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Christmas by John Paul II

He introduced the custom of placing a manger and Christmas trees in St. Peter's Square in Rome, sang carols enthusiastically, and participated in numerous Christmas gatherings. He gave beautiful speeches and messages during the Christmas season.

Photo: Flickr, Sunshine City
1223
The first manger in Greccio (Italy), set up at the request of St. Francis of Assisi; beginning of the Christmas crib tradition.  
The end of the 15th century
Beginning of the Christmas tree tradition; first records come from Alsace, Germany.  
1969
Pope Paul VI blesses for the first time the statues of the Infant Jesus brought by children to St Peter's Square on the 3rd Sunday of Advent; the custom continues to this day.   
1982
At the request of John Paul II, the crib and the Christmas tree are set up in St Peter's Square in Rome for the first time.   
New Tradition
The annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, which falls on December 25th (in the Orthodox Church 13 days later), is connected with numerous customs and traditions. Karol Wojtyła nurtured them from his youth and later moved them to the Vatican, where, for example, the Polish custom of sharing the wafer had not been known. In Poland, on 24 December, when starting the Christmas Eve supper with a festive dinner, families share the wafer, that is, a thin white bread leaf, and wish everything the best for the following year. The Pope also enclosed the wafers with Christmas cards, some of which he wrote himself.

It was John Paul II who decided in 1982 that for the first time a crib and a Christmas tree should be set up in St Peter's Square, a place where the faithful meet with the Pope. And so it happened, and the custom took root in the Vatican. The tradition of cribs in families or churches had existed in Italy for centuries, but decorating the Christmas tree was not generally customary there.  In Poland, however, it is hard to imagine Christmas without a Christmas tree at home.

This is what the Pope said about the importance of the Christmas symbols:

„The wafer is the bread of reconciliation... God comes to man, God offers us reconciliation with himself.... And from here comes as if the first human answer. If God is one with us, if Christ is born in Bethlehem, then I, a man, must reconcile with my brother" (Address to the Poles who came to the European Youth Meeting, 1 January 1983, Vatican).

„Small or large, simple or elaborate, it is a familiar and most vivid representation of Christmas. The Nativity scene is a feature of our culture and art, but above all it is a sign of faith in God, who in Bethlehem came "and dwelt among us" (Jn 1: 14), said the Pope (12 December 2004).

The Christmas tree also expresses deep truths. „ The symbol thus also becomes eloquent in a typically Christian sense: it calls to mind the "tree of life" (cf. Gn 2: 9), a figure of Christ, God's supreme gift to humanity.
The message of the Christmas tree is consequently that life stays "evergreen" if we make a gift of it: not so much of material things, but of life itself:  in friendship and sincere affection, in fraternal help and forgiveness, in time shared and reciprocal listening.  (19 December 2004). In another address, he pointed out the link between the Christmas tree and the Cross.

60 languages of the world
On 24 December, each Pope preside at Midnight Mass in St Peter's Basilica, which is broadcast by the media to numerous countries on all continents. The next day, on December 25th, delivers the Urbi et Orbi (to the City and the World) Christmas Day message from the balcony of the Basilica.  

During the pontificate of John Paul II, this message sometimes took the form of a poetic prayer. Then, before the Apostolic Blessing was given, the Polish Pope wished the faithful in several dozen languages (at the end of his pontificate in as many as 62). 
Many of these addresses, homilies listened to by numerous crowds of believers, were a determinant of the style of the pontificate of John Paul II. Below the example:


(...)
2. Before the crib where you lie helpless,
let there be an end to the spread of violence in its many forms,
the source of untold suffering;
let there be an end to the numerous situations of unrest
which risk degenerating into open conflict;
let there arise a firm will to seek peaceful solutions,
respectful of the legitimate aspirations of individuals and peoples.

