Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

History & Origin: Feast of the Nativity

by Fr. Francis X. Weiser


This text — Chapter 6 of Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: The Year of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore, by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., 1952 — provides an excellent explanation of the history and origin of the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ as well as Christmas legends and customs from around the world.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican


32 – 39

Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, November 2006

In the Roman Empire it was a general custom to celebrate the birthdays of rulers (see Matthew 14:6) and of other outstanding persons. Such birthdays often were publicly honored even after the death of the individual. The day of the celebration did not always coincide with the actual date of birth. The birthday of Plato, for instance, used to be celebrated on a feast of the god Apollo.

The early Christians, who attributed to Christ not only the title ("Kyrios") but also many other honors that the pagans paid to their "divine" emperors, naturally felt inclined to honor the birth of the Saviour. In most places the commemoration of Christ's birth was included in the Feast of the Epiphany (Manifestation) on January 6, one of the oldest annual feasts. Soon after the end of the last great persecution, about the year 330, the Church in Rome definitely assigned December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Christ. For a while, many Eastern Churches continued to keep other dates, but toward the end of the fourth century the Roman custom became universal.

No official reason has been handed down in ecclesiastical documents for the choice of this date. Consequently, various explanations have been given to justify the celebration of the Lord's nativity on this particular day. Some early Fathers and writers claimed that December 25 was the actual date of Christ's birth, and that the authorities in Rome established this fact from the official records of the Roman census that had been taken at the time of the Saviour's birth. Saint John Chrysostom held this opinion and used it to argue for the introduction of the Roman date in the Eastern Church. He was mistaken, however, for nobody in Rome ever claimed that the records of the census of Cyrinus were extant there in the fourth century, and much less that Christ's birthday was registered in the lists. In fact, it was expressly stated in Rome that the actual date of the Saviour's birth was unknown and that different traditions prevailed in different parts of the world.

A second explanation was of theological-symbolic character. Since the Bible calls the Messiah the "Sun of Justice" (Malachi 4:2), it was argued that His birth had to coincide with the beginning of a new solar cycle, that is, He had to be born at the time of the winter solstice. A confirmation of this opinion was sought in the Bible, by way of reckoning six months from the annunciation of John the Baptist (which was assumed to have happened on September 24) and thus arriving at March 25 as the day of the Incarnation. Nine months later, on December 25, would then be the birthday of the Lord. This explanation, though attractive in itself, depends on too many assumptions that cannot be proved and lacks any basis of historical certitude.

There remains then this explanation, which is the most probable one, and held by most scholars in our time: the choice of December 25 was influenced by the fact that the Romans, from the time of Emperor Aurelian (275), had celebrated the feast of the sun god ("Sol Invictus": the Unconquered Sun) on that day. December 25 was called the "Birthday of the Sun," and great pagan religious celebrations of the Mithras cult were held all through the empire. What was more natural than that the Christians celebrate the birth of Him Who was the "Light of the World" and the true "Sun of Justice" on this very day? The popes seem to have chosen December 25 precisely for the purpose of inspiring the people to turn from the worship of a material sun to the adoration of Christ the Lord. This thought is indicated in various writings of contemporary authors.

It has sometimes been said that the Nativity is only a "Christianized pagan festival." However, the Christians of those early centuries were keenly aware of the difference between the two festivals — one pagan and one Christian — on the same day. The coincidence in the date, even if intended, does not make the two celebrations identical. Some newly converted Christians who thoughtlessly retained external symbols of the sun worship on Christmas Day were immediately and sternly reproved by their religious superiors, and those abuses were suppressed. Proof of this are the many examples of warnings in the writings of Tertullian (third century) and the Christian authors of the fourth and fifth centuries, especially the sermons of Saint Augustine (430) and Pope Leo I (461).

The error of confusing Yule (solstice) and Christmas (the "Mass of Christ"), as if both celebrations had a common origin, occurs even in our time. Expressions like "Christmas originated four thousand years ago," "the pagan origins of Christmas," and similar misleading phrases have only added to the confusion. While it is certainly true that some popular features and symbols of our Christmas celebration in the home had their origin in pre-Christian Yuletide customs, Christmas itself — the feast, its meaning and message — is in no way connected with any pagan mythology or Yule rite.

