Traditions become so much a part of what our children will remember as “home”. They will carry these customs with them as they strike out on their own. It will fill their own lives with a depth and richness that only family, home and traditions can bring.
That is what I love about our wonderful Faith – filled with beauty and traditions….
Catholic Traditions for Advent and Christmas
Issue: How can families better live the spirit of Advent and Christmas in their homes?
The Catholic Church has designated the four weeks preceding Christmas as Advent, a time to “prepare the way of the Lord” for His coming as our King and Savior. In addition, the Church teaches that:
When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating [John the Baptist’s] birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Catechism, no. 524; original emphasis).
By participating in various time-honored traditions, such as making Jesse trees or putting on a Christmas play at home, Catholic families can engage more fruitfully in the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
“Either we live the liturgical year with its varying seasons of joy and sorrow, work and rest, or we follow the pattern of the world,” writes Helen McLoughlin in Advent and Christmas in a Catholic Home, commenting on the challenge Catholics have of being “in the world but not of the world” throughout the year.
She wrote these profound words in the 1950s, but they are even more important today because of the general decline in Catholic family life during the last 40 years. With two parents working in many households, there is less time to devote to the spiritual life of the family. As Catholic parents, we must readjust our priorities and teach our children by living our faith, both inside and outside the home.
It seems fitting that Advent is the beginning of the liturgical calendar, for it is a season of spiritual preparation marked by an eager longing for the birth of Our Savior Jesus Christ.
There are age-old Advent practices, some of which are mentioned in this FAITH FACT, which will help our children and families live closer to Christ. The practices are time-tested and proven. They teach the doctrine of redemption and develop a sense of generosity toward God (cf. Catechism, nos. 2222-26). A family’s strong and living faith will become their heritage and a mode to reinforce the religious practices centered in the liturgy.
“Children love to anticipate,” writes McLoughlin. “When there are empty mangers to fill with straw for small sacrifices, when the Mary candle is a daily reminder on the dinner table, when Advent hymns are sung in the candlelight of a graceful Advent wreath, children are not anxious to celebrate Christmas before time. That would offend their sense of honor.
Older children who make Nativity sets, cut Old Testament symbols to decorate a Jesse tree, or prepare costumes for a Christmas play will find Advent all too short a time to prepare for the coming of Christ the King.”
These are hopeful thoughts as we prepare to incorporate some of these liturgical activities into our home life during Advent to enable us to truly celebrate Christmas.
It is a shame that many do not fast during Advent, because without a fast there can really be no feast at Christmas. Fasting and other forms of penance, such as prayer and almsgiving, help to purify our hearts and prepare us for the celebration of Christmas (cf. Catechism, no. 1434).
The Church especially encourages participation at weekday Masses during Advent, because in the Eucharist we find the source and goal of our Advent preparation: Christ Himself, whose sacrifice reconciles us with God (cf. Catechism, no. 1436; Sacred Congregation of Rites, Eucharisticum Mysterium, no. 29).
The Church primarily celebrates Christmas from Christmas Day until the Solemnity of the Epiphany, which commemorates the manifestation of Christ as the Savior of the whole world (cf. Mt. 2:1-12). The Church has also traditionally celebrated Christmas for 40 days, culminating on the Feast of the Presentation (Feb. 2). During this time, the birth of Christ is celebrated as one continuous festival. It is just as important to celebrate during the Christmas season as it is to prepare for Christ during Advent.
The following activities are provided so that you and your family can live Advent and Christmas to the fullest.
Advent wreath: The Advent wreath, which has German origins, is probably the most recognized Advent custom. It is a wreath made of evergreens that is bound to a circle of wire. It symbolizes the many years from Adam to Christ in which the world awaited its Redeemer; it also represents the years that we have awaited His second and final coming. The wreath holds four equally spaced candles, the three purple ones lit on the “penitential” Sundays and a pink one for Gaudete, the joyful third Sunday in Advent. There are many available prayers and hymns found in the reading list that can accompany your personal Advent wreath ceremony.
The empty manger: Each child may have his own individual manger, or there may be one manger for the whole family. The idea is that when acts of service, sacrifice, or kindness are done in honor of Baby Jesus as a birthday present, the child receives a piece of straw to put into the manger. Then, on Christmas morning, “Baby Jesus” is placed in the manger. Encourage your children to make Jesus’ bed as “comfortable” as possible through their good deeds. In the process, explain Christ’s incomparable self-gift at Christmas and Easter that enables us to be part of God’s family.
The Jesse tree: The Jesse tree tells about Christ’s ancestry through symbols and relates Scripture to salvation history, progressing from creation to the birth of Christ. The tree can be made on a poster board with the symbols glued on, or on an actual tree. For further information read, Advent and Christmas in a Catholic Home.
