Incarnation Cycle

Christmas: Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part II)

May 11, 2007


Read Part I of this 2-part article.

The Environment of Christmas

    Liturgical Color

The liturgical color of Christmas is white, not red or green or a combination of the two.  White, of course, may always be enhanced with silver and gold or derivative colors.  It is important to remember that liturgical vestments, as well as paraments, derive their meaning from their shape and their color and not from the secondary symbols, which on occasion are applied.  Secondary symbols hide primary symbols.  It is advisable to concentrate on primary symbols.

    The Manger

Historical Roots and Theological Interpretation.  Although Saint Francis is often credited with the popularization of the Christmas manger, the custom of erecting some form of a manger far predates this saint.  The Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome already had a chapel of the crib by the fifth century with a representation of the scene of Jesus' birth as described in the gospels and visualized by artists.  The custom of re-enacting the birth of Jesus with live mangers has its origin in eleventh century Christmas plays.

What Saint Francis did was for time eternal interpret this custom in a theological manner.  To see the child in the crib allowed him to meditate on the mystery of God becoming human: to see with human eyes, to hear with human ears, to love and to feel the pain of the heart, as well as bodily pain.

The baby in the crib and the suffering servant on the cross were two images that never left Francis' mind and became very important to the spirituality of the people across Europe: God became human, suffered and died for the salvation of the world.

After the death of Francis, crib-making became very popular throughout Europe and eventually throughout the world.  Christmas scenes, mangers, and creches now bear the cultural and ethnic marks of many different peoples.

The Appearance of the Manger.  It is important to remember than any element of the liturgical environment should serve worship and not make worship an occasion to showcase environment.  Any environment that draws attention to itself and away from the celebration is inappropriate for worship.

Thus, if a church decides to erect a manger, it should be done in such a way that it does not obstruct, obscure or detract from worship.  It might be best to erect the manger outside or in a place suitable for visitation and meditation on the mystery that the crib many inspire, away from the central worship area.

When selecting a manger set, this may be an occasion to reach beyond one's own cultural and ethnic barriers.  Saint Francis would undoubtedly have preferred live animals and life-size images; however, today, it might be more practical and eye-opening to have a manger made in a country other than one's own to assist the congregation in understanding the importance of the Incarnation of God into the entirety of the human family for the salvation of the world.

The Ritual Use of the Manger.  Although it may not be the custom of many communities to engage the manger ritually in the celebration of Christmas, there might be some virtue in doing so.  Of course, one would not want to arrive at some of the Medieval (and contemporary) customs where during the liturgy the image of the baby Jesus slides down from heaven on a wire and lands in the crib.  Still, one might consider a procession to the crib during one of the Christmas liturgies, where a blessing or other prayer is spoken.

    The Christmas Tree

Historical Roots and Theological Interpretation.   There are reports that ancient Romans decorated trees with small pieces of polished metal during Saturnalia, a winter festival in honor of the god of agriculture, Saturnus.

During the Middle Ages, on the Eve of Christmas -- the day on which Adam and Eve were commemorated with mystical plays -- an evergreen was decorated with apples, symbolizing the tree of Paradise.

It is believed that Martin Luther was the first to introduce a tree decorated with candles into the home.  He is said to have been inspired to do this by the star-filled sky that he encountered during a walk through the woods on a clear winter night.

By the 19th century, the custom of decorating a tree in the homes of Christians had become very popular in the Western hemisphere.  Today, some 35 million Christmas trees are sold yearly, in the United States alone.  And although many of them make their way into private homes, many are used to decorate public places or they become an integral part of the Christmas environment of many churches.

The Appearance of the Christmas Tree.  Placed either outside or inside the church, a lit Christmas tree is a wonderful symbol of the tree of life and light, the tree of Paradise.  It brings joy to people's hearts as they indulge in feelings of nostalgia, and it invites people to look toward the future when the promise of eternal life and undying light will be fulfilled.

The tree or trees should be chosen to match the dimensions of the church.  Rather than placing them in the sanctuary alone, they should be placed throughout the church, emphasizing that the entire people of God celebrate, not just the ministers.