Christmas soon became a feast of such great importance that from the fifth century on it marked the beginning of the ecclesiastical year. After the tenth century, however, the season of Advent came to form an integral part of the Christmas cycle; thus the beginning of the ecclesiastical year was advanced to the first Sunday of Advent.

Emperor Theodosius, in 425, forbade the cruel circus games on Christmas Day, and Emperor Justinian, in 529, prohibited work and public business by declaring Christmas a civic holiday. The Council of Agde (506) urged all Christians to receive Holy Communion on the feast. The Council of Tours (567) proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast. The Council of Braga (563) forbade fasting on Christmas Day. Thus the groundwork was laid for a joyful celebration of the Lord's nativity, not only in the house of God but also in the hearts and homes of the people.

Middle Ages

The great religious pioneers and missionaries who brought Christianity to the pagan tribes of Europe also introduced the celebration of Christmas. It came to Ireland through Saint Patrick (461), to England through Saint Augustine of Canterbury (604), to Germany through Saint Boniface (754). The Irish monks Saint Columban (615) and Saint Gall (646) introduced it into Switzerland and western Austria; the Scandinavians received it through Saint Ansgar (865). To the Slavic tribes it was brought by their apostles, the brothers Saint Cyril (869) and Saint Methodius (885); to Hungary by Saint Adalbert (997).

Most of these saints were the first bishops of the countries they converted and as such they established and regulated the celebration of the Nativity. In England, Saint Augustine observed it with great solemnity. On Christmas Day in 598, he baptized more than 10,000 Britons. In Germany, the observance of Christmas festivities was officially regulated by a synod in Mainz in 813.

By about the year 1100, all the nations of Europe had accepted Christianity, and Christmas was celebrated everywhere with great devotion and joy. The period from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries was the peak of a general Christian celebration of the Nativity, not only in churches and monasteries, but in homes as well. It was a time of inspiring and colorful religious services. Carols and Christmas plays were written. It was at this period, too, that most of the delightful Christmas customs of each country were introduced. Some have since died out; others have changed slightly through the ages; many have survived to our day. A few practices had to be suppressed as being improper and scandalous, such as the customs of dancing and mumming in church, the "Boy Bishop's Feast," the "Feast of the Ass," New Year's fires, superstitious (pagan) meals, impersonations of the Devil, and irreverent carols.


With the Reformation in the sixteenth century there naturally came a sharp change in the Christmas celebration for many countries in Europe. The Sacrifice of the Mass — the very soul of the feast — was suppressed. The Holy Eucharist, the liturgy of the Divine Office, the sacramentals and ceremonies all disappeared. So did the colorful and inspiring processions, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. In many countries all that remained of the once rich and glorious religious festival was a sermon and a prayer service on Christmas Day. Although the people kept many of their customs alive, the deep religious inspiration was missing, and consequently the "new" Christmas turned more and more into a feast of good-natured reveling. On the other hand, some groups, including the German Lutherans, preserved a tender devotion to the Christ Child and celebrated Christmas in a deeply spiritual way within their churches, hearts, and homes.

In England, the Puritans condemned even the reduced religious celebration that was held in the Anglican Church after the separation from Rome. They were determined to abolish Christmas altogether, both as a religious and as a popular feast. It was their contention that no feast of human institution should ever outrank the Sabbath (Sunday); and as Christmas was the most important of the non-Sunday festivals, they directed against it all their attacks of fierce indignation. Pamphlets were published denouncing Christmas as pagan, and its observance was declared to be sinful. In this anti-Christmas campaign these English sects were much encouraged by the example of similar groups in Scotland, where the celebration of the feast was forbidden as early as 1583, and punishment inflicted on all persons observing it.

