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.
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