Waiting to Celebrate Christmas

My “Truelove” Gave to Me…

How many of you remember the 12 days of Christmas song? Many of us sing it (or at least hear it) every year around Christmas, but have you ever wondered what those 12 days are? They are a song about the Christmas Season, as celebrated in the Catholic Church. Although retail stores would like you to think that the Christmas season lasts from “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) through Christmas Day, the Church celebrates the Christmas season starting on Christmas Day and extending beyond. On the old Church calendar, the Christmas season went from Christmas Day (December 25th) through the Feast of Epiphany (January 6th). Christmas Day was celebrated and the 12 days of Christmas were the next 12 days up to Epiphany. On the new calendar, Christmas begins on the evening of Christmas Eve and lasts until the celebration of Jesus’ Baptism which falls on the Sunday after January 6th (or on Monday if January 6th is a Sunday). This year, the Christmas Season ends on January 9th. The Christmas Season may no longer be exactly 12 days, as it was on the old calendar, but the idea remains: Christmas is so special that it is celebrated over a season, not just on one day.

The Church tries to clearly differentiate between the Advent season and the Christmas season. You’ll notice a big difference between Masses during Advent and Masses during Christmas. The color for Advent is purple (and rose on Gaudete Sunday); there is no Gloria, and the songs all sing of Jesus as “coming” (i.e. O Come, O Come Emmanuel). The color for Christmas, on the other hand, is white; the Gloria has returned (often in grand fashion), and the songs all sing about Jesus as being “here” (i.e. Joy to the World! The Lord is Come).

Our culture has a tendency to try to celebrate things before their time. How often do you see people starting to celebrate Christmas at the beginning of December? By the time Christmas afternoon comes they’re ready to throw out the tree and pack up all the decorations. At that point, however, the Church is just starting the celebration. Celebrating Christmas early also short-changes the Advent Season. Advent begins 4 Sundays before Christmas (November 28th this year) and lasts until the Christmas season starts at the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve. Advent is a time of excited waiting for the imminent celebration (just as we are constantly excitedly awaiting Jesus’ Second Coming). It is also a time of recollection of how the whole Old Testament was a time of waiting for Jesus to come. All of Advent is a preparation for celebrating Christmas with the Church. By celebrating Christmas early, our culture cuts off Advent’s preparatory power and it leads people to think that Christmas ends on Christmas Day. By doing so, they unknowingly treat most of the Christmas Season as if it were nothing special.

Throughout the Middle Ages, every element of the Christmas celebration was ordered to enhancing the celebration of the Solemnity in Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours and sacramentals. Many forms of celebration were employed: songs, flowers, images, statues, etc. Even outside the Mass extra things were used to help highlight what was being celebrated in the Christmas liturgies: plays, carols, songs, dances, etc. All of it went to serve the liturgical celebration of the feast, particularly the Mass–the Christ-Mass. Calvinists and Puritans condemned the religious celebration of the Christmas. They felt that nothing should outrank Sunday in terms of celebration. When Puritans came to power in England, they abolished Christmas (1642). Eventually the monarchy was restored (1660) and re-allowed Christmas, but now it was a much more secular celebration–which became the roots of what we see in society today. There was a focus on the food (plum pudding, goose, minced pie, and roast beef, etc.), a focus on decorations (mistletoe, holly, ivy, the yule log, etc.), but nothing that directly highlighted Jesus or the story of His birth. You can note the lack of Jesus in Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Story. It highlights generosity and goodwill (which are good emphases), but it lacks Jesus Himself. In America, as late as 1870, the Puritan emphasis still kept students in school under strict punishment on Christmas Day, so they could not be out celebrating.

As Catholics, we are encouraged by the Church to celebrate with Her. I encourage you to buck the popular secular trend, which takes Jesus out of Christmas, and return the celebration to its proper focus: Jesus Christ and the Masses at which we particularly celebrate His birth. I encourage you, if you are able, to try to organize your Christmas decorations, parties, and other festivities so that they happen within the Christmas Season. It will take a lot of self-restraint to resist the temptation to decorate and celebrate early, but I promise you, if you truly celebrate Advent during Advent (as a season of waiting and preparation and recollection of salvation history) and Christmas during Christmas (as a season of rejoicing that Jesus is present), you’ll gain a greater appreciation for Our Lord’s Coming and for why the Church celebrates the way She does.