When the Puritans finally came to political power in England, they immediately proceeded to outlaw Christmas. The year 1642 saw the first ordinances issued forbidding church services and civic festivities on Christmas Day. In 1644, the monthly day of fast and penance was appointed for December 25. The people, however, paid scant attention to these orders, and continued their celebrations. There was thus inaugurated a great campaign of two years' duration (1645-1647). Speeches, pamphlets and other publications, sermons and discussions were directed against the celebration of Christmas, calling it "antichrist-Mass, idolatry, abomination," and similar names. Following this barrage of propaganda, Parliament on June 3, 1647, ordained that the Feast of Christmas (and other holidays) should no longer be observed under pain of punishment. On December 24, 1652, an act of Parliament again reminded the public that "no observance shall be had on the five-and-twentieth of December, commonly called Christmas day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches in respect thereof."

Each year, by order of Parliament, town criers went through the streets a few days before Christmas, reminding their fellow citizens that "Christmas day and all other superstitious festivals" should not be observed, that market should be kept and stores remain open on December 25. During the year 1647 popular riots broke out in various places against the law suppressing Christmas, especially in London, Oxford, Ipswich, Canterbury, and the whole county of Kent. In Oxford there was a "world of skull-breaking"; in Ipswich the festival was celebrated "with some loss of life"; in Canterbury "the mob mauled the mayor, broke all his windows as well as his bones, and put fire to his doorsteps."

An ominous note was sounded against the republican Commonwealth at a meeting of 10,000 men from Kent and Canterbury who passed a solemn resolution saying that "if they could not have their Christmas day, they would have the King back on his throne again."

The government, however, stood firm and proceeded to break up Christmas celebrations by force of arms. People were arrested in many instances but were not punished beyond a few hours in jail. Anglican ministers who decorated their churches and held service on Christmas Day were removed from their posts and replaced by men of softer fiber. Slowly and relentlessly, the external observance of Christmas was extinguished. December 25 became a common workday, and business went on as usual. But in spite of these repressive measures many people still celebrated the day with festive meals and merriment in the privacy of their homes.

Revival in England

When the old Christmas eventually returned with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it was actually a "new" Christmas. The spiritual aspect of the feast was now left mostly to the care of the ministers in the church service on Christmas Day. What was observed in the home consisted of a more shallow celebration in the form of various non-religious amusements and of general reveling. Instead of the old carols in praise of the Child of Bethlehem, the English people observed Christmas with rollicking songs in praise of "plum pudding, goose, capon, minced pie and roast beef." However, a spirit of good will to all and of generosity to the poor ennobled these more worldly celebrations of the great religious feast. Two famous descriptions of this kind of popular celebration are found in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and in Washington Irving's Sketch Book.

The singing of hymns and carols, which had been suppressed by the Puritans, found only a slow and restricted revival in England. Even as late as 1823, an English collector of Christmas lore, William Hone, wrote in his Ancient Mysteries that carols were considered as "something past" and had no place in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, a few religious carols had been written and soon became favorites among the English-speaking people. The most famous of these are "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" (Nahum Tate, 1715) and "Hark the herald angels sing" (Charles Wesley, 1788).

Christmas in America

To the North American continent the Christmas celebration was brought by the missionaries and settlers from the various European nations. The Spaniards established it in their possessions in the sixteenth century, the French in Canada in the seventeenth century. The feast was celebrated with all the splendor of liturgical solemnity and with the traditional customs of the respective nationalities in Florida, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, in Canada, and in the territory of the present State of Michigan. In the colonies of New England, however, the unfortunate and misdirected zeal of the Puritans against Christmas persisted far into the nineteenth century. Christmas remained outlawed until the second half of the last century.

The Pilgrim fathers worked as usual on their first Christmas Day in America (1620), although they observed the most rigid Sabbath rest on the preceding day, which was Sunday. December 25 until 1856 was a common workday in Boston, and those who refused to go to work on Christmas Day were often dismissed. In New England, factory owners would change the starting hours on Christmas Day to five o'clock in order that workers who wanted to attend a church service would have to forego it or else be dismissed for being late for work. As late as 1870, classes were held in the public schools of Boston on Christmas Day, and any pupil who stayed at home to observe the feast was gravely punished, even shamed by public dismissal.

