ago. We’re forever welcoming the Universal Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and into history.


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