Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Celebrating Christmas: with the Accent on Christ

by Unknown


A look at some of the different customs and traditions that make up a truly Catholic Christmas.

Larger Work

The Catholic Hearth


3, 41-46

Publisher & Date

The Catholic Hearth, December 1994

Perhaps one of the reasons why Christmas is such an enjoyable experience is that it gives most of us an opportunity to indulge that frequently expressed desire to "get away from it all." When we speak of "getting away from it all," we usually indicate our dissatisfaction with the turmoil of modern living. The constant grind of a machine age, the noises of industry, the grating of traffic, the friction of human relationship, the hunting search for more dollars finally frazzle our nerves to such an extent that we begin to long for an escape. And Christmas offers us just such an escape. Somehow, stone, steel and machines simply do not fit in with the spirit of Christmas. Modern and up-to-date as we might like to fancy ourselves, this is a time when we stubbornly cling to tradition.

The products of our age, marvels of engineering, are nevertheless cold, unfeeling and impersonal. Christmas is just the opposite. Christmas is the birth of Christ, the birth of Love. As a result, Christmas seems to cast a magic spell over us, enabling us to become simple shepherds instead of complex bundles of psychological problems. On Christmas we are once more as enchanted as children, watching excitement and reverence clasp hands in the quiet of a night of mystery.

At least, this is the effect Christmas will have on us if we have given ourselves the proper preparation for the feast of the Nativity. Advent preparations are intended to direct us toward the high point of our Christmas celebration—that solemn, joyful moment when we receive the Blessed Infant into our hearts during the Sacrifice of the Mass. At this time, we not only have the privilege of "holding the Baby," we even take Him home with us, there to be honored and feted.

Since our participation in the Holy Sacrifice is the high point of our Christmas celebration, let's not spoil it with an overanxious anticipation of our Christmas festivities. The vigil of Christmas is our final opportunity to offer mortification before we taste the delicious joys of Christmas, and the entire day should be observed in this spirit.

If we have given ourselves such preparation, then when Christmas actually arrives, we and the children will be delighted to see the house furnished with the decorations the family helped to make during Advent. The Advent wreath, now stripped of its penitential purple ribbons and redecorated with more elaborate trappings, can possibly be used as a door decoration. Plants, flowers and greens, customary from the very earliest of Christmas celebrations, are a living expression of the joy and solemnity that is reserved for a special occasion. There was a time when plants and flowers were intimately associated with pagan celebrations. Because of this, they were at first discouraged as a part of Christian celebrations. In 604, however, Pope Gregory I advised St. Augustine of Canterbury to permit and even encourage the harmless customs which in themselves are natural and can be given Christian interpretation. As a result, Christmas greens have by now taken on an abundant symbolism.

Evergreens are perhaps the most popular of Christmas decorations because they are easy to obtain during the winter months and their evergreenness is symbolic of eternal life. Holly, in spite of the medieval superstition that endowed it with the power of witchcraft, has become one of the more popular Christmas greens. The early Christians of Northern Europe adopted it as a symbol of the burning bush that appeared to Moses. Later, the thorns and the berries, so like drops of blood, became a reminder of the bloody crown that the Christ Child was destined to wear.

Mistletoe, now frequently hung in a cluster from the ceiling or above the door, was one of the most sacred of the pagan Druid plants. They believed it to be endowed with many marvelous powers. Today it is used as a symbol of the peace of Christmas.

A kiss under the mistletoe is a pledge of friendship and love. Even in pagan times when enemies happened to meet under the mistletoe, they would pledge a truce until the following day. Called "all-heal" by the Druids, mistletoe was later thought to be an appropriate symbol for Christ, the Divine Healer.

The Laurel or Bay, as the ancient badge of triumph, was the very first plant used by the early Christians in Rome to celebrate the Nativity. Hung upon a Roman door, the laurel wreath meant the celebration of victory. Since the birth of Christ made possible our victory over sin, it was naturally accepted as an appropriate Christian symbol. Ancient legend has it that the Rosemary plant first gained its delightful fragrance when Mary hung the baby clothes of Jesus upon its branches to dry in the sun. The legend, if nothing else, is nevertheless a gentle reminder that the closer we are to the Christ Child, the more our lives will reflect His goodness and grace.

Of all the flowers, the Poinsettia is the most favored for Christmas. A native plant of Central America, its construction resembles the rays of a flaming star. The Mexicans call it the "flower of the Holy Night." The legend responsible for this name is one that is repeated frequently and excitedly by our neighbors south of the border. As the story goes, a poor little boy approached the church in great sadness on Christmas eve because he had no gift to bring to the crib. When he reached the church he was too ashamed to enter and fell down on his knees, assuring the Christ Child in fervent prayer that he was anxious to bring a lovely gift—"But I am very poor and dread to approach you with empty hands." When he rose, he noticed that a lovely flower of dazzling red had grown up beside him. In great)joy he took the flower and laid it at the manger. This appealing story is one that will delight the children and they will have more appreciation for the artificial poinsettias you might give them if they know the story.

