09 December 2013

Hanging of the Greens - Christian Symbols of Christmas; Their Origin and Meaning

The Hanging of the Greens is one of my favorite childhood memories of Christmas.  And, as with most of my childhood memories, I thought it was unique to my family and in this case church.  And, as has been the case over and over again, many others I’ve come across have had similar memories and experiences.  And, while my ‘inner child’ is always surprised, I am also always pleased that others have shared experiences and such wonderful memories.

The Hanging of the Greens occurs annually at the start of Advent* and is a multisensory communal event.

* Advent = a time of preparation for Christmas and preparing ourselves for a new year living in the presence of God through our relationship with his son.

Growing up, members of the Heidelberg United Church of Christ, in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, would gather in the afternoon on the Sunday before the start of Advent to Hang the Greens (decorate the church) and that evening we’d gather for a covered dish dinner and join in fellowship.  After dinner there would be a program where we learned the importance of and the deeper meaning of Christmas through music and the symbology of the decorations.

Today, our church here in Virginia, celebrates the Hanging of the Greens in a more traditional way.  We, as a family and as members of the church, look forward to the first Sunday of Advent.  It is on that Sunday, that the church holds its Festival, The Hanging of Greens, Service.*  The whole church participates.  It is a beautiful and meaningful service and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

The meaning of the Festival Occasion:

In the mid 17th century, Christmas celebrations apparently got a little too rowdy and a bit too merry.  The English parliament restricted religious singing to the Psalms.  Churches were stripped of ornamentation and organs were removed.  It took nearly two centuries for Christmas to recover its sparkle.  Today, churches combine music with the festival of the Hanging of the greens, to help keep alive the deeper meaning of Christmas.

EVERGREENS:  Evergreens have long been symbolic of life and growth.  The spicy fragrance of pine and cedar remind us of the promised awakening of the earth in spring, even when all else is barren in winter.  The early Christians decked their sanctuary with the boughs of evergreen as a promise of the new life and as a sign of the hope that in Christ all live forever. As greens are brought into the church, church members sing “Good Christian Men Rejoice.”

HOLLY WREATHS: Holly, with its green leaves and red berries has long been a popular Christmas decoration.  At the same time of the year we celebrate Christmas, long ago the Romans used to celebrate their Saturnalis, a tribute to Saturn, whom they called the God of Agriculture.  They thought of holly as a gift of Saturn and believed he made it grow in beauty when all other shrubs were bare.  Romans sent sprigs of holly to their friends to express good will and to wish good fortune.  The early Christians developed their own symbolism, holding that the crown of thorns was made of holly leaves.  Thus the Christmas wreath was begun as a symbol of the crown of thorns.  Although there is a great amount of legend intertwined with truth in traditions, the circle has long been symbolic of never ending eternity and everlasting life.  As the holly wreaths are brought in, church members sing “Joy to the World.”

BELLS:  We are told that in Europe bells probably did not exist before the time of Christ, but in China, bells of a type had been used for more than 4,000 years.  The cup-shaped bell, familiar to us, dates from the 4th century.  Bells were originally used to summon the Christian to worship.  Bells have always been closely associated with religious services.  The ringing of the bells and towers of chimes brings a joyous sound of good tidings.  As the bells are brought in and rung, church members sign “Ring the Bells.”

TREE:  Christmas trees have long been a part of American tradition.  Colonial trees were decorated with seeds, pods, and strung cranberries with tiny candles fastened to the limbs.  The Christmas tree’s beginning is buried in various legends coming from different countries and connected with ancient peoples and with pagan religions.  The Egyptians took green date palms into their homes during their winter solstice rites signifying life triumphant over death.  The Romans trimmed trees with trinkets and small masks and sometimes placed 12 candles on a tree with an image of the sun god.  The druids of Northern Europe honored their chief god, Odin, by tying gilded apples to tree branches.  When pagans accepted Christianity some of their winter rites continued, but the symbolism was changed to honor Christ.  Today the evergreen Christmas tree symbolizes everlasting life; its spire points upward reminding people of God.  Some years back a newer practice was begun in Danville, Virginia of making the tree’s ornaments in the shapes of various “Symbols of Christ” utilizing styrofoam, pins, beads and sequins.  these ornaments are called chrymons, hence the Chrysmon Trees now found in many churches.  As the children of the church decorate the tree with Chrysmon ornaments, church members sing “O Christmas Tree.”