St. Nicholas Day: The feast of St. Nicholas is on Dec. 6th. It is a highlight of the Advent season. Each child puts out a shoe the night before St. Nicholas Day in the hope that the kind bishop — with his miter, staff, and bag of gifts — will pay a visit. The current “Santa Claus” is modeled after St. Nicholas, but commercialism has tarnished the true story. Many families give gifts on both Dec. 6 and Christmas. Read about St. Nicholas in your favorite saints book.
The Christ candle: Any large white candle can be used for the Christ candle. The idea is to decorate it with symbols for Christ. Use old Christmas cards, sequins, holly, etc. The candle can be lit on Christmas Eve to show that the Light of the World has arrived. Then continue to light the Christ candle throughout the year at Sunday dinner to remind your family of our waiting for Christ, as well as celebrating His birth and Resurrection.
The Mary candle: Some families have the custom of decorating the Christ candle with a blue veil on December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. On this great feast, others place a candle with a blue ribbon before a statue or picture of the Blessed Virgin, whose “yes” to God enabled our Lord’s coming at Christmas. The candle is lit during meal times to serve as a delightful reminder of Mary’s eager expectation of the “Light of the World.” It can also serve as a reminder to each family member to keep their own light of grace burning as a preparation for Christ’s coming.
St. Lucy cakes: The feast of St. Lucy, virgin and martyr, is on December 13th. This marks the opening of the Christmas season in Sweden. Her life story can be found in most saints books, as can the recipe for the traditional cakes. The symbolism is rich and her life story worthwhile reading.
The Nativity scene: This is the event in which the entire family shares — setting up the Christmas manger. Mary and Joseph should be far off traveling and their approach to Bethlehem can be adjusted daily. Older children can make life-size Nativity models, carve them, cut them out from cardboard, or set up pre-made figurines. The creative ideas are without limit. Make sure to place the Nativity scene where many can admire the children’s efforts to give God glory.
Christmas baking: There are many recipe books available to find great traditional Christmas baking ideas. The baking usually starts around December 20th. As Christmas approaches, the house will smell of baking and fresh wreaths. The glory of Christmas is at hand! Move the manger to a focal point, add lights to the Nativity to be lighted on Christmas Eve, and anticipate together.
Blessing of the tree: More and more frequently families are blessing their Christmas trees. It is good to remind children that “the tree” relates to many aspects of our faith. For example, we are reminded that our first parents were not allowed to eat from one tree, and that Christ paid the great price for our redemption by hanging on a tree (cf. Acts 5:29-32).
There are many different stories which attempt to explain why we use a tree at Christmas. For instance, St. Boniface in the eighth century gave the balsam fir tree to the Druids in place of the oak tree, the symbol of their idol. He said, “The fir tree is the wood of peace, the sign of an endless life with its evergreen branches. It points to heaven. It will never shelter deeds of blood, but rather be filled with loving gifts and rites of kindness.”
There are more stories and blessings included in McLoughlin’s Advent and Christmas in a Catholic Home. A family can also participate in Advent through daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, or at least by following the weekday Mass readings at home, as the Church anticipates her Savior’s coming, and then His early life following Christmas. A family that participates together in Mass and other activities during the Advent and Christmas seasons will grow closer in Christ — “The Reason for the Season” — and give a great witness to friends and relatives.
The Jesse tree reminds us of Jesus’ Davidic ancestry (cf. Mt. 1:1). For a greater understanding of the relationship between the house of David, Jesus, and the Catholic Church’s divine origin, see CUF’s FAITH FACT: “Rock Solid: The Salvation History of the Catholic Church.”
Father, all-powerful God, your eternal Word took flesh on our earth when the Virgin Mary placed her life at the service of your plan. Lift our minds in watchful hope to hear the voice which announces His glory and open our minds to receive the Spirit who prepares us for His coming.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Christmas time can be such a time of lovely customs, also. Maybe Emilie Barnes will spark a new one today.
A rich heritage can be passed on from generation to generation with the special traditions that are part of your Christmas celebration, and it’s not too late to start now. It makes no difference whether you’re a family or an individual – you can still create wonderful memories and establish special traditions. “Let this Christmas be one of happiness, and the New Year be radiant with hope and filled with the impulse of doing something for somebody every day. “
Cookie Exchange – This is a great idea! Who invented it? We’re not really sure, but it was truly a stroke of genius! Instead of making a variety of cookies for the holiday, you can make a large batch of your favorites and swap them for many different kinds.
I received an invitation that instructed me to bring seven dozen cookies plus my recipe written on a recipe card that would be displayed by my cookie plate.
We drank hot Christmas tea and wrote down other recipes on pretty cards from our hostess. Each guest received paper tote bag (a box or tray could also be used) to take our wonderful collection of goodies home.
Christmas Memory Book – An album dedicated to remembering Christmases is a great idea. All this tradition requires is a photo album. With each year a photo could be added, with the Christmas card sent for the year, and a journal detailing Christmas festivities and traditions. Children may add little mementos if they wish as well.
