Which Christmas traditions have religious roots?

By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal

Jean Strange, Jean Kirk, and Jean Hill of Tupelo’s First United Methodist Church had their hands full Thursday morning with the decoration of the church’s Chrismon tree. The tree commemorates the start of the Advent season, the Christian new year beginning Sunday, four weeks before the birth of Christ.
From the ground, Strange and Kirk passed ornaments up to Hill, who placed them from atop a ladder. Some were familiar – an alpha and omega, a shepherd’s crook – but others seemed obscure, indecipherable.
“We do this every year,” Hill said. “It’s tradition.”
With all the elves, nut crackers, and reindeer, it can be difficult to discern which traditions and symbols have their roots in the church. The Chrismon tree itself is a melding of secular and Christian traditions. The word “Chrismon” is a combination of the words “Christ” and “monogram,” meaning the ornaments are very specific signs from Christianity’s meaning and history.
Church-goers may recognize the letters “IHS,” which come from the Greek letters iota, eta, and sigma, the first three letters of “Jesus” in Greek. A letter P with an X across its stem are also Greek letters chi and rho, the first two characters of “Christ.”
Ornaments portraying fish recall the miracle in which Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish.
An orb under a cross symbolizes the Lord’s dominion over earth.
“It’s a fun lesson for the kids to learn what the symbols mean,” Strange said.
Those who grow up in Methodist, Episcopal and Catholic congregations are familiar with the Advent wreath. Four Sundays before Christmas – on Advent Sunday – the first of five candles are lit, and another each Sunday until the Sunday before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the final candle is lit.
“The Advent wreath is certainly a church tradition. Three of the candles are purple, which represent Christ’s royalty and passion, one candle is pink, representing joy, and the fifth candle – the Christ candle – is white and represents the coming of the King,” said Jim Curtis, senior pastor at First Methodist.
“The idea is that the light grows brighter closer to Christmas,” Curtis said. “The Advent season is one of anticipation.”
Other familiar symbols include evergreen plants, such as holly, to represent eternal life and the constant nature of God. Bells represent joyful noise and anticipation. The dove is a Biblical symbol of the divine spirit that visited Mary prior to Jesus’ birth. Wreaths represent eternity.
Curtis said despite the fact the Christmas season seems to commence earlier and earlier each year, Advent was originally a very somber time.
“In the early church it was observed like Lent, very penitential and reflective, a time to get your mind right for the coming of Christ,” he said.
“The Christmas season, as celebrated by the secular community, actually starts on Christmas day in the church.”
The Rev. Paul Stevens, of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, said Advent, for Christians, means looking in all directions. “Advent” comes from Greek, meaning “coming.”
“As a Christian, you’re standing in the present, looking back to the incarnation and preparing for it, while also looking forward to the second coming and its glory,” he said.
At All Saints’, he said, small figurines – called “kresh” – of the nativity scene’s characters are added to a display incrementally as Christmas approaches. Starting with the stable, Joseph and Mary are placed, followed by Jesus and completed by three Magi.
Even the hymns typically sung in the Advent season are expectant, such as “O Come Emmanuel” and “Prepare the Way O Zion.”
“These symbols point us to something,” Stevens said. “But they mean nothing if we don’t take the time to go deeper and use this time of year to comprehend truly what it meant for God’s son to be born among us.”
Looking back to the first Christmas, Stevens said the Jewish people lived under the thumb of Roman control. Many lived in small villages, and had to work very hard just to exist.
“The People of Israel were looking for a new king, and instead of one with armor and a sword, they got a different kind. It took them a while to process that,” he said.
In Roman society, Jews were up against a harsh caste system, and the moral compass of their religious leaders was decaying severely, while John the Baptist was paving the way for Jesus, preaching about his coming.
“The tension builds during Advent as we wait for Christ to come. That tension hasn’t gone away even in the secular Christmas, when kids in school are stressing over final exams and parents are frantic to get the shopping done,” he said. “If I had to boil down the message for the Advent season, it would be ‘slow down.’”
riley.manning@journalinc.com