On Nativity Traditions
Nov 13, 2011
Here we offer two brief reflections by Hieromonk Ambrose (Young), chaplain of the Entrance of the Theotokos Skete in Hayesville OH, which provide thoughtful guidance and encouragement on various Nativity traditions and customs, which can be especially helpful for families with young children.
On Santa Claus:
There are many fine old customs surrounding the Feast of the Nativity of Christ among all Orthodox peoples—Greeks, Russians, Serbs, etc. Here I won’t discuss any of them because they are already well known among our ethnic Orthodox brothers and sisters. But it’s important for converts and the younger generation to learn about these old world cultural customs—which are also carriers or vessels of truth and grace—and practice them in their own homes, passing them on to our own children.
Here in the non-Orthodox West, however, some strange Christmas customs, which have no root whatsoever in either Orthodoxy or even in traditional Christianity, have been adopted willy-nilly by many Orthodox.
The most serious of these is Santa Claus.
To many this seems quite harmless. However, once we realize two things about “Santa” it will be easier for us to turn away from such actually dangerous nonsense. First, this is a creation of 19th century American advertising and the mercantile industry. It is intended to feed our voracious desire for material things, and especially encourage this among our children. This (our greed for material things) is a passion that’s way out of control in the West and has helped to bring about the collapse of our economy, not to mention the spiritual harm it brings to souls, particularly the innocent souls of our children. Many families go deeply into debt at this time of year, buying toys and other gadgets that their children actually don’t really need, anyway.
Secondly, Santa Claus is a corruption of St. Nicholas, a very great and holy Orthodox saint. Santa is a caricature of this holy bishop, and this subconsciously teaches disrespect for the saints. In Orthodox countries such as Russia, there was always such a great reverence for the saints of God, that this Western perversion never found a welcome there. Instead, Russians had their own age-old legend of Grandfather Frost, a non-religious figure associated only with nature and the winter season.
The very idea of transforming a passionless and unmercenary saint into a passionate old (married!) man, who keeps lists of good and bad boys and generously gives out presents at Christmas, is unacceptable to the Orthodox conscience. This has made it possible for a blasphemous shift to occur from the spiritual meaning of the Birth of Christ to gift-giving and receiving. You think not?
Some years ago I happened to see a film about the late Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Archdiocese. He was speaking about the Feast of Nativity to young children, reminiscing about his youth in Greece. He explained that when he was young, there was no Santa Claus and no gifts were given at or even associated with Christmas! It was kept entirely as a spiritual feast of great and radiant joy, together with the welcome breaking of the Nativity Fast. Gifts, he said, were given on St. Basil’s Day (January 1), but even then only very minimally. The emphasis was thus kept on the Christ and the meaning of His Incarnation throughout these days.
With my own children, my late wife and I never taught them about Santa Claus. It wasn’t until our youngest daughter came home from first grade one day and, hands on her little hips, angrily demanded why we hadn’t told her about Santa Claus! When we explained that Santa isn’t real, and not really Orthodox, she refused to believe us. Such is the power of peer pressure, dear parents!!
This doesn't mean that it's wrong to give gifts at Christmas, so long as the gift exchange is moderate and affordable, and as long as the divine services for the Feast--in particular the Great Compline of Christmas Eve and Divine Liturgy on Nativity morning are not overshadowed. Making children wait until after Liturgy before the exchange of presents is a very healthy thing to do and teaches the discipline of delayed gratification (some many of our children have never learned, because their parents never learned it, either).
However, not all Western Advent and Christmas customs are unacceptable to us as Orthodox Christians. Some are quite acceptable, and I will speak about these in the next reflection, particularly the Christmas Tree and the Advent Wreath.
On Advent Wreaths and Christmas Trees
Unlike the Great Fast of Lent before Pascha, which is penitential, quiet, and sober, the season before the Nativity of Christ, called Advent in the West, is one of joyous expectation in the Orthodox tradition.
For that reason, it is appropriate for us to express our joy in even very childlike ways, adopting and adapting, as many Orthodox have, the Western Christmas Tree and/or the Advent Wreath and other decorations. A few words about each of these customs below.
