Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Decorations

 Once again SPPC is decked out in wreaths and poinsettias, lights and a Christmas tree.  We have Jean Strong and Pat Aumonier to thank for spearheading this annual transformation of the sanctuary.  Although they have helpers, these two ladies spend many, many hours creating the trimmings we all enjoy.

     Looking at the decorations I began to ponder their symbolism.  While some modern ornaments owe more to Disney than to the Nativity, the oldest of our symbols do carry Christian messages.

The Christmas tree represents life (green) in the darkness of winter and its shape points us toward heaven and Christ.  Another story about the Christmas tree concerns St. Boniface (circa 722 AD) who stopped a child from becoming a human sacrifice to a pagan god, by striking down the oak tree that was to the stake where the child would die.  A fir tree sprang up in its place and St. Boniface declared it a holy tree.  He then told the faithful to carry one to their homes and surround it with love and gifts. 
    The Christmas tree  as we now know it comes from Germany, where Martin Luther is said to have been so awed by the brilliance of stars on a winter evening that he brought an evergreen tree into his main room and decorated it with lighted candles to recreate the scene outside for his children. 
    In 1521 Princess Helene de Mecklembourg brought a Christmas tree with her to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans.  Parisians were so delighted with the custom that the area of Alsace started to run out of pine trees and a law was enacted to limit their use to one per house.
The circle of the wreath, represents God's eternity. Already a part of English folklore, holly with its sharply pointed leaves, was adopted by the early church as a symbol of the crown-of-thorns. The red berries depict the drops of Christ's blood. The tradition of hanging a holly wreath on the door at Christmas began during the 17th Century and signified a home that celebrated the birth of Christ.

Even the candy cane, is symbolic of the first Christmas.  Its shape is that of a shepherd's crook and reminds us that the shepherds were the first to hear the news of Christ's birth.

Candles, like Christ, bring light into a dark world, but they have a special history in Ireland. During the early part of the 17th century, Catholicism was persecuted by Protestant rulers from England, yet the people of Ireland clung to their religion.  Many Catholic priests were expelled from the country or executed, but those who remained travelled in secret to celebrate the mass in homes at night.  At Christmas time, a candle in the window was a signal that welcomed the priest.

The star shape of Poinsettias points to the Star of Bethlehem and their red colour is the colour of sacrifice.

   You may be surprised to know that the Presbyterian church has not always welcomed Christmas decorations within the sanctuary. John Knox, a strict reformer, regarded all such festivities as pagan or popish.  "All worshipping, honouring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own express commandment, is idolatry," wrote Knox. 
    When Cromwell ruled in England, there was a determined attempt to remove Christmas from both religious and secular life. In 1645 a group of ministers was appointed by the British Parliament to produce a new Directory of Public Worship.  The resulting document decreed a strict observance of  Sundays as holy days for the worship of God but all other festivals, or Holy Days, including Christmas, Easter and Whitsun were eliminated.

   This ordinance was not popular and there are reports of violent confrontations when government tried to force shops and businesses to remain open on Dec. 25.  After the Restoration, all the legislation of the Cromwell period was declared null and void. Christmas was once again celebrated both in public and in private, within the church and on the street.  In Scotland, however, the influence of John Knox was so strong that Christmas did not become a public holiday until 1958.
   How ironic that Christmas was once banned for being un-Christian and today is under attack for being too Christian!  
In any case, the decorations in our church are lovely and filled with meaning.  Let's enjoy them and say thank you to the decorators for their faithful service. 


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