Holiday filled with tradition

Published 11:50 pm Saturday, December 22, 2007

Be it decking the halls or lighting a menorah the holiday season is chock full of ritual and tradition. And those traditions that many have cherished throughout the ages come from stories and practices of the past.

The nativity scene

Perhaps one of the strongest symbols of the Christmas season is the depiction of the birth of Christ.

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In most homes that acknowledge Christmas, a small nativity scene can be found.

A typical nativity shows the family of Jesus surrounded by barnyard animals normally in some type of barn or cave.

But the Rev. John Larson of First Presbyterian Church said the scene acknowledged by so many might not necessarily be true to the original scene.

Larson said based on biblical translations and scripture readings Jesus was likely placed in a feeding trough after his birth.

As to where he was born, Larson said it’s likely he was born in the section of a home or inn where animals were kept.

“It was common to keep animals in a lower room of the home,” he said.

So the picture of the manger that so many people of today is not the most accurate.

Another aspect of the birth narrative that remains unclear is who was exactly at the birth Larson said.

The traditional story of Jesus’ birth tells of angels, shepherds and the three wise men.

However only Matthew’s gospel gives an account of the wise men, and only Luke’s gospel gives speaks about shepherds.

Larson also said it is highly unlikely that the wise men visited on the same day Jesus was born.

“Some scholars say they got there about a week after the birth,” he said.

And some scholars said the wise men showed up as much as two years later.

Larson also noted another holiday tradition born from practices of long ago.

The burning of candles, while once necessity, has become a tradition during the holiday.

The menorah

Though the Jewish festival of Hanukkah ended Dec. 12, thanks to ecumenical marketing its most prominent symbol, the menorah, can be seen throughout the holiday season, and has even worked its way into some Christmas displays.

But the Hanukkah menorah — called the chanukia — is slightly different than its sister, the regular weekday menorah.

The regular menorah has seven branches, three on each side and one in the middle, known as the shamash, the “helper candle.”

The chanukia, however, has eight branches to symbolize the miracle of the eight nights, student Rabbi Joshua Leighton, who ministers at Temple B’Nai Israel, said.

After the end of the Maccabe revolt, when the Jews were rededicating the temple, they only had enough oil to light the temple’s lamp for one night, but tradition says that the oil lasted for eight nights, the time needed to press and cure more.

“Historically, the menorah has been associated only with the Jewish people, and it has stuck with us for 2,000 years,” Leighton said.

Christmas trees

While the beginning of Christmas trees may be disputed, the popularity is not.

The trees’ vague beginnings start in Europe, more specifically Germany.

Several sources claim Martin Luther was the first to start the tradition of putting candles on its branches in order to recreate the beauty of the night sky, but others cannot pick a specific instance in which the decoration of trees began.

Evergreen trees have a long history with luck; ancient people surrounded themselves with branches in order to bring good fortune. The Romans decorated their homes in boughs of evergreens to mark the solstice. People who preceded Christianity hung evergreen branches on their doors to ward off witches and bad fortune.

But, as far as the United States is concerned, German settlers brought the tradition with them when they immigrated in the 19th century. Records of who officially set up the first Christmas tree conflicts, but many sources point to the German settlement in Bethlehem, Penn. The popularity of the Christmas tree rose in the 1850s when they began to be sold commercially. Soon, glass ornaments and other decorations were used to decorate the branches.