3. Babe of Bethlehem, Prophet of peace,
encourage attempts to promote dialogue and reconciliation,
sustain the efforts to build peace,
which hesitantly, yet not without hope, are being made
to bring about a more tranquil present and future
for so many of our brothers and sisters in the world.
I think of Africa, of the tragedy of Darfur in Sudan,
of Côte d’Ivoire and of the Great Lakes Region.
With great apprehension I follow the situation in Iraq.
And how can I fail to look with anxious concern,
but also invincible confidence,
towards that Land of which you are a son?

4. Everywhere peace is needed!
You, Prince of true peace,
help us to understand that the only way to build peace
is to flee in horror from evil,
and to pursue goodness with courage and perseverance.
Men and women of good will, of every people on the earth,
come with trust to the crib of the Saviour!
"He who bestows the Kingdom of heaven
does not take away human kingdoms" (cf. Hymn for Vespers of Epiphany).
Hasten to meet him;
he comes to teach us
the way of truth, peace and love.

John Paul II, Urbi et Orbi Message, Christmas 2004

Carolling until Blue in the Face
"The musical, poetic and at the same time theological richness of Polish carols is immense", said John Paul II (cf. his address to Poles on 23 December 1996). Throughout his life, he himself cultivated the custom of carolling together.

As a metropolitan of Cracow, Wojtyla invited the Milieu [a friendly group of students and then families for whom he was a pastor] and other groups to sing carols at the bishops' house at Franciszkańska 3. Christmas singing also took place in other places, e.g. at the home of the Ciesielski family on the second day of Christmas or at the Poźniak family. "We carolled until we were blue in the face and sang all the verses to the end. He really enjoyed it, he also visited us every year in winter during the Christmas carol period," recalls Maria Poźniak. Back in those days, he liked to sing with a second voice and arrange the lines invented on a whim referring to the situation or those gathered, especially to the melody of the Polish highlander pastorale "Oj, Maluśki, Maluśki" ("Oh, My Tiny, Tiny, Baby") [translated by Douglas Brooks-Davies]. 

He did not stop carolling together with different groups when he took office in the Holy See. John Paul II's favourite carol, or rather pastorale, is considered to be "Oj, Maluśki, Maluśki". However, in his homilies and addresses John Paul II referred especially to the carol "Bóg się rodzi” (“God is Born"), which has a deep theological content.


Come from every part of the world
Midnight Mass, 24 December 1997, homily of John Paul II:

(...)"Such is the historical event imbued with mystery: a tender child is born, fully human but at the same time the only-begotten Son of the Father. He is the Son, not made but eternally begotten, the Son of one being with the Father. "God from God, light from light, true God from true God". He is the Word, "through whom all things were made".

We shall soon proclaim these truths in the Creed and add: "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man". Professing our faith together with the whole Church, this night too we shall acknowledge the amazing grace which the Lord's mercy bestows on us.

Israel, the People of God of the Old Covenant, was chosen to bring to the world, as a "shoot from the stump of David", the Messiah, the Saviour and Redeemer of all humanity. Together with an outstanding representative of that People, the Prophet Isaiah, let us therefore turn to Bethlehem with our eyes lifted in expectation of the Messiah. In the divine light we can glimpse how the Old Covenant is being fulfilled and how, with Christ's birth, a New and Eternal Covenant is being revealed.

3. Saint Paul speaks of this New Covenant in the Letter to Titus which we have just heard: "The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men" (Tit 2:11). Precisely this grace enables humanity to live "awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ", who "gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds" (Tit 2:14).

Dear Brothers and Sisters, this message of grace is today addressed to us! Listen, then! To all "whom God loves", to all who accept the invitation to pray and keep vigil on this Holy Christmas Night, I repeat with joy: God's love for us has been revealed! His love is grace and faithfulness, mercy and truth! By setting us free from the darkness of sin and death, he has become the firm and unshakeable foundation of the hope of every human being.

The liturgical song repeats this with joyful insistence: Come, let us adore him! Come from every part of the world to contemplate what has taken place in the grotto ion".
(...)

   

   
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