Catholic Activity: Christmas Traditions
The opening of the eternal gates through which the King of Glory may enter is indicated by the wreath on the door of our homes at Christmastide. The Advent wreath, which accompanied the family throughout the season of preparation may be taken down. The violet ribbons are removed, and it is gloriously decorated with white and gold. It is then placed upon the door as a symbol of the welcome of Christ into our city, our home and our hearts. On Christmas Eve the whole house should be strewn with garlands and made ready for the Light of the World. The crib is set in a special place of honor, for tonight the central figure of the Nativity scene is to arrive.
The Jews celebrate their feast of lights (Hannukah) during the month of December in honor of the rededication of the Temple. Tonight we celebrate the arrival of the Messias who is the light and life of the world. The liturgy itself has preserved the symbolism of light as representative of the Redeemer, and this is most dramatically brought out in the blessing of the paschal candle at Easter. On Christmas Eve, a huge candle is set up in the home. It was often the custom to surround this candle with a laurel wreath, symbolic of victory over Satan, and then to keep the light burning throughout the holy night and every night during the festival season. Nearly every nation has adopted the Christmas candle. In Ireland the family lights a holly-bedecked candle and prays for the living and the dead. The Ukrainians place their candle in a loaf of bread, reminiscent of the Bread of Life and the Light of the Nations. In South America the candle is sometimes placed in a paper lantern decorated with Nativity scenes. In France the Christmas light often consisted in the molding of three individual candles into one at the base in order to give honor to the Most Holy Trinity. In Germany the Christmas candle was sometimes placed upon the lichtstock, a wooden pole decorated with evergreens. The pyramid of candles which later became customary was replaced by the Christmas tree during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Irish are particularly fond of placing a candle in the window. During the English persecutions priests were obliged to go into hiding, and it was the hope of every Irish family to have the refugee come into their home for the celebration of Mass on Christmas Eve. The candle in the window indicated his welcome into their home. When the English authorities requested an explanation of this custom the Irish simply explained that they lit the candles and kept the doors unlocked so that if Mary and Joseph were looking for a place to stay they knew that they would be welcome. This "superstition" was considered harmless by the English, and the Irish were often rewarded by the Real Presence of Christ at Holy Mass.
The Christmas fires burning on the peaks of the Alps in central Europe are a colorful sight. As Father Weiser writes:
Like flaming stars they hang in the dark heavens during Holy Night, burning brightly and silently as the farmers from around the mountainsides walk through the winter night down into the valley for midnight Mass. Each person carries a lantern, swinging it to and fro; the night seems alive with hundreds of glow worms converging towards the great light at the foot of the mountains — the parish church — shining and sparkling, a "Feast of Lights" indeed. No one who has witnessed this scene on Christmas Eve in Austria, Bavaria or Switzerland will ever forget it.This is the evening for the telling of Christmas stories to the children. The collection of Christmas stories in Christmastide by William J. Rohrenbeck would serve well both for tonight and throughout the holiday season. During the long evening before the midnight Mass a story could be read. The little Christmas Eve program available from Conception Abbey, Conception, Mo., with its readings from the Martyrology and the Gospel of St. Luke could be enacted. The last preparations of the Christmas tree and crib are made. The close association between the evergreen tree as the symbol of life, and the Christmas candle as the symbol of light should be retained. When the great Ansgar preached Christ to the Vikings he referred to the fir tree as a symbol of the faith, for "it was as high as hope, as wide as love, and bore the sign of the cross on every bough." Instead of exchanging presents and having a little feast during the evening, we should imitate the bountiful Réveillon breakfast after the midnight Mass. The fasting is over and the joys of Christmas are at hand; with the Giver of all gifts we extend our gifts and love to family and friends.
Activity Source: True Christmas Spirit by Rev. Edward J. Sutfin, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955