Family Movies, Video, Slides – It’s so much fun to see those old family movies, slides, photos or videos. Set aside an evening to do just that. It’s interesting to see how everyone has changed.
Take a family Christmas photo every year too. We take ours at Thanksgiving. It’s the one time we all seem to be together. Coordinating your clothing is also fun. Be creative and do your own thing. Include the pets,teddy bears, and favorite dolls or toys as well. Some of the photos we have of past Christmases delight our grandchildren because their parents are hugging dolls and teddy bears!.
Enjoy Christmas Cards – Ours begin to arrive early in December. We store them in a basket as the days draw closer to Christmas. Then, beginning January 1, we take our card-filled basket to our meal table, and before or after our meal, each member of the family draws out a card. We read the card and who it is from and then offer a prayer for that person or family. This tradition can last well into the new year.
Give Toys – Many local and civic organizations provide an opportunity for individuals and families to donate toys for distribution to needy families on Christmas Eve. What a great way to teach your children the Joy of Giving.
Adopt a Family – There are many opportunities where your family can adopt a family in need. Help them with holiday food and gifts – it’s a great bridge-builder. This can be done anonymously if it would be easier.
Put up a “JOY” Stocking – During the month of December, each family member puts thoughts, love notes and prayers in the “joy” stocking. Then on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day,the notes are pulled out and read.
Some of my own thoughts on Traditions:
The Spiritual Christmas Crib – This is a wonderful devotion and fun activity for the whole family starting at the beginning of Advent. It can be found here.
The Twelve Days of Christmas – Lovely practice that keeps the Spirit of Christmas alive following Our Lord’s Birthday on Christmas. It can be found here.
The Manger – Besides our Nativity Scene, we make a rather large manger out of twigs or Popsicle sticks and a glue gun. We then cut up pieces of yellow construction paper into small strips for straw. Each time one of the children make a sacrifice they put their name on one of the pieces of straw and put it in the manger. On Christmas morning Jesus will have a soft bed to lay on….we hope!
Christmas Traditions Don’t Have to Be Expensive (Emilie Barnes)
1. Go caroling around the neighborhood or at a convalescent home to spread cheer. Bring a thermos of hot cocoa to keep everyone warm.
2. Attend a Christmas pageant and take lots of pictures.
3. Enjoy the holiday lights in your hometown on a nighttime walk. It’s fun to see your neighbor’s decorations.
4. Go to a recital at a local church. Many choirs sing The Messiah and other seasonal music.
5. Have a special hot chocolate time, use Christmas mugs. Sprinkle the tops with little marshmallows, whipped cream, and colored sprinkles. Use a candy cane to stir. Yum!
6. Throughout the year, save the remnants of candles from special occasion (birthday, anniversaries, special dinners,etc.). Melt the remnants from one large Christmas candle.
7. Look at garage sales, flea markets and antique spots for pretty inexpensive teacups to place homemade tea cookies,candies or tea bags in. Give them with gifts along with a message:
“When this cup is empty and the goodies are all gone,
Fill it again for another friend, so you can pass it on.”
“It is easy to understand how enraptured children can become at the contemplation of a tiny Babe in a manger.
To have God reduce Himself to their own status, to become a child like them, to need a mother, what more could they desire! They feel on a footing with Him. The Almighty is of their stature!” – Fr. Raoul Plus, S.J., Christ in the Home
“I’ve long been wanting a book on various virtues to help my children become better Catholics. But most books focused on the virtues make being bad seem funny or attractive in order to teach the child a lesson. I’ve always found them to be detrimental to the younger ones who’s logic hasn’t formed. This book does an awesome job in showing a GOOD example in each of the children with all the various struggles children commonly struggle with (lying, hiding things, being grumpy, you name it.) But this book isn’t JUST virtue training… it’s also just sweet little chats about our love for God, God’s greatness, etc…
And the best thing of all? They are SHORT! I have lots of books that are wonderful, but to be honest I rarely pick them up because I just don’t have the time to read a huge, long story. These are super short, just one page, and very to the point. The second page has a poem, picture, a short prayer and a few questions for the kids to get them thinking. It works really, really well right before our bedtime prayers and only takes a few minutes at most.
If you like “Leading the Little ones to Mary” then you will like these… they are a little more focused on ALL age groups, not just little ones… so are perfect for a family activity even through the teenage years, down to your toddler.”
Advent/Christmas Cheerful Chats available here.
Visit my Meadows of Grace Shoppe for my books and many lovely hand-crafted items for Christmas!
Here, Baroness Maria Augusta Trapp tells in her own beautiful, simple words the extraordinary story of her romance with the baron, their escape from Nazi-occupied Austria, and their life in America.
Now with photographs from the original edition.
Most people only know the young Maria from The Sound of Music; few realize that in subsequent years, as a pious wife and a seasoned Catholic mother, Maria gave herself unreservedly to keeping her family Catholic by observing in her home the many feasts of the Church’s liturgical year, with poems and prayers, food and fun, and so much more!
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