Celebrating Christmas Like Catholics


Celebrating Christmas Like Catholics

Last year I celebrated my first Christmas as a new Catholic. I was delighted to realize that for Catholics Christmas was actually twelve (!) days long, and not just one day. When I was growing up, there was so much anticipation for Christmas which just seemed to evaporate after the plates from Christmas dinner were cleaned and put away; it’s all over, time to take your presents and get on with your life. It always seemed to me that it was a shame for such a beautiful holiday, with so much anticipation, to end so abruptly. So, I was very happy to celebrate Christmas as a much longer liturgical celebration which satisfied my longing for the joy to continue.

Now that I’m fully inside the liturgical season of the Church, and looking from inside it out into the world at large, I’m starting to make other observations about Christmas apart from the liturgical season of the Church. It seems like the secular Christmas season is getting a bit, shall I say, out of control.  I can notice a big difference from when I was younger . . . Christmas seems to be heightening into a time of  frenzy, for lack of a better word.  The Christmas season starts earlier and earlier every year, to the point that the line between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a blur. It seems to be much more about commercialization and flashy, expensive gifts, buy-now-or-die sales, and less and less about our Faith and family. In our old Christmas carols and Christmas stories the Christmas tree was trimmed on Christmas Eve or shortly before . . . now Christmas trees go up Thanksgiving weekend, and yes, now even before Thanksgiving!

So, who can save us from this runaway trend? Answer: Catholics.

Celebrating Christmas Like Catholics

It’s up to Catholics to treat the Christmas season like Catholics . . . not like seculars, and not even like Protestants. It’s up to Catholics to reign in a trend that’s been getting out of hand, instead of venturing headlong into the madness and forgetting entirely the practice of the season’s deeply spiritual and faith-filled roots. Christ-mas is a liturgical season centered upon our Savior, Jesus Christ and how our hearts wait for Him in hopeful anticipation. This means Catholics should do things differently than everyone else.

Here’s what I mean. Staring December 1st to Christmas Eve is the Advent season, not an extension of the Christmas season. This is also known as “Little Lent” with the liturgical color of purple.  This marks a time of penance and fasting and prayer.  It relives the darkness that the world waited in for 4,000 years as each millennium brought the world closer and closer to the promised birth of Christ.  (In fact, the four candles on the Advent wreath each represent 1,000 years, and this is why one is lit each successive Sunday of Advent).  Gaudete or “Rejoice” Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is marked by the light purple (or pink) Advent candle to emphasize that the celebration of Christ’s birth is very close, only one week away. So, Advent to Christmas is a spiritual movement from a time of darkness and penance to a time of light and joy. There is a natural movement of one into the fullness of the other, but they are distinct.

So, my suggestion is to be different from all the Christmas madness happening outside the Church, and live Advent in your hearts and homes like it’s a time of penance and prayer until Christmas Eve, and live Christmas like it’s a time of light and joy for the whole twelve days of Christmas. Don’t muddle the lines, cut things short, or treat it like it’s all the same thing.

So, what does this look like in practice? Here are a few very meager suggestions for celebrating Christmas like a Catholic:

First, I would suggest that you not deck out your homes in full blown Christmas lights right off the bat. Instead, on each Sunday that you light a candle on your Advent wreath, add corresponding lights to your house as well.  For example, the first Sunday of Advent may start with something simple such as one set of string lights around your door or maybe on a tree outside your house. The next Sunday add a bit more, and so on.  Then on the last Sunday of Advent, or on Christmas Eve, your house can be fully lit in all its beautiful array, because the time for rejoicing has arrived.  If neighbors ask you why you do things this way . . . all the better!  This becomes a great way to evangelize.

Second,  I would suggest that you try and do the same thing mentioned above with your Christmas tree. It may simply not be feasible for you to wait and do everything to your tree on Christmas Eve, but you can still do something similar.  For example, add layers of decorations to the Christmas tree each Sunday of Advent. Maybe start with just one string of lights, and add more lights and more ornaments each Sunday of Advent.  This is a great way to teach your kids about the spiritual movement of the season as well.

Third, don’t treat Christmas like it ends on December 25th.  Don’t forget that Christmas has 12 days. The 12th day of Christmas is the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men arrived to present Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Leave your Christmas decorations up the entire twelve days of Christmas. Don’t take them down New Year’s Day.  Whatever other Christmas traditions your family keeps, keep them going through the twelve days. This is a time of feasting and joy to finish out the penance and fasting during the first part of December.

