Bringing to light the saints and lore of Christmas

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Carol Jessen-Klixbull
The Visitor

The traditions we cherish and carry on each Christmas season have a richer history and meaning than some people realize. What stories lie behind some of our favorite customs and characters?

santaSanta Claus

He’s make-believe, right?

How did this ever-so-generous, roly-poly, “jolly fellow” who sports a white beard and lives at the North Pole with his sweet, cookie-baking wife and hard-working elves, become one of our all-time favorite Christmas figures?

Santa is based on the life and philanthropy of a real man — St. Nicholas, who was the bishop of Myra in what is present-day Turkey during the third century. St. Nicholas was a rich man who had been orphaned at an early age by wealthy parents. There are several legends about this kind, compassionate person with a reputation for helping the poor, sick and suffering.

The greathearted individual, who through the ages has delivered presents to children at Christmas, has gone by many names including “Kris Kringle,” “Father Christmas” and the “Christ Kind.” Early Dutch settlers who immigrated to the U.S. called him “Sinterklaas,” (a pronunciation of St. Nicholas) which over the years became “Santa Claus.” Originally, he was pictured in the traditional robe of a bishop but in the early 20th century he began to be dressed in his now-familiar black-belted red suit trimmed in white fir.


christmasstockingChristmas stockings

St. Nicholas also receives credit for the custom of putting small gifts in Christmas stockings.

A story is handed down about a poor farmer who lived in the region where St. Nicholas was bishop. The farmer had three daughters of marriageable age but he had nothing for their dowries. (At that time it was the custom for a bride’s father to give money or other valuables to the groom at the time of the wedding.) The daughters were destined to be sold into a life of slavery.

St. Nicholas heard of the family’s plight and one night tossed a bag of gold inside one of the stockings that the daughters had washed and left to dry hanging on their fireplace. The farmer had no idea who had left the coins but was overjoyed to be able to marry off his oldest daughter. St. Nicholas later repeated the act and so the second daughter was also wed.

The farmer caught St. Nicholas the third time he returned with yet another bag of gold. He immediately recognized this benevolent benefactor, bowing down to the bishop as he thanked him for these charitable gifts — and the means to endow his third daughter’s marriage.


christmastreeChristmas trees

St. Boniface is the one to thank for the time-honored tradition of bringing an evergreen tree into our homes at Christmastime, according to one story.

He was Bishop Winfrid, an Englishman who went to Germany in the eighth century to preach the Christian faith to those who were worshiping pagan divinities. All seemed to be going well until he left to confer with Pope Gregory II in Rome.

When he returned he found the people had reverted to their former ways and were preparing to sacrifice a young man under the Norse god Odin’s sacred oak tree. St. Boniface grew angry, grabbed an axe and struck the tree. As legend has it, at that moment, a strong gust of wind blew it over. Standing amid the debris and broken branches of the large fallen oak, a small fir tree had miraculously remained intact.

Those who witnessed the scene recognized the hand of God in this pivotal event and asked how they should celebrate Christmas. St. Boniface, who was familiar with their custom of taking an evergreen plant into their houses in winter, told everyone to take home a fir tree, signifying peace. Even more, the tree’s arrowlike top points upwards toward heaven and, as an evergreen, it also symbolizes immortality.



In 1223, the first Nativity scene was orchestrated in a cave in an Italian village called Grecio.

St. Francis of Assisi organized it after gaining permission from Pope Honorious III. He set up a manger with a live ox, donkey and hay and invited the villagers to come while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” It’s been related that he was so emotional during the presentation that he couldn’t say the word “Jesus.”

It is unclear whether people represented Baby Jesus, Mary or Joseph during that first manger scene or if the onlookers had to use their imagination that day. Later on as the popularity of crèches spread, the number of people and animals included in the dioramas grew — sometimes to depicting entire villages.

St. Francis’ re-enactment of the Christ Child’s birth occurred at a time when mystery or miracle plays were presented to European laypeople as a way to learn Scripture. Most people did not understand Latin, the language that was used during church services, and these visual dramatizations helped them to grasp the tenets of Christianity.


candycaneCandy canes

A story is told that candy canes were the brainchild of a German choirmaster in 1670. During the “living crèche” ceremony he had a hard time keeping the noisy, mischievous children quiet and on task, so he engaged a candy maker to create “sweet sticks depicting the life and death of Jesus” as a reward if they behaved.

Originally, candy canes were only white signifying Christ’s purity and slightly bent on one end to resemble a shepherd’s staff and to remind us he is the “Good Shepherd.”

Turned upside down, the sweet treat forms a “J,” which stands for “Jesus.” The legend continues that the hardness of the candy represents the solid foundation of the church and God’s promises to us.

As years went by, red stripes were added to the confectionery to symbolize the blood our Savior shed on the cross. Eventually peppermint or wintergreen flavoring was added to stand for the Son of God’s purity and sacrifice. The taste of peppermint in the candy is akin to that of hyssop, a bushy, aromatic plant in the mint family, which was used during Catholic ceremonies for purification and sacrifice.