It was not until immigrants from Ireland and from continental Europe arrived in large numbers toward the middle of the last century that Christmas in America began to flourish. The Germans brought the Christmas tree. They were soon joined by the Irish, who contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of putting lights in the windows. All Catholic immigrants, of course, brought the crib, their native carols and hymns, the three Masses on Christmas Day, and the religious obligation of attending Mass and abstaining from work on the Feast of the Nativity.

Very soon their neighbors, charmed by these unusual but attractive innovations, followed their example and made many of these customs their own. For some years, however, many clergymen continued to warn their congregations against celebrating Christmas with these "new" customs. But eventually a powerful surge of enthusiasm from people of all faiths swept resistance away. New Englanders especially were so won over by this friendly, charming way of celebrating Christmas that a revival of deeper and richer observance followed in many of their churches. One by one, the best of the old traditions were lovingly studied, revived, and became again common practice. Catholics and Protestants cooperated, uniting in a sincere effort to restore the beauties of a truly Christian celebration of the Nativity.

Liturgical Names

The original Latin names for Christmas are: "Festum Nativitatis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi" (the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ) and the shorter form, "Dies Natalis Domini" (the Birthday of Our Lord).

From these Latin names most nations obtained their popular terms for the Christmas feast: "Il Natale" in Italy, "La Navidad" in Spain, "Natal" in Portugal, "Nadal" in southern France, "Nadolig" in Wales (and probably the Gaelic "Nollaig," as well). The Greek "Genethlia" means "Nativity," as do the names for Christmas in Hungarian ("Karacsony") and in most of the Slavic languages: "Boze Narodzenie" (God's Birth) in Polish; "Rozhdestvo Khrista" (Christ's Birth) in Russian and Ukrainian.

The French word Noel can be explained as either coming from the Latin "natalis" (birthday) or from the word "nowel" which means "news." In an old English Christmas verse the angel says:

I come from hevin to tell
The best nowellis that ever befell.

It is possible that both explanations are right. "Noel" and "nowel" may be words of different origin that have become identical in meaning because they are pronounced the same.

Popular Names

The English word "Christmas" is based on the same pattern as the old names for other feast days in the liturgical year, such as Michaelmas, Martinmas, Candlemas. The first mention of the name, "Christes Maesse," dates from the year 1038. It means "the Mass of Christ." The English nation (as did all Christian nations at the time) acknowledged the Sacrifice of the Mass as the most important part of the Christmas celebration. For instance, the word in the Dutch language was "Kersmis" (the Mass of Christ); the old Dutch form is "Kerstes-misse" or "Kersmisse," the German, "Christmesse."

The German word for Christmas, "Weihnacht" or, in the plural form, "Weihnachten," means "the blessed (or holy) night." Similar terms meaning "the holy night" are used in some Slavic languages (Czech, Slovak, Yugoslavian). The Lithuanian word "Kaledos" is derived from the verb "Kaledoti" (to beg, to pray) and has the meaning "Day of Prayer."


The origin of the word "yule" is disputed. Some scholars say it comes from the old Germanic word "Jol" ("Iul," "Giul"), meaning a turning wheel (in this instance the sun wheel rising after the winter solstice). A better explanation, however, might be the Anglo-Saxon word "geol" (feast). Since the greatest popular feast in pre-Christian times was the celebration of the winter solstice, the whole month of December was called "geola" (feast month). This name was preserved in the English and German languages, and later applied to the Feast of Christmas: Yule in English, and "Jul" in German.

Merry Christmas

When this greeting was originally used, the word merry did not mean "joyful, hilarious, gay," as it does today. In those days it meant "blessed, peaceful, pleasant," expressing spiritual joys rather than earthly happiness. It was thus used in the famous phrase "Merry England."

