Christingles and other Christmas traditions

 Later this year, the St Francis Singers will host a Christingle service.  I wondered what Christingle is all about, so I went looking. It seems that Christingle is a fairly new Christmas tradition relative to our other traditions such as the Christmas tree and Christmas carols.

As is often the case when setting out to learn something, I ended up learning lots of other interesting things along the way. So, here are a few that were new to me.

25 December

xmasDec25hollyBirdThe first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on the 25th of December was in 336AD.  This was during the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor.  A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.  There are many different traditions and theories as to why this date was chosen to celebrate Christmas.  Click here to read some of them.

Christmas or Xmas

xmas1The name Christmas comes from The Mass of Christ.  The Christ-Mass service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at midnight.  From the shortening of Christ-Mass we get Christmas.

Christmas is also sometimes known as Xmas.  Some people don’t think it is correct to call Christmas “Xmas” as that takes the “Christ” out of Christmas.  But apparently, this is not quite accurate.  In the Greek language and alphabet, the letter that looks like an X is the xmasGreek letter chi, pronounced kye (rhymes with “eye”) which is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Christos.  The early church used the first two letters of Christos in the Greek alphabet chi and rho to create a symbol to represent the name of Jesus.  This looks like an X with a small P on the top.  So Xmas can also mean Christmas; but it should also be pronounced “Christmas” rather than “ex-mas”. Click here for more.

Christmas cards

Christmas card1The custom of sending Christmas cards was started in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant. He was considering how the new postal system, the Public Post Office, could be used more by ordinary people.  Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas Cards, and he and his friend, John Horsley, an artist, designed the first Christmas card.  They sold them for 1 shilling each.  The card (shown here) had three panels.  The outer two panels showed people caring for the poor and in the centre panel was a family having a large Christmas dinner.  (There were objections to showing the young child drinking wine.)

The first postal service that ordinary people could use was started in 1840 when the first “Penny Post” public postal deliveries began. Before that, only very rich people could afford to send anything in the post.  The new Post Office was able to offer a Penny stamp because new railways were being built.  These could carry much more post than the horse and carriage that had been used before.  Also, trains could go a lot faster.

Christmas tree

Christmas-TreeThe first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is in the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, in the year 1510, although evergreen fir trees have traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years.  The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia.  Christians use this evergreen tree as a sign of everlasting life with God.  Click here for more.

Christmas carols

SONY DSCCarols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles. The word “carol” originally meant to dance to something.  Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones.

In AD 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome.  Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760AD, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church.  Soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write “Christmas carols”.  However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, and so not understood by most people.  By the time of the Middles Ages (the 1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether.

This was changed by our patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223 when he started his Nativity Plays in Italy.  The people in the plays sang songs or “canticles” that told the story.  Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin, but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in.  The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.

When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret.  Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times (the 2nd half of the 1800s).  During this time, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, so carols once again became popular.


(At last!  This is what started my curiosity)

christingleA Christingle is a symbolic object used in the advent services of many Christian denominations. It consists of:

  1. 1) an orange representing the world;
  2. 2) a red ribbon around it representing the blood of Christ;
  3. 3) dried fruits skewered on cocktail sticks pushed into the orange, representing the fruits of the earth and the four seasons; and
  4. 4) a lit candle pushed into the centre of the orange, representing Jesus Christ as the light of the world.

The base of the candle is commonly wrapped in tinfoil. This is purely functional.

The word Christingle comes from the German Christkind/Christkindl (Christ-child), and is originally a German custom.  It has its origins in the Moravian Church, although the representation of the four seasons was a later addition.  The Christkind is the traditional Christmas gift-bringer in regions of Austria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, parts of Germany and several other countries.

The idea of Christingles came from a Moravian Church in Germany in 1747.  The minister, John de Watteville (a bishop, according to one source),  gave children at the service a lighted candle with a red ribbon around it.  This represented Jesus being the light of the world and the final prayer of that first service was “Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become.”  Missionaries from the Moravian Church took the custom around the world with them.  The first Christingle service held in the Church of England was in 1968. It was introduced by John Pensom of the Church of England Children’s Society.  Because of this link, Christingle services in England usually raise money for children’s charities.  In Moravian churches, the Christingle Service is usually held on the Sunday before Christmas or on Christmas Eve.

The-Night-Before-ChristmasI’ll stop now, but for more fascinating information about Christmas crackers, mince pies, Christmas pudding, St Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas and much more, click here.

Especially interesting is Christmas traditions in different cultures around the world.

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