Ideas for celebrating the Advent Season (November 28th – Evening of December 24th):

  • Don’t put your Christmas decorations on your tree right away. Instead, use your tree as a Jesse Tree and hang ornaments that represent Old Testament figures. Pull out the Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve and decorate the tree as a family.
  • Make an advent wreath and light the appropriate candles during family meal times:
    • 1 purple candle during week 1.
    • 2 purple candles during week 2
    • 2 purple and 1 pink candles during week 3
    • 3 purple and 1 pink candles during week 4
  • Go to Mass every day (if you can) or read the daily readings for Mass (in the Magnificat or for free online). Reflect on how God prepared mankind for the coming of His Son.
  • Pray the Advent Season Liturgy of the Hours.
  • Prepare a manger scene that only has animals in it. Place Mary and Joseph far away and slowly move them across the room/house throughout the Advent Season, until they arrive at the stable on Christmas Eve. Once Christmas has begun, put baby Jesus in the manger and bring in the shepherds and sheep. Wait for Epiphany to place the Wise Men in the scene (they came later).
  • Many families who have a larger manger have a custom of placing a piece of straw in the manger for every good deed each person does throughout the season of Advent. As they do so, they are preparing the manger to be nice and soft for Jesus.
  • There are more ideas at: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/seasons/Advent/

Ideas for celebrating the Christmas Season (Evening of December 24th – January 9th):

  • An old custom is to put lights in the windows throughout the Christmas Season to celebrate Christ as the “light of the world” Who has now made Himself visible.
  • Many of us put up Christmas lights on our houses. One suggestion to “highlight” the season is to put up the lights and check them while it is still warm enough outside, but wait to turn them on until Christmas Eve night, then leave them on throughout the Christmas Season (or at least the nights of the Christmas Season).
  • Go to Mass every day (if you can) or read the readings for Mass. Reflect of the joy that we can now share because Jesus is finally here.
  • Pray the Christmas Season Liturgy of the Hours.
  • Wait to give anyone any gifts until the Christmas season actually starts. Since Christmas isn’t just one day long, the gifts can be given throughout the season. (“On the 12th Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . .”) If you have multiple gifts to open, try opening only one or two per day so that you are opening gifts throughout more of the season. In the east, Epiphany is the main gift giving day (that is when we celebrate the 3 wise men arriving and presenting gifts to Jesus).
  • Celebrate Epiphany with King’s cake (look online for information).
  • Hold your Christmas parties during the Christmas Season and not during Advent.
  • There are more ideas at: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/seasons/christmas/

May God bless your Christmas Season,

Casey Truelove

One thought on “Waiting to Celebrate Christmas

  1. My family is Carpatho-Rusyn (a region in Slovakia) by heritage. Though we don't do it in the Midwest due to weather, it is a beautiful custom at Christmas Eve dinner to leave the door open and an empty seat at the dinner table for the Christ-child who is coming that night.

    One Eastern European custom we DO observe is the serving of a traditional, ethnic meal on Christmas Eve. This meal opens with the serving of oplatky dipped in honey. Imagine a thin, postcard-sized communion wafer with a nativity scene stamped into it. That is the only thing on your plate when you sit down for the Christmas Eve meal. You break the oplatky and pass a piece to your neighbor. Some families share an apology with their loved one for a way they've wronged them as they share this symbolic food.

    So, I guess my suggestion to add to Casey's would be this: research your heritage. There might be beautiful, meaningful things your ancestors did that could add to your Advent/Christmas traditions.

    On another note regarding music, I'm running an upcoming holiday party for the Over 60's group at the parish where Casey and I work. It happens to fall on Dec. 8th. We wanted to have a sing-a-long and have come to a great solution that is liturgically appropriate. We're singing a few Advent & Marian hymns (People, Look East & Immaculate Mary) as well as secular Christmas songs, but not hymns. We're singing things like Silver Bells, White Christmas, Jingle Bells that talk of wonderful holiday things without acknowledging that Christ has been born (since He hasn't yet). Everyone is excited for the sing-a-long and we're in line with the Church. Hurray!

    Have blessed Lenten and Christmas seasons- however you choose to celebrate them!


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