The well-known carol "God rest you merry, gentlemen" is an excellent example of the original meaning of "merry." The position of the comma clearly shows the true meaning (that the word is not an adjective describing "gentlemen"), and therefore is not "God rest you, joyful gentlemen," but "God rest you peacefully, gentlemen."

The Vigil of Christmas

The Mass of December 24 is not the original vigil Mass of the feast, but was inserted later, during the fifth century. The actual vigil Mass, following the night service of prayer, was the midnight Mass at St. Mary Major, which is now the first Mass of Christmas Day. Another unusual feature of this Mass is its joyful and festive character. Unlike the other vigils, in which the penitential note is stressed, the Mass of the Christmas vigil is jubilant, filled with holy joy. That the vestments are of penitential color appears almost an incongruity when one studies the Mass text.

The spirit of this joyful and jubilant vigil has asserted itself in the observance of the faithful through all the past centuries. In the countries of central Europe, people just could not see how this day should be as strict and painful a fast as other fast days of penitential character. While gladly keeping abstinence from meat all through the day, they felt justified in reducing the strictness of fasting as to the amount of food. Thus a legitimate custom of "joyful fast" ("jeiunium gaudiosum") was established in such countries for this one day of the year.

Three Masses

A custom that reaches back to the early centuries of Christianity is the celebration of three Masses on the Feast of the Nativity. It was originally reserved to the pope alone, and did not become universal until the end of the first millennium when the papal books of ceremonies had been adopted by the Frankish Church.

The first Mass originally was connected with the vigil service at the chapel of the manger in the church of St. Mary Major in Rome. There Pope Sixtus III (440) had erected an oratory with a manger, which was considered a faithful replica of the crib at Bethlehem. The pope celebrated the Holy Sacrifice about midnight, in the presence of a small crowd, since the chapel could not hold many people.

The public and official celebration of the feast was held on Christmas Day at the church of St. Peter, where immense crowds attended the pope's Mass and received Communion. This was the third Mass as it appears in today's Missals. Under Pope Gregory VII (1085) the place of this Mass was changed from St. Peter's to St. Mary Major, because that church was nearer to the Lateran Palace (where the popes lived).

In the fifth century, the popes started the custom of visiting at dawn, between these two services, the palace church of the Byzantine governor. There they conducted a service in honor of Saint Anastasia, a highly venerated martyr whose body had been transferred from Constantinople about 465 and rested in this church which bore her name. The whole Byzantine colony in Rome gathered at their church on Christmas Day for this solemn visit of the Holy Father. In later centuries, when the power and prestige of the East Roman Empire waned, the popular devotion of Saint Anastasia declined. The Station in her honor was still kept, however, and has been retained in Missals up to the present day. Instead of the original Mass in honor of Saint Anastasia, another Mass of the Nativity was substituted, in which the saint is now merely commemorated. This is the second one of the three Masses on Christmas Day.

As the texts of the Roman Missal show, the first Mass honors the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, the second celebrates His incarnation and birth into the world, the third His birth, through love and grace, in the hearts of men. According to the contents of the respective Gospels, people came to call the first Mass "Angels' Mass," the second "Shepherds' Mass," and the third "Mass of the Divine Word."

There are no special liturgical ceremonies other than the three Masses on Christmas Day. The feast, however, is usually celebrated with great splendor and solemnity in all churches. The color of the liturgical vestments is white, in token of its joyful and consoling character.

Midnight Mass

The first Mass is usually said at midnight on Christmas because of the traditional belief that Christ was born at that hour. There is, of course, no historical evidence to uphold this pious belief, which has its source in the following text from the Book of Wisdom (18, 14-15): "For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from Thy royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction."

As the context shows, these words refer to the slaying of the first-born in Egypt; but the medieval theologians applied it as a prophetical reference to the Incarnation of the Divine Word. A beautiful Latin hymn of the fourth century, "Quando noctis medium," expresses this common belief in our Lord's birth at midnight:

When the midnight, dark and still,
Wrapped in silence vale and hill:
God the Son, through Virgin's birth,
Following the Father's will,
Started life as Man on earth.

