Advent & Christmas Customs

There are many customs associated with Advent and Christmas. Some of them are pagan in origin (see Extras), but have been given a Christian meaning.

Nativity Plays

Many of you will have taken part in these at Primary School or Church. The word nativity means birth, and the tradition of acting out the birth stories from Matthew and Luke goes back to the Mystery Plays of Mediaeval times. Usually the two stories are merged together.

This picture is from St. Joseph's Convent of Mercy Primary School, in Co. Meath,
in the Republic of Ireland.

Carol Singing

Songs, called carols (from the Italian carola - a ‘ring dance’) telling the story of Jesus’ birth are often sung by choirs and individuals. Often churches will hold a service of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’, based on a model used at King’s College, Cambridge in 1918. Our Christmas Service at school is a shortened version of it. The Bible readings are called ‘lessons’ because they teach the Christian history of salvation, starting with the Fall of Adam and Eve from paradise in Genesis and ending with the birth of Jesus, whose task is to return humanity to its former state of grace.

In most religions it is the custom to give presents to one another on joyful festivals. For Christians this also reminds them of the gifts brought by the Magi to the baby Jesus in Matthew’s story.

The Christmas tree, as many of you will know, was a German custom which was introduced into Britain by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. Sometimes Christians place a star on top of the tree to remind them of the star followed by the Magi in Matthew's story.

The practice of decorating houses and churches with evergreens has pagan origins. Because evergreens did not lose their leaves all at the same time, they became a symbol of life and hope in the midst of winter. This was then adopted by Christians because it seemed to fit with their ideas about the incarnation as a symbol of hope and life for humanity.


A crib is a model scene of the nativity which many Christians have in their homes and churches. They vary in size - there is an enormous very detailed crib depicting all the events of the Christmas story at the Royal Palace at Caserta in Italy (recently visited on a Classics Trip). Most Christians merge Matthew & Luke’s stories together in crib scenes, showing both Magi and shepherds, or add the models of the Magi to the crib on 6th January, the feast of the Epiphany (manifestation).

© Mr.B at Farcaster Communications