Tuesday, December 05, 2006Advent and Christmas in our Homes
Christmas has been very secularized. The focus of giving gifts has been distorted into a shopping madness... The traditions of St. Nicholas has been turned into Santa Claus coming down peoples' chimneys and riding a sleigh driven by reindeer... Yet some of the American traditions of Christmas many of us, including myself, are very fond of. We are hoping to find our own way as a family of making Christmas a rich spiritual time but also a joyful fun time of activities, fun and traditions which the children can look forward to year after year. -So how do we make Christmas a very faith-based celebration, staying clear of the mass culture of consumerism and more?
For one thing, it is very important for us to observe both Advent and Christmas: preparing for Christ's coming during Advent and celebrating His birth after Christmas, until the feast of the Epiphany or the feast of the Presentation (February 2nd.) Many people these days buy their Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving or right in the beginning of December, only to take it down the day after Christmas. Most people sing Christmas carols throughout all of December... there is nothing very wrong with this, but it's not in following the Catholic liturgical calendar! I think that the liturgical calendar and the Masses we attend are the perfect models of living out the spirit of Advent and Christmas: singing Advent hymns before, Christmas carols after... preparing in a spiritual way for the coming of Christ, and feasting with joy after the feast of His birth... the list goes on. Christmas doesn't end on December 26th! The feast begins! We as Catholics are so blessed to have our faith-- it is so rich and full of beautiful treasures if we only open the doors of our minds and hearts to what is there for us to contemplate, to behold, to embrace.
“Children love to anticipate,” Helen McLoughlin writes in her book titled, Advent and Christmas in a Catholic Home. “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.”
Here are some Catholic traditions which can be incorporated into the Advent/Christmas season:
St. Nicholas Day: The feast of St. Nicholas is Dec. 6th, an exciting highlight of the Advent season for children. Traditionally, 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. Some families give gifts on this feast day as well as on the feast of Christmas. A wonderful children's book out there (beautifully illustrated!) is called the Miracle of St. Nicholas, by Gloria Whelan. It tells the story of St. Nick. Tomorrow is St. Nicholas Day, so get the shoes ready...
The Christ Candle: Any large white candle can be used. Decorations (using symbols for Christ) on the candle can be done with colored beeswax by the children. The candle is traditionally lit on Christmas Eve to show that the Light of the World has arrived. Continue lighting the Christ candle throughout the year at Sunday dinner to remind the family of our waiting for Christ, as well as celebrating His birth and Resurrection.
The Empty manger: One of my favorite traditions is that of the empty manger. There can be the communal manger, or a manger per child. The idea is that, during Advent, the children fill the empty cradle with their virtues and good acts, represented by single peices of straw. If they are not working hard in these interior ways, they can SEE that they have not prepared a dent bed of straw for the Christ child to come lay upon on the feast of Christmas. This is motivating for most of the children I've known and usually, by Christmas, the bed is full of peices of straw, ie, their virtues and preparation of hearts.
The Mary Candle: Mary's fiat, her yes to God, enabled God to become Man. The candle can be lit during meal times to serve as a reminder of Mary’s expectation of the “Light of the World.” This also helps to remind 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... to read about the customs/traditions of St. Lucy in Sweden, click here. To celebrate this feast day in your home and carry on the delightful traditions, click here to read how Mary Reed Newland celebrates this in their home.
Stockings: This, I assume, has it's origin in St. Nicholas filling the shoes of the children. On Christmas Eve stockings are a special part of family traditions and can be filled by St. Nick, Santa Claus, or Father Christmas.. (all titles of our current "Santa Claus".. take your pick!)
Singing: Music is a wonderful part of holidays. There is the singing of Advent songs for the Jesse Tree and Advent Wreath prayers, but there can also be some choral studies for the feast of Christmas: About a week before the Feast, children can learn Christmas music either with their voices, practicing harmonies with eachother, or on their instruments. When Christmas time comes, they can treat the whole family to the music they've been preparing for the feast.
Baking: Baking, a few days before Christmas, is a wonderful way to prepare for the feast. -Take advantage of this time of the year to try new exciting desserts: new cookies, pastries, cakes and more. To read about traditional breads for Christmas time, go to catholicculture.com.
Nativity Scenes: This is not only an aesthetic treat for the decorations of Advent but a delight for children as well. The different figures within the scene (usually the Holy Family, 3 kings, some animals, shepherds and angels. ) can be placed accordingly throughout Advent and Christmas seasons... ie, during Advent the Holy Family is in the manger but the Christ child's bed is empty. On the Christmas feast Christ can be placed in His manger. If you've been building up the cradle of virtues, He finally comes to lay in the bed which, hopefully, is soft and full! The 3 kings, during Advent and after Christmas, can be traveling all over the house, always coming closer to the Nativity scene, finally to arrive on the feast of Epiphany in January which is when the 3 kings arive with their gifts. The angels can also be added on the feast of Christmas... and candles lit...
The Star of Bethlehem: The star on the top of the tree represents (or CAN represent) the star of Bethlehem. When you decorate the tree (closer to Christmas) don't forget the star to top it off! -It is special to decorate the tree just a few days before Christmas or on Christmas Eve, then to leave it up during all of the Christmas season during the festivities.
Gift-Giving: If kept in perspective/control, the giving of gifts is a wonderful tradition. Growing up we all got very excited preparing gifts for eachother. As we placed the emphasis on homemade gifts, (this not only fed creativity, but was much less expensive!), it was a joy to be working on something during all of Advent for the family members. It is also so dear to receive a homemade book telling the story of Christmas made by the youngest in the family when it was all their idea. How exciting it is to see what little ones can surprise us with! Their gifts can be the most precious and beautiful of all.
I know many families who do not open all the gifts on the morning of Christmas. Rather, they do the stockings on the morning of and then give a gift per day to each child during the 12 days of Christmas, saving a bigger, more significant present for all on the actual feast of Epiphany. This spreading out of the Christmas gifts is a wonderful way to focus on the Christmas season being extended beyond Christmas and also teaches children patience, steering clear of the greed which we are all subject to on Christmas.
Bedtime Stories: During the last week of Advent our parents read us a Christmas story every night. Now that I think about it, it could be a good idea to read a Christmas story on Christmas Eve and on the 12 days of Christmas, and read aloud more Advent-types of books during the Advent season. Either way, hearing my parents read aloud to us is a very special memory I have. On Christmas Eve, we read a certain book every year to make the night special. That choice of book is up to each family... there are many out there. See my recent Friday Coffeehouse post for a few Christmas-time books I like.
Happy celebrations... please share any other thoughts on customs, traditions and ideas you all have.
For more reading, go to: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0372.html
~Sia, Vancouver, WA