The Christmas Tree has already been given a warm welcome in Greece and Russia and other Orthodox countries, and it is commonly to be seen among Orthodox in the West, too. Because there are some sectarians who view the Christmas Tree as a pagan emblem (the “yule log”), it’s worth saying a bit about the origin of this custom.
According to accounts associated with the first missionary to the German lands, St. Boniface, he found among the Germanic tribes the worship of trees. He took this pagan custom and “baptized” it, decorating trees with candles at the time of Christ’s Nativity, explaining to the pagans that when Christ was born the trees of the world rejoiced, knowing that one of them would be chosen eventually to be the wood of the Cross, and, as a sign of rejoicing, those trees burst into light.
Fr. Daniel Daly (quoted on the Orthodox “Mystogogy” blog), suggests that the origins of the Christmas Tree may actually be later. “In the Middle Ages [in the West] liturgical plays or dramas were presented during or sometimes immediately after the services in the churches of Western Europe,” he writes. “The plays were presented on the porches of large churches.…One mystery play was presented on Christmas Eve, the day which also commemorated the feast of Adam and Eve in the Western Church. The ‘Paradise Play’ told the well-known story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. The central ‘prop’ in the play was the Paradise Tree, or Tree of Knowledge. During the play this tree was brought in, laden with apples. ”The Paradise Tree became very popular with the German people. They soon began the practice of setting up a fir tree in their homes…Our Christmas Tree is derived, not from the pagan yule tree, but from the paradise tree adorned with apples on December 24 in honor of Adam and Eve. [Thus] the Christmas tree is completely biblical in origin.”
Sometimes, however, Christmas Trees are put up very prematurely, and this once again reflects the mercantile/advertising pressures of the “Christmas Buying Season.” It should be resisted. Some time later in December is fine—but some Orthodox wait until Christmas Eve, actually—but not too early and certainly not as a reaction to the consumer culture around us. When the Tree is erected at home, its origins and meaning should be carefully explained each year to our children. It is common in America for the exterior of homes to be adorned with Christmas lights, and there are in some cities actually competitions for the “best”, the “brightest” and the “largest” display. This is not appropriate for Christians, and especially it is not appropriate to have Santa Claus, etc., on the front lawn. But to have some modest draping of lights, or even a manger scene in the front yard, is quite acceptable.
One of the sad things I’ve noticed over the years is that Christmas Trees go up in many homes immediately after Thanksgiving, and by Christmas people are tired of them, and so they often come down the day after Christmas. But for us Orthodox, the days after Christmas are what is called the “Afterfeast”—a time of continued great joy and participation in the mystery of the Incarnation (this became the famous Twelve Days of Christmas in the West). So, regardless of when one’s Tree goes up, it should not be hastily disposed of in the trash can in the alley on December 26.
The Advent Wreath also has a Western origin, but is much less well known among ethnic Orthodox than the Christmas Tree. Still, it is a fine Christian custom that any Orthodox family can make their own if they wish.
The wreath is made of evergreen boughs which, formed into an open circle, symbolize eternity and the immortality of the soul. The evergreens also remind us that our Holy Faith is “evergreen,” always new, always renewing itself, always fresh and sweet. Some families add holly to the wreath because its prickly leaves remind of the Crown of Thorns, which the Child Jesus has been worn to wear instead of a royal diadem of gold.
On this wreath are placed purple candles (four in the Western Advent Tradition, one for each Sunday before Christmas; but since in Orthodoxy we have five Sundays, therefore five purple candles are placed). The color purple symbolizes two things: the approaching of our Royal Child-King (purple being a color reserved to royalty in the old days) and the sober preparation of this fasting season. Each Sunday another candle is lit—usually at the family dinner—until they have all been lit on the last Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity.
In the open center of the wreath is a single pure white candle, which represents Christ Himself (some say it represents the virginal purity of the Theotokos), and this is lit on Christmas Eve. This is a fine custom, especially for children, as it helps them to mark the passing of the Nativity Fast.
Some Orthodox parents have also found ways to make use of the widely known “Advent Calendar”—another way in which our children are taught to mark the passing time of this holy season.
These are among the ways in which we can consciously sanctify the Nativity Fast, claiming this season back from the materialistic consumer culture in which we live.