In the liturgy of the Church, midnight is not assigned as the official time for the first Mass. It is merely prescribed that it be said in "nocte" (during the night). Hence in some places the first Mass is celebrated before dawn, at four or five in the morning. During earlier centuries (400-1200) the Roman regulations prescribed that the first Mass should be celebrated "ad galli cantum" (when the cock crows), which was about three o'clock in the morning. A relic of this custom is found among the Spanish-speaking people, who even today call the midnight Mass "Misa de Gallo" (Mass of the Cock).

Folklore, Legends

The sacred character of the night from December 24 to 25 has been acknowledged from ancient times by the term "Holy Night." Popular traditions of the Middle Ages ascribed to this night a hallowed and mysterious note of celebration and wondrous goodness. A spirit of peace and adoration was thought to prevail over the whole world, and nature was pictured as taking part in this joyful observance. Many of these legends are still alive today and form a charming part of the folklore of Christmas.

The cattle in the stables fall on their knees at midnight on Christmas; so do the deer in the forest. The bees awake from sleep and hum a beautiful symphony of praise to the Divine Child; but only those can hear it who are dear to the Lord. The birds sing all night at Christmas; their voices become sweeter and more melodious, and even the sparrows sing like nightingales. In the Orient there is a legend that during Holy Night all trees and plants, especially those on the banks of the Jordan, bow in reverence toward Bethlehem.

On Christmas Eve the water in wells and fountains is blessed by God with great healing powers and heavenly sweetness. Mysterious bells are heard pealing joyfully from the depths of deserted mines, and cheerful lights may be seen blinking at the bottom of lonely shafts and caves. Other legends tell of how animals talk like humans at midnight. Their favorite language seemed to be Latin. In an old French mystery play the cock crows with a piercing voice, "Christus natus est" (Christ is born); the ox moos, "Ubi?" (Where?); the lamb answers, "Bethlehem"; and the ass brays, "Eamus!" (Let us go!). In central Europe the animals in the stable are said to gossip about the public and hidden faults of those who listen in on their conversation.

One of the oldest Christian legends is the charming story related by Saint Gregory of Tours (594) in his Libri Miraculorum (Book of Miracles) concerning the well of the Magi near Bethlehem. The people of Bethlehem made a practice of going there during Christmas week, bending over the opening of the well, and covering themselves and the opening with blankets or cloaks to shut out the light of day. Then, as they peered into the dark well, the star of Bethlehem, according to this pious legend, could be seen moving slowly across the water — but only by those who were pure of heart.

Another legend inspired the popular belief that the power of malignant spirits, of ghosts and witches, was entirely suspended during the Christmas season. The mystical presence of the Christ Child made them powerless; no harm could be done to men or beasts or homes. Shakespeare has made this legend immortal by these familiar lines from Act I, Scene 1 of Hamlet:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, no witch has power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

It was an old and comforting belief that the gates of Paradise were open on Christmas at midnight, so that any person dying at that hour could enter Heaven at once. Another legend considered every child born on Christmas especially blessed and fortunate. In addition to other gifts and privileges, such children were said to have the power of seeing spirits, and even of commanding them.

There is the lovely medieval legend of the "Christmas angel" Every year — so the story goes — the Blessed Virgin Mary selects a number of angels and sends them out from Heaven into various parts of the world. Each angel awakens a little child from its first sleep and carries it to Paradise to sing a carol to the Christ Child. When the children afterward tell of their beautiful errand, some people will say it was just a dream; but those who know better will assure you that these children are chosen by God to be blessed with unusual favors.

Christmas Eve

In many European countries, especially in central and northern Europe, the family celebration takes place on the evening of December 24. The common features of this celebration are a festive meal in the evening, at which, besides various native dishes, fish is the main fare, because, according to canon law, Christmas Eve is a day of fast and abstinence among all Catholic populations. Later in the evening the family gathers to enter the festively decorated room where the Christmas tree and the presents are ready. The small children believe that the Christ Child, accompanied by angels, has decorated the tree and brought the gifts. A sign is given with a little bell, the doors fly open, and the whole family enters the room. Standing or kneeling in front of the Christmas crib, which is usually set up under the tree, they pray and sing Christmas hymns. Then they wish each other a blessed feast and proceed to open their gift packages.

