Our Christmas season is well underway now. I think we begin as early as the first part of December when we begin to think much more seriously about the gifts we’re going to give to our kids. The media seems to move the focus on the commercial aspects of Christmas earlier each year. But in centuries past, the Christmas season began on Christmas Eve. One commentator suggests that “Perhaps the practice of celebrating the evening before the big day is an echo from ancient Jewish reckoning. Among earlier Jews, a day began at six in the evening and ran until six the following evening.” He then comments that even the creation account in Genesis records the evenings first.

Christmas is a combination of two words, “Christ” and “Mass.” Dan Graves goes on to suggest, “…the tradition of observing it goes back to at least the fourth century. Under the influence of the church, Christian traditions replaced pagan solstice festivals throughout Europe. Often, the more innocent pagan practices (such as bringing in a Yule log, decorating with holly, and the like) were carried over into the Christmas observance, transfigured with new meaning.  Christmas Eve (the evening before Christmas day) was then celebrated with roaring fires, story-telling, feasting, drinking, dancing, and sometimes clowning.” Singing special songs has been a major part of everyone’s Christmas experience. Sir Walter Scott described its festive air in a poem. In his poem, he says the mass was “sung.”

On Christmas Eve, the bells were rung;

On Christmas Eve, the mass was sung.

The damsel donned her kirtle sheen,

the hall was dressed with holly green;

All hail’d with uncontroll’d delight,

And general voice the happy night

That to the cottage, as the crown,

Brought tidings of salvation down.

Graves also notes that Luther is supposed to have cut the first Christmas tree. The story may be apocryphal, but we know that on Christmas Eve, 1538, he was in a jolly mood, singing and talking about the incarnation. Then he sighed, saying, “Oh, we poor men, that we should be so cold and indifferent to this great joy which has been given us.” Despite Luther’s lament, others would make warm memories on Christmas Eve. In his memoirs, Sir John Reresby told how he invited his poor tenants for a feast on Christmas Eve, 1682. During World War I, the famous Christmas Truce began for many troops on Christmas Eve, 1914, demonstrating the power for good that is inherent in the season. Mark Water tells an interesting story. He writes, “Moisture from the Salzach River had caused the pipe organ of St Nicholas’ Church, the Alpine village church of Oberndorf, Austria, to rust. Another tradition says that mice had gnawed holes in the bellows of the organ of St Nicholas’ Church. On December 24, 1818, when Josef Mohr was told there could be no organ music for the Christmas Eve service, he wrote the words for Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!, Silent Night, Holy Night. He then asked the village organist, Franz Grüber, to compose a tune for this new carol just in time for the choir to rehearse. In 1834, Silent Night was performed for the king of Prussia. He then ordered that it should be sung every Christmas Eve by his cathedral choir.”[1]

[1] Water, Mark. 2002. The Christian Book of Records. Alresford, Hants, UK: John Hunt Pub.