Dear People of God:
There is a very close connection between Christmas and Easter but it is easy to overlook it. Yet the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the origin of many popular “Christmas” symbols. The Christmas tree itself originated in Germany as the “tree of Life” which became the tree of the “life-giving cross.” Holly was adopted by Christians of England as a Christmas symbol because its thorns and red berries are a reminder of the suffering of Christ. Similarly, the ever popular tropical red poinsettia became the Christmas flower in Mexico because the green leaves symbolized Christ’s youth and the red bloom, His untimely death. The red and white peppermint candy cane may be based on the crosier or pastoral staff of St. Nicholas, 4th century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, whose appearance and name have unfortunately been transformed into the secular, fictitious “Santa Claus.” The white of the cane represents the lifeless flesh of Christ and the red is the blood shed for us. The wreath, an ancient Roman and Greek symbol of victory in the amphitheater, came to be used at Christmastime in Italy as a symbol of Christ’s victory over death at Easter. All of these connections between Easter and Christmas are right before our eyes. However, most of us are probably unaware of them.
The Christmas scriptures are also filled with suggestions of Easter. When you are prayerfully reading the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke (not found in Mark or John), remember that they were probably written last as a summary of the meaning of Christ’s life and redemptive work. Thus, the baby is placed in a manger, a feed box. Why? He is to become our spiritual food. The infant’s body is wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger just as the body of the crucified Christ is wrapped in cloth and laid in the tomb. Christ the King reigns from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross. The Magi (not the “three kings”) came seeking the newborn “king of the Jews.” Above the cross Pilate wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi suggest that He is God’s Holy One deserving of our worship (incense) and the royal King of our hearts deserving of our homage (gold), a Divine King who was destined to die for us. Myrrh was used to anoint the dead.
Most pilgrims to Bethlehem are surprised to see that the sight venerated as the birthplace of Jesus is, in fact, a cave and not the wooden “stable” depicted in crèche or manger scenes first created by Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Saint Francis combined the distinct infancy stories of St. Luke (shepherds, angels, manger) and St. Matthew (Magi, star, three gifts) in his “Christmas crib.” One reason Saint Francis did this was to remind Christians of the profound connection between the wood of the cross to the wood of the manger. All of these connections between Christmas images and the suffering of Jesus teach us that if you want to understand this birth you must understand this death. Without Easter, Christmas is meaningless!
As Catholics, our tradition urges us not to rush through Advent. We are discouraged from announcing our “Merry Christmas” in mid December, for that is still our time of waiting. Our first “Merry Christmas” is really uttered at the Mass on Christmas Eve, the Christ-Mass. Yet in the days after December 25th it is fitting for people of faith to continue saying “Merry Christmas,” “Merry Christmas” for days and days. This is why we speak of the twelve days of Christmas leading to Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.
Did you know that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was composed by Roman Catholics in England to teach the faith to their children when they were forbidden to practice their religion (1558-1829). Here are the meanings of the symbols of each “day.” (1) The partridge in a pear tree is Christ, who gathers us under His wings. (2) The two turtledoves are the sacrifices that Mary and Joseph offered on the birth of their Son. (3) The three French hens are the gifts of the Magi, as well as the Three Persons of the Trinity. (4) The four calling birds are the four Evangelists. (5) The five golden rings are the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah. (6) The six geese are the six days of Divine Creation and our six days of work before we rest on the Lord’s Day. (7) The seven swans are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven sacraments. (8) The eight maids are the eight beatitudes. (9) The nine ladies are the nine fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). (10) The ten lords are the Ten Commandments. (11) The eleven pipers are the eleven apostles who remained faithful to Christ. (12) The twelve drummers are the twelve articles of the Apostles Creed.
It is sad that this song is so popular, even among Catholics, but the true meaning of the lyrics has been all but forgotten. Yet the lyrics make no sense at all without knowing their origin. You might wish to save this reflection, read it to your children on Christmas Day, and share with others the true Christian meaning of the gifts given to us by our own “True Love” who is God. May we all understand that the Life of Jesus Christ on which we meditate at Christmas has unique meaning only because it was transformed by an Easter that was Happy indeed!
Be at Peace,
The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville