Catholic Activity: Jerusalem Christmas Decorations
During the Second Week of Advent we focus on preparation for the coming of the Savior at Christmas. We use the theme of Jerusalem in planning and designing our crib and tree. Here are some excellent ideas.
The theme of this Sunday and of the entire week is the preparation of the Spouse and her city, Jerusalem, for the coming of the Bridegroom, the Saviour, at Christmas and the Epiphany. This is the week during which the children should be made enthusiastic about preparation for the Christmas decorations of their home. A teacher, mother or father with a little imagination may introduce the children to a little archeology. The youngsters could be told how, long, long ago people lived in Asia, and how with succeeding ages and civilizations and new peoples, cities became covered with dust, and other people built cities upon the foundations of the old. The stational church of today is the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, which always meant to the Romans their own city of Jerusalem. This most ancient city was that of the Jews, where Our Lord Himself began His divine mission of salvation. The Jerusalem of Christianity, the Holy Church, has supplanted this city with the new Jerusalem of the law of charity. Today the Saviour is to come into the Church, into the Jerusalem of the Christians. Upon the rock of the Church is built the heavenly Jerusalem which shall be the permanent home of the blessed. But the Saviour wishes also to come into a fourth Jerusalem, that of our souls and it is especially important that we decorate and adorn this last Jerusalem for the coming of the Redeemer.
At the Epiphany the Church announces a message of great joy: "Be lighted, O Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee." This is the purpose of all Christmas decorations Today, in order to receive the visit of the Great King we must prepare ourselves in the Jerusalem of our souls. The Church tells us today to "awaken our hearts in order to prepare the ways for Thy unique Son, that we may serve Him with purified heart" (Oration). The proper of the entire Mass of the Second Sunday in Advent centers about this preparation, which takes place in the Church and in the souls of all Christians: "Rise up and stand upon the heights, O Jerusalem, and see the joy which comes from Thy God!" (Communion).
The theological content of the preparation of the city and the "ways" may easily be conveyed to children. Let the home or the classroom become their "Jerusalem." It must then be swept and kept very dean, and must be beautifully decorated. The home and the classroom become a symbol of the interior preparation of their souls for the coming of the Christ Child. At home, the children prepare a backdrop for their crib in the living room, with a silhouette of Jerusalem in the distance; at school, a corner of the blackboard could be decorated with a sketch of the city. A few garlands of evergreen decorated with ribbons and pine cones and other floral adjuncts may be added as the children endeavor to prepare themselves more and more for Christmas.
It is high time this week to be thinking of the construction of the crib and its figures, and of the ornamentation of the Christmas tree.
The crib should be different each year. It may easily become a family or classroom project, and each individual should contribute something to this community enterprise. All the talents of the girls and boys for carving, sewing, designing, construction and the like should be utilized in the making of this little home-like representation. The children should be inflamed with the same love and the same enthusiasm which led St. Francis of Assisi to popularize the crib. Cheap statuary must cautiously be avoided since everything contributes to the formation of the child: his "being" is proportionately diminished by anything in any respect inferior. This does not mean that the most rare and expensive figurines should be purchased for the crib. Far from it. For if the statues are bought, even though they may be exquisite in art and craftsmanship, they are not the product of the creative spirit of the children. As the great St. Thomas would put it, the child should be encouraged in every manner to exercise his right as "second cause." It is the glory of rational creation that it is able to exercise its causality with the materials which are used in co-operation with the Creator of his soul. Therefore allow the children to construct their own crib — a new one each year.
The office of the teacher, according to St. Augustine in his De Magistro, consists in one of two things: (1) to allow the First Cause to operate freely, or (2) to provide the occasion for the student to learn directly from the created things themselves. The parent or the teacher would do well to describe the city of Jerusalem and of Bethlehem to the children. Accompany the description with all the aids of visual education, such as slides, pictures, paintings, or movies. Art begins with a real foundation in things. The symbolic value of art and purity of form, however, should never be neglected in the formation of the child. The teacher should present the children with samples, either pictures or real objects, of excellent models of cribs. Even the most modern and most cleverly imaginative forms should not be neglected. Perhaps even the rather charming and humorous sets made by Lambert-Rucki would appeal to the children. After this, the teacher should allow free reign to the operation of grace, imagination and craftsmanship in the children, guiding them suavely only according to their needs.
Honorable mention must be made of certain figures which are often left out of crib sets. Where is Isaias, the great prophet of Advent? Where is St. John the Baptist, whose spirit of penance and preparation overshadows the whole season? It is remarkable that after all this time the suite of the Great King never seems to surround the Saviour: St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, St. Anna and St. Simeon! Depending upon the ingenuity of the children and their teachers, as well as the size of the crib, all these figures should enter at the proper season to offer their homage and gifts at the foot of the Incarnate Lamb.
It is evident, moreover, that not all the figures that appear in the Christmas cycle should appear at the crib simultaneously, except perhaps during the octave of the Epiphany. From this Sunday on, or as soon as the crib is completed, the various personages who appear during the cycle make their entry at the children's crib as they prepare the crib for the coming of the Son, the boys may be taught to imagine that they are either Isaias or St. John the Baptist; the girls may imitate our Blessed Lady.
In the spirit of the season of Advent the children should also be preparing their own visit to the crib, bearing their own spiritual or material gifts in homage to the Lord. The greatest gift is the spiritual glorification of the Saviour by an act of adoration, thanksgiving and gratitude. This is done chiefly by the offering of the greatest act of thanksgiving, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass each day. At Mass, reality replaces the external and the symbolic. Other gifts concern love of neighbor as well as acts and objects offered at Holy Mass which represent any or all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The teacher must always, in season and out of season, lead children to understand that the gift is brought to the Saviour in the reality of His sacrificial Banquet, and that the crib is but a poor, human exteriorization of what takes place upon the altar of God. What a crime it is to divert the attention of children from the altar of sacrifice to the crib to such an extent that the first thing which caches their eye upon entering church is the crib rather than the altar or the Eucharistic Host! Great care must be taken to make the children understand that the crib is a homey little reminder of the altar.
Need anything be said at all concerning the charlatanism of an angel at the crib, who bows his head to say "thank you" as the pennies of babies are brought to the Christ Child? Pictures and stories from missionary society publications about children and orphans in many lands foster the spirit of the Association of the Holy Childhood. It is so very wonderful to children to see how other little children from far-away lands celebrate the coming of the Infant Saviour. Could anything more easily be employed to teach children the mark of the universality of the Church?
The next exterior object which customarily decorates the Jerusalem of our homes and school is the Christmas tree. During the second week in Advent, those who go into the woods to cut their own tree should be off to a picnic into the forest. City children, for practical reasons, are perhaps obliged to purchase their trees a little later on. Our concern at this time, however, is rather for the future decoration of the tree. The ornaments of the tree as well as the figurines and design of the crib should be made by the children themselves and changed each year, so that creative imagination may be developed and not stagnate. A little competition at school, with suitable little prizes in impeccably good taste and quality, might stimulate zeal.
Fundamentally there are two major elements associated with the Christmas tree. First, there is the tree itself, which preferably should be a living evergreen. (It is sad indeed that trees, at least in rural communities are not left with the roots on and later replanted). The second element is that of the lights, which are the most glamorous decoration of the tree. We realize, of course, that the Christmas tree is a relatively modern seasonal decoration and that its symbolism may have had pagan beginnings. With things as they are, however, the tree may be "baptized" as a symbol of the Tree of Life, who is Christ Himself; and the lights become symbols of the Light of the World. Holy Mass is divided into two distinct parts: the fore-Mass or the Mass of the Catechumens where the Light (PHOS) of faith is sought; and the Mass of the Faithful, where we are given life (ZOE) by becoming incorporated into Christ, the living Vine, the Tree of Life. The Christmas tree then becomes a symbol of Holy Mass!
Since the Mass is symbolized by the Christmas tree, we may carry our symbolism even further. Christ is the Tree of Life (Genesis 2,9; Apocalypse 22,2), and His Incarnation brings youth and springtime to the Jerusalem of our souls. A Chi-Rho, the ancient Greek symbol for Christ, may very appropriately be placed either at the top or in the midst of the tree. What other decorations would most suitably be prepared by truly Christian children for their Christmas tree? Let the children surprise you.
Regina Laudis, a Benedictine foundation in Bethlehem, Conn., has offered the public in recent years some very appropriate decorations based principally upon the "O antiphons." They are made of plywood, gilded and decorated with gayly colored symbols. This idea could very easily and inexpensively be extended even to manufactured ornaments, let alone original "creations" of the children. For example, if we were to adopt the designs for the "O antiphons" which were executed by Gerald Bonnette in Worship, (December, 1952) ordinary tree globes from the five-and-ten-cent store could be painted with these symbols. On each of the last nine days before Christmas Eve, a new ornament could be added to the tree as the antiphon is sung. Other appropriate symbols are the "Morning Star" (Ps. 109, 3), Or the Lamb of God. Myriads of symbols, designs and shapes must replace the tawdry and meaningless ornaments with which we ordinarily allow our trees to be decorated. Would not an ornament in the form of a rose symbolize the martyr Stephen, a lily the virginity of St. John the Apostle, and violet ornaments, edged with white, the multitude of the Holy Innocents? If inexpensive ornaments could not be made, or purchased and retouched, then the girls could busy themselves in the kitchen making goodies and candies appropriately wrapped so as to represent the various symbols of the season. Candy canes could represent the staffs of the twelve Apostles, apples could become martyrs, marshmallows the Holy Innocents. Cookies in the form of crowns, keys, stars and candles could become "O antiphons." Indeed, it is time for the children to busy themselves with the ornaments for their very own Christmas tree! The tree will be part of their decoration of the home Jerusalem, and not a surprise party brought in by Santa Claus.
Activity Source: True Christmas Spirit by Rev. Edward J. Sutfin, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955