In order that the children may really enter into the true spirit of Christmas, they should be permitted to share in decorating the home. Naturally, their activities will have to be supervised, especially in the living room and dining room. In his own room, however, the child can easily be permitted to have free rein. This is his to decorate as he pleases. Youngsters are Just bursting with ideas and imagination. Let them take the lead. You and the child will find it more fun that way. What the results lack in aesthetic quality will be amply made up in sincerity.


Of all the Christmas materials that we may have in the home, the most significant and the one with the most direct reference to Christmas is the family crib. Because of this, the crib should occupy a place of real prominence in the home. Furthermore, the placing of the Babe into the manger should be a family ceremony. The head of the house should accept this honor. It can be done in a simple fashion by merely gathering the family together about the crib on Christmas eve, or you may prefer the more elaborate candlelight procession to the crib with hymns and prayers. Whichever you choose, the important thing is that every member of the family participate. This is naturally the most appropriate time to retell the simple Gospel story of the birth of Christ, thereby furnishing a far more fitting conclusion to Christmas eve than to send the youngsters to bed with "visions of sugar plums" or even "not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

The history of the crib in art and literature is a story in itself, but the real turning point in the story came with the introduction of the crib, as we know it today, by St. Francis of Assisi. For Francis, Christmas had always been the "feast of feasts," yet he felt it had never been celebrated quite properly. The poverty of Christ has been completely lost sight of in Christmas celebrations. Consequently, he searched for a way to restore the original simplicity of Christmas. An idea came to him during Advent of 1223 which seemed to be an ideal way to accomplish this. On a visit to Rome, he received permission from the Pope to put his plans into action. On Christmas eve, by means of a crude manger that had been constructed for him, he tried to reconstruct the actual scene of the birth of Christ as accurately as possible. The people of Greccio who came to attend Midnight Mass and witnessed this scene were impressed by the birth of Christ as they had never been impressed before. From then on, the poverty and the eloquent simplicity which had been lost in the elaborate Christmas portrayals returned, leaving an unforgettable impression of the actual circumstances of Christ's birth. It was from Greccio that the Christmas crib spread throughout the world.


The practice of representing Christ with a burning candle is almost as ancient as the Church itself.

Consequently, it is not surprising that the Christmas candle dates back to very early days and is considered one of the most significant of Christmas customs. Furthermore, it is a custom that continues right on down to the present time. At one time, the candle was placed in the center of a laurel wreath and kept burning throughout the Holy Night. Somewhat later, people continued to light it during each night of the Christmas season.

The practice of placing a lighted candle in the window, so widely practiced here, was brought to America by the Irish immigrants. Its historical background is worth repeating. When the Catholic religion was suppressed in Ireland, during the English persecution, the people were without churches and almost without priests. The few priests who did manage to escape were forced into hiding. In order that the faithful might have the consolation of the Sacraments, the priests would come at night secretly to say Mass at one of the homes of the faithful. It was the fondest wish of every family that the priest would arrive at their home on Christmas eve to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice. For this reason, they would leave the door unlatched and place a burning candle in the window, so that any priest who might be in the neighborhood would be guided to their home. In order to satisfy the curiosity of the suspicious British soldiers, they would explain that the candle was lit and the door unlocked so that Mary and Joseph, looking for a place to stay on Christmas eve, might find their way to this home and be welcomed with open hearts. The British, considering this a "harmless superstition," did not bother to suppress it.

An electric light is not the same as a candle, and liturgically the one may never be substituted for the other. Yet, in the home, the electrically lighted candle is much less of a fire hazard and can easily be recommended. Such a candle can still serve its purpose as a reminder of Christ, the Light of the World, provided the members of the family never lose sight of its meaning.


In spite of the many attempts on the part of some historians to trace the origin of the Christmas tree to mythology, the custom and the symbolism are completely Christian. The Christmas tree resulted from a combination of the medieval Paradise tree and the Christmas candle.

