This is one of my favorite times of year, so it just seemed appropriate to share some of our family's traditions.
Next to Easter, the time of time of year that brings us the most joy is Christmas. As with Easter, our Christmas celebration is preceded by a period of preparation. We call this Advent, during which we prepare to celebrate Christ's coming in three ways...His first Advent when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, His second Advent when He will come as King to set up His everlasting kingdom on earth, and His third Advent, when we consciously invite Him to come and dwell in our hearts.
Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas ( Nov. 29, 2008 ), and lasts through Christmas Eve. The liturgical color of purple is used, which is a color of expectation, penance, and sorrow. We recall the words of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for the Messiah...'Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We examine ourselves as we look for His second coming with the questions 'Am I prepared to meet the Righteous Judge face to face? What changes do I need to make in my life?' And despite the joy of looking forward to celebrating Christmas, we also remember that Christ was born to suffer and die for us. We do not separate His Incarnation from His sacrifice.
Catholics celebrate Christmas by attending Mass, either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. What better way to celebrate Christ's birthday than to gather round His table? One of my personal favorite times to attend Mass is the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve! Our Christmas celebration lasts for twelve days and ends on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. On the Epiphany, we celebrate the three wise men finding and worshipping Jesus.
As with all of our other celebrations, there are many traditions that surround our celebration of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Some of these traditions have their origins in pagan customs, for which we are frequently criticized. Our thought on this is that if God can take pagan sinners such as ourselves, transform us, and use us to bring Him honor and glory, then we also can we take customs that have origins in places besides Christianity, 'baptize' them, and use them to bring honor and glory to God. For us they never mean anything else. These customs and traditions are useful for keeping our focus on Christ, strengthening our relationship with Him, and teaching spiritual truths to our children in a way that is meaningful to them. Here are some of our favorites...
The Advent Wreath
This is a custom that began in pre-Christian Germany, in which evergreen wreaths were gathered and lighted during the dark days of December as a sign of hope in the coming spring. Today, Christians use these wreaths with candles during Advent as a symbol of our hope in Christ, the everlasting Light. The Advent wreath consists of four candles, three violet/purple and one rose-colored, that we light during our evening meal in the weeks leading up to Christmas, one the first week, two the second week, and so on. The rose-colored candle is lit during the third week, as a sign of joy that Christmas is almost here. The lighting of these candles are accompanied by prayers and/or Scripture readings. In our family, we also include a white candle in the middle, white symbolizing joy and celebration, which we light on Christmas Eve and each of the twelve days of Christmas until Epiphany.
The Blessing of the Christmas Tree
We bless our Christmas tree, using Scripture readings (Ezekiel 17:22-23) and prayers. For us, our tree becomes another symbol of Christ--the tender shoot that grew to become a majestic cedar and the Tree of Life. As we turn the lights on our tree, we are reminded again that Jesus is the Light of the world.
When we decorate our tree, I let the children do the majority of the decoration, and I leave the ornaments wherever they place them. Even if there are two of the same color on the same branch. ;-)
The Jesse Tree
This is a lovely way to count down the days until Christmas! Beginning on the first Sunday of Advent, Bible passages are read daily, beginning in Genesis and taking us through salvation history up until Christ's birth. Each daily reading has a corresponding ornament, made from construction paper and laminated, with symbols drawn on them. The ornament is hung on a small (12 inch) tree by the children after we've finished our reading. This provides them with a visual picture of our Lord's ancestry.
To view the readings and ideas for creating your own Jesse Tree, click here.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with first building a creche (nativity scene) as part of Christmas celebration. We place a creche in our home at the beginning of Advent. However, the baby Jesus does not appear until Christmas Eve, and then the shepherd with his sheep moves over to worship him. Also on Christmas Eve, we place the wise men at the edge of the table, and each day they move closer until Epiphany, when they finally make it to the baby Jesus to worship Him.
Our Christmas Chain
We make our sacrifices and our good works visible by creating a 'Christmas chain'. When any of us 'get caught' doing something for someone else, this is written on a strip of construction paper and taped together to make chain links. The chain is then wrapped around our Christmas tree.
We prefer to teach our children about the REAL St. Nicholas rather than the fat man with the flying reindeer who lives at the North Pole. The main reason is that we want to keep our Christmas celebration focused on Christ's birth. But also, we want to be truthful with them. St. Nicholas is a real live person. On earth, he served our Lord as a bishop in Myra (modern day Turkey), and he died on December 6, 343 A.D. Since we believe in eternal life in Christ, we believe that St. Nicholas is alive in heaven and praying for us! We celebrate his feast day on December 6 by surprising the children with treats in their stockings and reading stories about St. Nicholas' good deeds, which have inspired the modern day 'Santa Claus' traditions. By celebrating St. Nicholas in this way, we keep the fun of his traditions, we keep him in his proper context, and our Christmas celebration is centered on celebrating Christ's birth. To learn more about the real St. Nick, click here.
On the Epiphany, the kids make crowns of construction paper, glitter, jewels, and they wear silk shawls, robes, etc. to dress up like royalty. The night before the Epiphany, they think of things that they would like to do for Jesus in the upcoming year. These are written down or wrapped up as 'presents' which they place in front of the baby Jesus.
For our meal, we set the table fancy, as is fit for royalty! We have an epiphany cake, in which a quarter is hidden. The one who finds the piece with the quarter in it gets to be the 'high king or queen' and will get to carry the Christmas star for the procession.
Another tradition is the blessing the door facings. As the royalty processes through the house singing a hymn (like 'We Three Kings'), the door facings are marked '20+C+M+B+08' with chalk and sprinkled with holy water. The last two numbers change each year. The C+M+B means 'Christus Mansionem Benedictat' (Christ bless this home.) Also, although Scripture doesn't tell us how many magi there actually were or their names, from tradition, we get the number three and the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
In some countries, the presents are opened on Epiphany rather than Christmas, in remembrance of the presents presented to Jesus.