Decorations help highlight history, beliefs

ELKINS – Each Christmas, many local churches decorate with symbolic items representing the history and traditions of their belief.

Advent, the period of time beginning four Sundays before Christmas, is celebrated in many churches. The Very Rev. Donald X. Higgs, pastor of St. Brendan Catholic Church in Elkins, said Advent is a great time of reflection.

“Advent is a time of preparing, making straight the path between us and the Lord,” Higgs said. “John the Baptist urged us to make ready the way, and so this is the time to fill in the valleys and level the mountains. We need to remove the obstacles in our life so the Lord can come.”

The Advent wreath is a popular custom that originated in Germany. It consists of three purple candles and one rose candle in a wreath of evergreen branches. One purple candle is lit the first week, and two the second week. Two purple candles and one rose are lit the third, and finally all four candles are lit in the last week of Advent.

The light of the candles signifies the light of Christ, who will come into the world at Christmas. The branches represent the regrowth and hope for spring, the time of renewal.

Many churches and homes display a Christmas tree decorated with different symbols, including lights, bulbs, ornaments and handmade items. Most people believe Martin Luther brought the idea of the Christmas tree to Germany. Legend has it that while he was out on a cold winter evening composing a sermon, he was awed by the beauty of the stars. When he returned home, he attempted to recreate the beauty for his family by putting candles on an evergreen tree in his home.

While many families take down and pack up their trees and Christmas decorations the day after Christmas, Catholics often keep their homes festive and decorated into January. Christmas Day begins the 12 days of Christmas that end on the Epiphany, the day that the Three Wise Men came to pay homage to the Child Jesus. Usually, decorations come down on the day following the Epiphany. Some families even give gifts on the Epiphany, just as the Three Wise Men gave gifts for baby Jesus.

Most churches have a Nativity scene, or creche, a set of statues depicting the birth of Jesus.

“The creche was established by Saint Francis in 1223 as a reminder of Christ’s birth,” Higgs said. “At St. Brendan, everyone brings in bundles of winter wheat to put in the creche to represent the families of the parish.”

Members of St. Brendan Parish celebrate the feast of St. Lucy on Dec. 13. Members take home winter wheat seeds from the church and plant them in small pots of soil.

St. Lucy is tied in with the celebration of light and winter, and her name means “light.” Her feast day is celebrated on the winter solstice, which marks the shortest day of the year.

The wheat grows very quickly, and by Christmas can reach eight inches. Families cut the wheat and tie it into bundles and place them in the creche on Christmas. The gift symbolizes the gifts to the Christ child and is a reminder that the Eucharist feeds souls and is the staff of life that nourishes all of mankind.

Another decoration popular in churches and homes at Christmas is the poinsettia flower. The legend of the poinsettia is that, long ago, a little girl in Mexico wanted to bring a gift to present to the Baby Jesus lying in the creche at her church.

Being very poor, she could not buy a gift, as did the other children of the town. So on the way to church, she gathered some green weeds on the edge of a field. Like the other children, she walked down the aisle of the church and placed her bouquet at the creche. According to legend, the green weeds turned a beautiful red, because she had given the most wonderful gift of all, the gift of genuine love.

Since then, the poinsettia has been known in Mexico as flores de la Noche Buena.