One of the most popular of the medieval German mystery plays was the Paradise play, representing the creation of man, the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise. This play became a favorite for Advent because it usually ended with the consoling promise of a Savior. As a matter of fact, the closing scenes led directly to the story of Bethlehem. In this play, the Garden of Eden was represented by a large tree symbolizing the "Tree of Discernment of Good and Evil." The Paradise tree was usually surrounded by lighted candles and the play enacted within the circle of lights. The Paradise tree gradually found its way into the homes of the people. The custom arose of setting it up once a year in honor of Adam and Eve on their feast, December 24. This particular feast, never celebrated in the Latin Church, was borrowed from the Eastern Rite. At this time the tree was bedecked with the symbolic apple, but further than that it bore no other resemblance to our present Christmas tree. But, at the same time, Christ was not forgotten. The Christmas candle in honor of Christ, the light of the world, was placed on top of a wooden pyramid, adorned with tinsel and colored glass balls. It was during the fifteenth century that more ornamentation began to appear on the tree. Since the Paradise tree already bore the fruit of Adam and Eve's sin, it was now thought proper to add a symbol of the "saving fruit" of the Blessed Sacrament. Accordingly, small white wafers were placed on its branches. Later, when imaginations began working overtime, shapes of men, birds, roosters, lions and other animals were also hung on the tree. But it was insisted that these latter had to be cut from brown dough; the wafers were made from white dough. People living in the sixteenth century finally began to notice the similarity between the tree and the Christmas pyramid. The tree was, so to say, a living pyramid and they might well combine the two— the tree and the lights. From then on, it became the Christmas tree. As time went on, the cookie forms disappeared and ornaments, made in symbolic shapes, took their place. By now, these have been replaced by meaningless decorated balls. However, even these need not lose their symbolism. The colored balls become more meaningful and more beautiful if religious pictures, symbolizing Christmas, are pasted or painted upon them. Your religious Christmas cards can supply you with ample pictures for this. The children will delight in attaching the pictures to the ornaments, or even making symbolic paper ornaments to hang on the tree.

On Christmas, after the tree has been decorated. Daddy may wish to read the special blessing for the tree. This can be found in the Christmas booklets that are obtainable at religious book stores. You will find that explaining the true history of the tree, giving it proper decorations and reading the blessing will give it far, more Christmas meaning for every member of the family.


Once more, our search for the origin of Christmas customs leads us back to St. Francis. The magnificent love of Francis reached out to all creation and he was frequently concerned about his friends the animals.

In consequence, he advocated the custom of showing special consideration and kindness to the animals on Christmas day. He coaxed the farmers to give their cattle and their beasts of burden extra corn and hay on Christmas, "for reverence of the Son of God ...on such a night the Blessed Virgin did lay down in the stall between the ox and the ass." All creation, he said, should rejoice at Christmas, and the dumb creatures have no other way to do it than in the comfort and food supplied by their masters. "If I could see the emperor," he often said, "I would implore him to issue a general decree that all people who are able to do so, shall throw grain and corn upon the streets, so that on this great feastday the birds might have enough to eat, especially our sisters, the larks."

The suggestions of St. Francis have been followed in a number of European countries, and in some cities sheaves of wheat are tied to the tops of telephone poles for the benefit of the birds. Although the custom has not been followed to any great extent in this country, it can easily become an interesting diversion, especially for the little ones, to go out on Christmas afternoon and give the birds a treat. You might even go so far as to tie bits of food— bread, nuts, berries—to the branches of the tree and in that way make sort of a Christmas tree for the birds and smaller animals. There are also numerous legends or folk tales relating how the animals came to worship the Christ Child. Some of these may delight the children, but the main thing that St. Francis wanted to impress was that the animals are God's creatures and they should be treated as such.


While we are speaking about St. Francis and his influence on our present day Christmas celebration, we should not forget that he also receives the credit for introducing into the world the joyous Christmas carol.

In a way, this could almost be expected. The heart of Francis was so Filled with love for Christ that it is no more than natural he should burst forth with song. Furthermore, in his youth Francis had been a troubadour. He loved to sing. Even after he had turned from the ways of his frivolous youth, he kept on singing. He changed only the words of his song. And each year, as Christmas time returned, he simply couldn't contain himself. He had to express his "exceeding great joy" by singing. This is how it happened that the original hymns for the Nativity, very formal and austere in nature, paled before the happy simplicity of Francis, and the joyful Christmas carol emerged.

The custom of carolling from door to door, once universally popular in Europe, is one that has almost dropped out of the Christmas picture. Like "family group singing," it seems to have bowed to radio, television and Hi-fi. This, we think, is unfortunate that such a spontaneous and natural form of joyful expression is falling into disregard. There are places, however, where the custom is showing signs of a revival—a revival which should be encouraged. May we suggest that on Christmas this year you treat yourselves to the pleasure of joining together in singing the old familiar carols. We can think of no better way to provide the joyful note that your Christmas celebration needs.

As has already been pointed out, we are indebted to St. Francis for much of the charm and joy that surrounds our Christmas celebration. If we can only capture a little of the spirit that motivated him, we can assure ourselves of a Merry Christmas. In a way, Francis should be called the saint of the proper perspective. He saw so clearly the proper order of things as God intended them to be. Too often, we are unhappy because things are not the way we want them. Francis was never unhappy, he accepted things as God wanted them to be. He wed Lady Poverty so that his life might not be cluttered with useless things. In doing so, he discovered how priceless are the treasures of creation for which we have no time. Only too often we consider such things trivial. Yet, it was his heart rather than ours that was overflowing with joy. If you keep Christ at the center of your Christmas celebration as Francis did, who knows how much of his joy might spill over into your own heart.

© The Catholic Hearth, Rt. w, Box 29A, Long Prairie, MN 56347, Telephone 800-746-2521.


This item 768 digitally provided courtesy of