The Slavic people, and also the Lithuanians, have a touching and impressive custom which resembles the "Agape" (love meal) of the early Christians in apostolic times. At the beginning of the "Digilia" (the meatless Christmas Eve dinner) the father of the family solemnly breaks wafers ("O platki") and distributes them, kissing each member of the household and wishing them a joyful feast. In many places these wafers are blessed beforehand by the priest.

Another custom practiced among the Slavic people and other nations of Europe (among them Hungarians and Lithuanians) is the placing of straw under the tablecloth and the bedding of small children on straw or hay during Holy Night, in memory of the Lord's reclining on straw and hay in the manger.

A very old and practical tradition made it obligatory on Christmas Eve to see that the house was thoroughly cleaned, all borrowed articles returned, all tools laid aside, no lint allowed "to remain on rock or wheel," no unfinished work exposed to sight, and no task started that could not be finished by nightfall.

It was a widespread practice to be especially kind to animals at Christmas and to allow them to share in the joy of the feast. This tradition is still alive in northern and central Europe and in Scandinavia. People put out sheafs of grain for the birds and give their farm animals extra fodder on Christmas Eve. This custom was begun by Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). He admonished the farmers to give their oxen and asses extra corn and hay at Christmas, "for reverence of the Son of God, whom on such a night the blessed Virgin Mary did lay down in the stall between the ox and the ass." All creation, said he, should rejoice at Christmas, and the dumb creatures had no other means of doing so than by enjoying more comfort and better food. "If I could see the Emperor," he said, "I would implore him to issue a general decree that all people who are able to do so, shall throw grain and corn upon the streets, so that on this great feast day the birds might have enough to eat, especially our sisters, the larks."

Holy Night

An inspiring and colorful sight are the Christmas fires burned on the peaks of the Alps. Like flaming stars they hang in the dark heavens during Holy Night, burning brightly, as the farmers from around the mountainsides walk through the winter night down into the valley for midnight Mass. Each person carries a lantern, swinging it to and fro; the night seems alive with hundreds of glowworms converging toward the great light at the foot of the mountain — the parish church.

In some sections of England, Ireland, and Scotland, a quaint and unusually interesting custom was practiced in medieval times. One hour before midnight the big bell of the church would begin to toll its slow and solemn message of mourning, and it would thus continue for the whole hour, as if tolling for a funeral. But at the moment of midnight, just as the clock struck twelve, all the bells would suddenly ring out in a merry peal of Christmas joy. This tolling from eleven to twelve was called "the Devil's funeral," for according to the old legend, the Devil died when Christ was born.

Another custom connected with midnight Mass is the ringing of church bells during the solemn service of Vespers, which is held in many places directly before the midnight service. In America, chimes and carillons accompany or replace the bells in many churches, ringing out the tunes of familiar carols, especially the joyous invitation "O come, all ye faithful."

In Austria, Bavaria, and other countries of central Europe, carols are played from the church towers before midnight Mass; the tunes of traditional Christmas songs ring out through the stillness of the winter night, clear and peaceful, creating an unforgettable impression. In the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the statue of the Divine Child is placed on the altar after the first Mass and then carried in procession to the crypt, where it is laid on the silver star that marks what is believed to be the actual spot of the Lord's birth. The Gospel of Saint Luke is sung, and when the deacon comes to the words "she laid him in a manger," the statue is lifted from the floor and placed in the rock-hewn crib next to the star. A similar custom used to be observed in sections of central Europe, where the figure of the Christ Child was solemnly placed in the crib after the first Mass, while the people in church sang their ancient carols.

Among the French people it is an old custom to hold a joyful family gathering and a traditional meal ("reveillon") directly after midnight Mass. In Spain people promenade on the streets after the midnight Mass with torches, tambourines, and guitars, singing and greeting each other.

© Robert Moynihan

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