Trees, if at all possible, should be real so they touch all the human senses.  Environment committees should show restraint in the decoration of the trees.  A Christmas tree for the use of the church should not be made to look like its competition in the local mall, or even in our homes.  Simplicity and dignity are two wonderful virtues to be exercised when engaging in any type of environment for worship.

As is the case with all liturgical decor, the Christmas tree should not obscure or hinder the visual and acoustical celebration of the liturgy.  One may want gradually to add trees and evergreens to the liturgical environment throughout the Incarnation cycle, starting on the second Sunday of Advent and ending with Epiphany.

    The Christmas Wreath

As a way of emphasizing the unity of the season, the wreath that has indicated the time of preparation and anticipation by marking every Sunday of Advent may be retained throughout the rest of the Incarnation cycle.  Make sure the greens are still fresh; if necessary, replace them with new greens.  Some color may be added to the wreath by incorporating poinsettias into the wreath.  If purple and rose candles were used for the Advent wreath, they may be replaced with white candles for the Christmas season, which can be lit throughout the season. 

Since there is no prescribed ritual use of the Christmas wreath, it does not make any sense to continue the practice of beginning the liturgy beneath the wreath.  However, a community may consider the possibility of proclaiming the Gospel during the season under the wreath, in the midst of the assembly.

    Flowers for Christmas

The red poinsettia is undoubtedly the premier flower to be used for Christmas.  Although some might yearn for the opportunity to replace the poinsettia with a less traditional flower, certain flowers, like music and colors, are associated with certain liturgical seasons.

Historical Roots and Theological Interpretation of the Use of Poinsettias.  The origin of the custom of using poinsettias for Christmas lies in 17th century Mexico.  According to a legend, a boy named Pablo was on his way to the parish church to visit the nativity set.  As he got closer, he realized that he had not brought any gifts for the baby Jesus, which was the custom.  Hurriedly, he picked some branches along the roadside and placed these by the crib.  As his friends mocked the poor selection of gift, the green branches sprouted brilliant-red star-shaped flowers.

The red of the flowers is seen to symbolize God's love for the world, sealed in the red blood of Jesus spilled for the salvation of the world on the cross.  Poinsettias, therefore, point to the fact that the manger also holds the promise of death, albeit salvific death.  For this same reason, some nativity sets picture the crib where the baby Jesus is laid in the shape of a tomb or coffin.

The Placement of Flowers.  Environment committees are often tempted to use more flowers, rather than less.  Thus, in many churches, one will find a sanctuary filled with poinsettias and ministers trying gracefully (or not) to maneuver around them during services.  Worship is better served with creative placement of fewer poinsettias throughout the entire church.  Not only does this facilitate movement around the liturgical furnishings, it also emphasizes the fact that the entire worship space is the sanctuary where the Body of Christ celebrates.

    Beyond the Traditional Christmas Environment 

Different nations, cultural and ethnic groups observe vastly different customs to mark Christmas.  It is good for any one of these to look beyond themselves and to learn from other cultures.  This will both enrich local celebrations and help break down any barriers that might exist.

For example, although Christmas is not generally observed as a religious holiday in Japan, the custom to decorate trees at that time does exist.  The Japanese use origami cranes for that purpose.  As the crane is a symbol of life, the tree decorated with cranes becomes a tree of life.  Imagine mobiles, suspended from the ceiling covered with 1,000 cranes folded by the children of the parish.  Or, in lieu of cranes, the children may be invited to fold origami stars and decorate them tastefully with silver and gold glitter (something even the smallest children can do).  These, too, can be made into giant mobiles.  In either and all cases, restraint is needed.  It is very easy to go overboard in all of this.  Always remember the simple motto of simple elegance.

Johan van Parys is the Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, MN.


Advent: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I and Part II)
Christmas: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I)
Epiphany: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Solemnity (Part I and Part II)
Lectio Divina -- Visio Divina
On Becoming the Paschal Mystery (Part I, Part II, and Part III)
The Fundamental Virtues of Liturgical Architecture
Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
We Are the Body of Christ

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