Catholic Activity: Celebrating Advent and Christmas
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted...a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance..." - Ecclesiastes 3:1-4. Likewise, there is a time for fasting and a time for feasting. In our culture of immediate gratification, many have lost sight of the importance of seasons. For Catholics, the observance of the different seasons and feast days as proclaimed by Holy Mother Church is essential to restoring the proper and holy rhythm of the liturgical year. Here are some tips for saving our Christmas celebrations for Christmas Day in a society that disregards the preparatory Advent season.
It is to our Lady that Christian families must look for help to reestablish Christmas as a season of festivities marking Christ's birth. 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. Nor is it an easy task to break with the world and the powerful influence of advertising. Their season of Christmas begins around Thanksgiving Day when stores display wares for holiday gift-giving. It lasts until December 24.
Families, who would not dream of eating their Thanksgiving turkey a week in advance or of having their 4th of July picnic in June, give no thought to the fact that, when they awake on December 25, there is not a shred of Christmas left. Every present has been opened. Every carol has been sung. The tree has dried out. Christmas is apt to be a dull day given to over-eating. There was no fast in Advent, so it follows that there can be no feast.
It is difficult to keep one's home dark in Advent penance; to keep a tree fresh outside the door; to refrain from singing carols until Christmas eve. Our children see their friends' trees shimmering with ornaments a week before Christmas. Their houses are bedecked with lights. Television and radio blare carols. Not only is it difficult to keep from celebrating beforehand, it is even more difficult to begin forty days of the Christmas season [Editor's Note: The Church no longer celebrates 40 days in the Christmas season. The season starts with Midnight Mass Christmas Eve and ends on the Baptism of Our Lord in January, after Epiphany.] when all around people are concluding their festivities. How then do families return to the spirit of the Church and begin the season of joy and grace on Christmas eve?
The simplest way is by keeping Advent. Children love to anticipate. When there are empty mangers to fill with straws of 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. (In Family Advent Customs the author develops these various practices.)
Celebrating Christmas in its season can be accomplished more easily when several families try it together. Frequently there are families who, if only for sentimental reasons, would like to keep the joy and surprise of Christmas for the eve. Christians of the Eastern rite wait until their particular feast of Christmas comes in January. We should likewise begin ours on its proper day. We also need time for our festivities. The Church gives us a period of forty days for rejoicing.
As a child in the suburbs of Boston, my Christmas eve centered around the parish house. On the half-hour groups of children with trumpet accompaniment caroled around the giant tree on the lawn or, when snow was too deep, sang on the rambling veranda. From there they went to sing in the park, at the convent, and at homes of aged parishioners. Back to the parish house, its hearths aglow, children trooped to enjoy warm doughnuts and cider. Early in the evening high school students caroled on the same circuit. Now the parish house was bright with candles and firelight. The night was blue and so frosty cold that the trumpets cut the air. Their Noel Noel traveled far and clear. In reply myriads of vigil lights, flickering against lace curtains in every house, returned a bright Merry Christmas. Carolers returned to the parish house for refreshments.
Half-hourly the charming custom of caroling went on. By nine o'clock the church choir arrived. When the last trolley car had left the carbarns an hour later, a hush fell upon the city making peace on earth a reality. By ten-thirty parents arrived to join the singing and to free the choir for rehearsals.
I remember the breathtaking beauty of the upper church. Its marble altar with golden decorations was resplendent with light. The crib gave new joy each succeeding year. With the singing of Midnight Mass our season of rejoicing began.
Afterwards families walked home together in the sharp cold nights, parents a bit ahead, boys and girls lagging behind. Everywhere vigil lights flickered in homes of the Irish emigrants who began the custom in penal days when priests were being hunted. Telling of the custom in The Christmas Book, Father Francis X. Weiser, S.J., writes:
The people had no churches. Priests hid in forests and caves and secretly visited the farms and homes to say Mass there during the night. When Christmas came the faithful placed burning candles in the windows so that any priest who happened to be in the vicinity would be guided to their home through the dark night. Silently he entered and was received by the devout with fervent prayers of gratitude that their home was to become a church during the Holy Night. To justify this practice in the eyes of the English soldiers, the Irish people used to explain: ''We burn the candles that Jesus and Mary looking for a place to stay will find their way to our home.'' The English authorities finding this superstition harmless did not bother to suppress it.A Gaelic name for Christmas eve is Oidhche na ceapairi—Night of Cakes. I can still see the cakes through candlelight in kitchens of my childhood. A spanking white cloth on the table set off the two-foot candle bound in evergreens and rising from a bowl of holly to symbolize the Light of the world arising from the Root of Jesse. On the polished black stove were round loaves of sweet buttery bread flecked with currants and candied peel called Irish Christmas "cake." That bread spelled Christmas for us.
After a feast day breakfast early in the morning, our tree was stealthily brought indoors and set into its waiting stand. Balls were hung, tinsel, popcorn, and cranberries festooned to its spreading branches. Then it was time for Mass at dawn.
Every nation has its Christmas bread. The French Canadian uses homemade Pain d'Habitant, the German, Christstollen, the Czech Vanocka. The Italian saves a slice from each Christmas loaf and on St. Blaise day, forty days later, soaks the hard bread in milk and eats it. Many cakes are baked in wreath-shaped pans and circles to symbolize everlasting life. Among these are the Swedish Julbrod, chock full of citron, raisins, almonds; and the famous Ukrainian poppy seed cake. A recipe for the Irish cake, Barm Brack is found under St. Brigid's Day, February 1.
Activity Source: Christmas to Candlemas in a Catholic Home by Helen McLoughlin, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota