Standing Up of the Christ Child

One of the most delightful of Christmas observances comes from the Andes of Venezuela. 

In the city of Mérida a fascinating local custom is the La Paradura del Niño or The Standing Up of the Christ Child. Here the Nativity scenes in homes are particularly cherished; some are table-top size, some are room-size with all of Bethlehem portrayed in the Venezuelan context  — the landscape is mountainous and divided by rivers. The figures often look like local people. On Christmas Eve the Holy Family is placed in the scene with the Wise Men nearby and moving closer daily. On New Year’s Day the tradition dictates that the baby Jesus must be moved to an upright position and stay there until Candelaria (February 2). If a friend or neighbour sees this is not done the baby may be kidnapped and the family who neglected their duty must hold a parandura party for the kidnappers and friends.

This consists of choosing godparents for the Niño — they will not only bring home the baby in a basket or handkerchief but arrange for the musicians, candles, fireworks, and refreshments. The procession consists of first of fireworks boys, followed by the musicians who will be mute until the baby is found, a pair of teens as Mary and Joseph, children as shepherds singing a carol about searching for the baby and, lastly,  the godparents. When the candle-lit procession gets to the house where the baby is stored, it is handed over to the kerchief and its god-parents and the joyous music breaks out. All march home joyfully where the party awaits after the baby is replaced standing up. Little kids may offer a poem of welcome, women will say the rosary and then all eat, dance and drink until dawn.

Nuts

 

A symbol of fruitfulness long associated with midwinter festivals. During the early Roman empire the poet Marcus Valerius Martialis sent a present of them to a fellow-writer saying, “From my small garden, behold, eloquent Juvenal, I send you Saturnalian nuts. The rest of the fruit the rakish Garden God has bestowed on frolicking girls.” Romans believed each type of nut to be possessed of a special virtue: almonds were an antidote to drunkenness; walnuts counteracted poisons; hazelnuts prevented famine.

Christmas-time in many countries sees bowls of nuts on the table and nuts used in desserts. They are an indispensable part of the Thriteen Desserts of Provence; St Nicholas and his helpers throw them to children or put them with apples in their shoes. Boys and girls throw walnuts at each other in Poland on St Stephen’s Day and in other parts of eastern Europe nuts are thrown into corners of the house for good luck. Walnuts are a necessary component to the Bulgarian Christmas meal. Each member of the family cracks one in order to determine their fate for the next year. If the walnut is a good one, it is said that the year will be successful. Bad luck is predicted for the person who cracks a bad walnut. North American crooners sing of “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..” and nuts have long been used as edible decorations on Christmas trees.

The Passions of Carol

Not everything to do with Christmas is edifying or spiritually uplifting. Sometimes bad people try to cash in on the holiday for mercenary or subversive purposes. The results often are not pretty. Consider, for example:

There have been many variations on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: it has been set in London, in the American Midwest, in black ghettoes and modern television studios; Scrooge has been played by men, women, Muppets, puppets, and cartoon ducks. Few versions, however, have stretched the genre as much as The Passions of Carol, a 1975 pornographic movie starring Merrie Holiday. Directed by Warren Evans, the movie examines the change of heart which Christmas brings to Carol Screwge, a cruel editor of a skin magazine.

Adam and Eve and Christmas

Continuing our dive deep into Christmas lore, I present you today with a connection between the Book of Genesis and Christmas.

Adam and Eve, the ancestors of the human race, were first honoured as saints in the churches of Eastern Christianity and during the Middle Ages their cult spread into the West. Though the Catholic church never officially recognized them with a feast day, popular veneration of Adam and Eve was widespread, particularly on December 24 when it was thought fitting that those responsible for the Fall of mankind be linked with the birth of the Saviour who came to redeem humanity.

Medieval dramas which told the story of Adam and Eve had as a stage prop a tree representing the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree was decorated with apples or round wafers representing the host of the Mass and it is this “Paradise Tree” which many historians see as a precursor to the modern Christmas tree. This link is evident when we note that as late as the nineteenth century some American and German Christmas trees had images of Adam and Eve and the Serpent underneath them. Godey’s magazine claimed “an orthodox Christmas-Tree will have the figures of our first parents at its foot, and the serpent twining itself around its stem.” Apples were placed on the table on Christmas Eve to recall those through whose sin mankind first fell as well as the Virgin Mary, the new Eve.

A New Approach

Being the world’s foremost authority on the history of Christmas carries a heavy responsibility and I realize I have been shirking my duty by not using this space to spread the good news about the world’s favourite holiday. So farewell “Today In History”, and “Today in Church History”;  (“Something Wise” will continue until the end of the month). For the foreseeable future it’s all Christmas, all the time.

And so let us begin.

 

What we have here is the earliest known artistic portrayal of Father Christmas, a woodcut illustrating a 1624 ballad lamenting the loss of hospitality during the holiday season. Some elements of his appearance will be constant over the centuries — a round hat, a long coat, a beard and an antiquarian aspect; he is always meant to represent a figure out of the past.

At this stage, Father Christmas, or Old Christmas, or Captain Christmas was simply meant to personify the festival. The name is not attached to a magical Gift-Bringer until the 19th century.