MISTLETOE:  The mistletoe has become for us a sign of merriment and romance, but in ancient times it was a symbol of peace.  It was said that when enemies met under it, they discarded their arms and declared a truce.  Thus, it became a custom of Christians to place a spray of mistletoe on the altar at Christmas time as a reminder of the peace of God and the power of Christ to heal the hurts of the body and soul.  As the mistletoe is brought in and placed on the Altar, church members sing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” *

* In bygone years, Christians beneath the mistletoe in the church gave each other the kiss of peace and reconciliation. After the hymn the Pastors and members of the church pass the Peace of Christ to each other.

LIGHTING OF THE CANDLES:  Candles are the reminders of Jesus Christ as the light of the world.  As His light shines in the darkness it brings light into those who follow him.  this light of Christ is spread outward as each Christian uses their life, love and faith to express Christ’s light to the world.  As the candles in the windows and altar are lit, church members sing “The Light of the World is Jesus.”

POINSETTIAS:  We have come to think of a now familiar flower – the poinsettia – as a very distinctive American symbol of Christmas time.  The early colonies would not have been familiar with this plant, as it was not until 1829 that Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, having spent four years as the U.S. Minister to Mexico, returned to his home in Charleston, South Carolina bringing with him a beautiful vermilion plant which grows wild and covers the hillsides of Mexico.  As the popularity of the flower grew, skilled gardeners learned to control the blooming time so that poinsettias reach their peak of beauty at Christmas time.

It is said that the Mexicans regard the poinsettia as the “Flower of the Holy Night.”  They have a legend of a little girl who wept on her way to church one Christmas Eve, because she had no gift to bring symbolic of each person’s gift to the Christ Child.  As she knelt on the ground by the church to pray, she saw a gorgeous plant springing up before her and gladly took its red beauty into the church as her Christmas gift and laid it on the altar.  As church members place poinsettias around the sanctuary, members of the church sing “What Child is This.”

CRECHE:  A great number of traditions from many lands have been brought to our own country and have become a very familiar part of our American Christmas.  Yet we can become so involved in the festive trim, décor and activities of the Christmas season that we can, if we are not careful, forget the real meaning and reason for Christmas.  It must have seemed something of the same way to a familiar monk, St. Francis, in the Middle Ages.  In those days most people could not read and there were very few books.  Church ceremonies were in Latin and worshipers did not understand all that was going on.  St Francis popularized the reenactment of the birth of the Christ Child in a simple manger scene at the little town of Greccio, Italy in 1224, although the custom, known by the Latin name Praesepio meaning “stable,” may have originated as early as the 8th century.  A few years before his death, Francis had seen shepherds sleeping in the fields near Greccio and this gave him the inspiration for depicting a life-size nativity so that everyone could understand the Christmas story.  Tradition tells us that this took place in a cave on the hill above Greccio.  Real persons playing the part of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds were accompanied by live oxen and donkeys.  After the plays, the actors strolled down the street singing and thus caroling was born.  News spread rapidly through town and countryside, and crowds of worshipers gathered for the reenactments.  This was repeated year after year and soon spread to other countries.  As the children of the church place the ceramic figures of the creche on the altar, members of the church sing “Away in the Manger” followed by “Silent Night.”

PRESENTATION OF THE BIBLE and GOSPEL LESSON:  The source of our Christmas Story is the Bible itself.  The Pastor of the church reads the Proclamation of Jesus’ birth told from Luke’s perspective.  After the reading, the church members sing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.”

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