Fourth, I would suggest that you buy at least one gift for each family member this Christmas that encourages them to grow in their Catholic faith. A specifically religious gift that they can use throughout the whole new year.  What would they appreciate? What would help them in their state of life, or their spiritual state? This may be a patron saint medal, Catholic books, a rosary, or a saint statue.  Anything that will encourage faith, hope, and love in their hearts. And, of course, don’t forget to have your religious gifts blessed by your priest before wrapping! If you aren’t sure what Catholic gift would be best, here is a little trick inspired by St. Padre Pio and his devotion to guardian angels:  Ask your guardian angel to ask your family member’s guardian angel what Catholic gift would most help them in their walk of faith. Pay attention to any gentle inspirations you receive. The bonus is that doing this increases your own faith as well!

What do you think about everything I mentioned here?  Am I off the mark? Do you agree with me? Do my ideas sound good on paper, but are totally impractical? Do you have other ways of celebrating Christmas like a Catholic?

Copyright 2012 Gretchen Filz


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  1. Eric Neubauer on

    Great to hear of your conversion as Heather and I celebrate our 5th Advent as Catholics. It is so fun. I really appreciate the emphasis on spiritual preparation throughout the month of Dec. as we look to the actual Advent of our Lord and all that represents. As I have introduced this into our parish, the idea of waiting with eager anticipation, it has taken off and those who participate in our Advent class have really enjoyed the challenge to read, reflect, and write + sharing what they have learned in the class. I have really emphasized the idea of quite reflection which challenges the voices of materialism and consumerism that often capture our time and attention.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Enjoy the journey.

    • I agree, it is so fun! That is fantastic about the Advent class, what a great idea. Advent is so beautiful and I love that it is a kind of haven away from the commercial chaos of a secular Christmas.

    • Love the Advent idea of lighting up your house weekly as we light our Advent candle. One of our Christmas traditions is to read the Word of God before any gift is opened. The story of our Saviors birth is read by our grandchildren. Each one reads a few verses then passes the Bible on to another grandchild. We love doing this over the years with small children who are now all adults.

  2. I agree with every word, and I don’t think any of your suggestions would be difficult to implement.

    I am especially grateful for your paragraph on Advent. I knew it was a penitential season, but I did not know that each candle represents 1000 years of darkness such that they symbolize our journey from darkness into light.

    • It was something new I learned too! The Catholic Church has so many symbols, discovering them (or rediscovering them) is key to not only enjoying our faith but rooting us in it even more.

  3. I love Advent. It is a time of anticipation. And then we go for the big enchilada as the saying goes beginning Christmas day until the baptism of the Lord. I like the idea you talk about with progression of time in your decor. For years we did not get our Christmas tree out until the Sunday before Christmas and it wasn’t decorated until Christmas Eve. Now, we have a new tradition of getting the tree up for Advent and string it with blue and purple lights. Each week we add ornaments that speak to us from the Gospel reading on Sunday. Then for Christmas we lay on all the ornaments and light the white lights,too. It is wonderful to mark time in terms of your faith.
    I now call the retail holiday, Winter Holidays, instead of Christmas. Not that I have anything against using the word Christmas, but I know it has very little to do with Christmas. And it is pretty easy to not get tied up with that imposed timeline; beginning now before Halloween, if the winter season doesn’t really begun until December 21st.

  4. We are new Catholics and this is the first year we’ve celebrated Advent as well. I love the idea of celebrating Advent by incremental decorating for Christmas. I too remember the let down the day after Christmas when I was growing up. I am thinking of helping to extend Christmas for our children (ages 5 and 7) by not opening all of our gifts on Christmas day–maybe keeping small presents to be opened each of the 12 days, or waiting to open half their presents on the Feast of the Epiphany, I’m not sure yet. I’m also investing in some Christmas carol dvds to play rather than listening to the radio once the stations go back to regular music on 12/26.

  5. Hi Gretchen,
    Would you mind if I reprinted this article in our church bulletin? I’m the Communications Director at Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish in Monroe, LA and celebrating a Catholic Christmas is something we’re working on emphasizing this season.
    Thanks for a great article!
    Take Care,
    Missy McKenzie

  6. I agree. .. unknowingly I have actually done many things that u have mentioned. I have never put so much thought into the way i do things but it just felt right. I’m not easily influenced by others so I’ve always done my own thing. … glad I’m not the only one and i have actually been doing it right all along. Merry Christmas

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