By Henrylito D. Tacio
The origin of Christmas differs as the precise date of the birth and historicity of Jesus are much debated. Christmas, literally meaning the Mass of Christ, is a traditional holiday in the Christian calendar.
It is referred that during the 4th century, the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 was gradually adopted by most Eastern churches. In Jerusalem, opposition to Christmas lasted longer as according to them the exact date of birth of Jesus Christ is unknown. It is said that December 17-24th was the period of Saturnalia, a well-known festival in pagan, Rome. December 25th was the birthday of Mithra, the Iranian god of light. This day was adopted by the church as Christmas to counteract the effects of these festivals.
Today, Christmas has turned out to be one of the most popular festivals that fill joy, happiness and love in people’s life. The festival of Christmas has absorbed various customs and traditions of world and 25th December has emerged as the most important day for Christians, irrespective of its roots. It is taken as a day that reflects the power, glory and salvation of Jesus Christ and his message of hope to the world.
In the Philippines, Christmas would not be complete without those season’s symbols and decorations. Some of them were copied from other countries, although there are some that are truly Filipinos.
Almost every Christmas season, Filipino homes and buildings are adorned with beautiful star lanterns, called parol (from the Spanish word “farol,” which means lantern or lamp. Parol reminds the Filipino Christians of the star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Wise Men (or Tatlong Hari as they call them) on their way in search of Baby Jesus.
The earliest parols were traditionally made from simple materials like bamboo sticks, Japanese rice paper (known as papel de Hapon) or crepe paper, and a candle or coconut oil-lamp for illumination; although the present day parol can take many different shapes and forms.
As early as November, parols are hang on windows or door of every Filipino homes, offices, schools, shopping malls and even streets are adorned with these multi-colored lanterns. You will even find mini parols hanging on buses and jeepneys and cars.
The most spectacular exhibition and parade of parol is held every year in San Fernando Pampanga, famous for the most unique star lanterns in shapes, colors and sizes made from all kinds of material. The town becomes the center of Christmas activities, every year spectators get to marvel the amazing lights of the giant lanterns.
Another traditional Filipino Christmas symbol is the belen (also called a crib or manger in the United Kingdom and crèche in France). A tableau representing the Nativity scene, it depicts the infant Jesus Christ in the manger, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the shepherds, their flock, the three Wise Men and some stable animals and angels. Belens can be seen in homes, churches, schools and even office buildings.
This traditional Christmas decoration combines two different events in the Gospels. The first one was when the shepherds are informed by angels that “for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Matthew 2:10-11). The second was “when [the Wise Men] saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him” (Luke 2:11).
Tarlac, known as the “Belen Capital of the Philippines” holds the annual “Belenismo sa Tarlac.” It is a belen making contest which is participated by establishments and residents in Tarlac. Giant belens with different themes are displayed in front of the establishments and roads of Tarlac for the rest of the Christmas season.
The story of the origin of the Christmas belen rests with the very holy man, St. Francis of Assisi. In the year 1223, St. Francis, a deacon, was visiting the town of Grecio to celebrate Christmas. Grecio was a small town built on a mountainside overlooking a beautiful valley. The people had cultivated the fertile area with vineyards. St. Francis realized that the chapel of the Franciscan hermitage would be too small to hold the congregation for Midnight Mass. So he found a niche in the rock near the town square and set up the altar, which became the first Nativity scene.
One very popular Christmas decorations is the poinsettia. In nature, poinsettias are perennial flowering shrubs that can grow to ten feet tall. The showy colored parts of poinsettias that most people think are the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves). The flowers of the poinsettia are in the center of the colorful bracts.
All over the world, it is known as a flower that symbolizes Christmas, the day when Jesus Christ was born. Its association with the Nativity happened in Mexico during the 16th century. According to a legend, a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday was told by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson “blossoms” sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.
Another legend has it that the poinsettia became associated with Christmas because the Mexicans regarded it as symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem. From the 17th century, Franciscan monks in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.
The name “poinsettia” is named after Joel Robert Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the United States in 1825. Scientifically, it is known as Euphorbia pulcherrima.
A Christmas without the Christmas tree is incoherent. The fragrance and essence of the Christmas trees have been an integral part of the celebrations as well as of the family unit since time immemorial. Gifts are placed under the tree, as family and friends gather around to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Many legends exist about the origin of the Christmas tree. One is the story of Saint Boniface, an English monk who organized the Christian Church in France and Germany. One day, as he traveled about, he came upon a group of pagans gathered around a great oak tree about to sacrifice a child to the god Thor. To stop the sacrifice and save the child’s life Boniface felled the tree with one mighty blow of his fist. In its place grew a small fir tree. The saint told the pagan worshipers that the tiny fir was the Tree of Life and stood the eternal life of Christ.
Another legend holds that Martin Luther, a founder of the Protestant faith, was walking through the forest one Christmas Eve. As he walked he was awed by the beauty of millions of stars glimmering through the branches of the evergreen trees. So taken was he by this beautiful sight that he cut a small tree and took it home to his family. To recreate that same starlight beauty he saw in the wood, he placed candles on all its branches.
Perhaps the most popular symbol of Christmas is Santa Claus. On Christmas eve, he rides in his flying sleigh, pulled by reindeer from house to house to give presents to children. During the rest of the year he lives at the North Pole. The names of his reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph, “the red-nosed reindeer,” has featured in many modern aspects of the Santa Claus myth.
The modern Santa Claus is a composite character made up from the merging of two quite separate figures. The first of these is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a bishop of Byzantine Anatolia, now in modern day Turkey famous for his generous gifts to the poor. The second character is Father Christmas, which remains the British name for Santa Claus. Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain, and pictures of him survive from that era, portraying him as a well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe.
The modern depiction of Santa Claus as a fat, jolly man wearing a red coat and trousers with white cuffs and collar, and black leather belt and boots, became popular in the United States in the 19th century due to the significant influence of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Christmas is not Christmas without these decorations and symbols. — ###