Reclaiming the Catholic Feast of Christmas
Michael J. Matt POSTED: 12/4/12
Editor, The Remnant
Editor's Note: Each year around Christmastime we post a slightly updated version of the following personal Christmas reflection which offers an alternate custom to the celebration of the great Feast. I wrote it some years ago, and every year since I receive email from new visitors to this site gently chastising The Remnant for not posting it earlier in Advent so as to allow time for families to adopt as their own some of the customs herein suggested.
Over the years many Catholic families have adopted the old Christ Child tradition, believing it to be a beautiful means of restoring the true meaning of Christmas while strengthening Catholic identity in children. And it can be gradually implemented, of course.
Santa Claus (St. Nicholas), for example, can still be invited to visit the Catholic home on Christmas morning but in a dramatically reduced capacity, perhaps leaving a few stocking stuffers above the mantle and moving on.
As it was in Catholic homes throughout Christendom, Christmas must become all about the Christ Child once again. And a truly merry Christmas remains forever predicated on careful observance of Advent. No Christmas trees, no lights, no good things to eat until December 25, when the time of waiting comes to an end and all of Christendom rejoices at an event so magnificent even a two-year-old gets it. Christ is to be born—and the world, the flesh and the Devil will never change that reality, no matter how hard they try.
Happy Holidays? Yeah, right! It's time to take Christmas back, and here's one suggestion for how to do it, based on traditions as old as Christendom itself. MJM
This will be the tenth Christmas since my father passed away. I suppose everyone misses deceased family members most this time of year; I know I do. My father loved Christmas! I sometimes wonder, in fact, what impact his larger-than-life celebrations of the birth of Christ had on the faith of his nine children, each of whom continues to practice the old Faith to this day. He believed that, just as Advent—the “mini-Lent”—was to be kept well, with plenty of spiritual and corporal works of mercy, so too should Christmas be fêted with all the merrymaking and gusto a Catholic family can muster
He knew that children are not born theologians who can grasp the intricacies of the great mysteries of Faith at an early age. The Faith needed to be lovingly spoon-fed to them, and so the childlike customs of Christmas were for him tailor-made to instill love for the Faith before children were old enough to begin to understand it.
What a shame it is, then, to see well-meaning traditional Catholic parents discarding those customs altogether in a misguided effort to counter the commercialization of Christmas. No gift giving, no merry making, no feasting on Christmas. Alas, the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.
In a dreary world where pessimism and cynicism—rather than righteousness and peace—have kissed each other, we must guard against robbing our children of the wonder and joy of Christmas— the seedbed for a child’s Faith.
Our poor children may live long enough to see Christmas outlawed altogether in our brave new world, even as it was once before by the Pilgrims whose Thanksgiving trumped the “popish” feast of Christmas. Anti-Catholics have long sought to destroy our great Feasts, which is why Easter Bunnies dominate Easter, Santa Claus pushed Christ out of Christmas, chocolate and romance bounced St. Valentine from February 14th, and everyone gets trashed on green beer on St. Patrick’s Day—plastic hats on drunks having evidently eclipsed the memory of the mitered saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland.
Still, we must be certain that in our eagerness to oppose the commercialization of our feasts we don’t become Puritanical agents working towards the same diabolical end. What we must do is simply reclaim what is ours by re-catholicizing our own feasts.
So, many Catholics oppose the custom of Santa Claus, for example—that somewhat off-putting caricature of the great St. Nicholas. Admittedly, the red suit and the stocking cap do bare strikingly slim resemblance to the 4th century bishop of Myra; and the flying sleigh and reindeer are more reminiscent of pagan myth than Christian Truth. But, still, few have sought to provide a good alternative to the Jolly Old Elf or to find a way of bringing St. Nicholas back to his place of honor.
So I’d like to offer one now by reintroducing readers to one of the old Catholic Christmas customs that the Germans called Christkind, or Christ Child, and that American children of European immigrants would call, simply, the Baby Jesus. My father handed this custom down to his children, after having received it from his father-- an immigrant from the old country. And I am now handing it down to my children.
My effort to convey to you how it all works will take the form of a simple reminiscence.
It all began in Advent, when my seven sisters and brother were expected to prepare for the coming of Christkind(pronounced Kris-Kint). Under Mother’s watchful eye, we’d fashion a small, makeshift manger that would remain unoccupied until Christmas Day. As Advent progressed, good deeds were encouraged on a daily basis; and each time it was determined that a good deed had been done, one piece of straw was placed in the empty manger—the idea being that Advent was a time to prepare a bed on which the Baby Jesus could sleep when He arrived. Under the rules of the old custom, the practice of virtue was an essential part of a child’s preparation for Christmas.
Each night after supper, the lights would be turned down while Advent Wreath candles were lit. The haunting strains of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel would be lifted (somewhat awkwardly, I suppose) on the voices of children. Shadows and flickering flames played on faces across the dining room table, making it easy for a child to imagine that he sat with the Israelites of old waiting for the Messiah to come.
As the four weeks passed seemingly as slowly as those four thousand years, one question became constant: “Have my sacrifices been enough to please Christkind?” And thus the weeks of Advent were spent in preparation and waiting...as they should be.
Gradually, the empty manger would fill with straw as the stage was set for a celestial Visitor.
On the evening of December 23rd, my father would hang a curtain over the doorway of our living room, which, if that straw was piled high enough, was to be transformed into the “Christmas room” by the Baby Jesus Himself in the middle of the night.
Then, it was off to sleep.
The Christmas Eve mornings I remember so well are marked by a combination of joy and wonder. Children still in their “jammies” could scarcely whisper the words to a curiously exhausted mother: “Did He come?”
All day long, we weren’t allowed to go near the curtain, lest one of us should succumb to the temptation to “peek”, which would be to risk the instant disappearance of whatever Christkind may have brought. A lifetime of self-discipline was taught between dawn and dusk on Christmas Eve—the very last day of waiting.
After a day of chores, naps, and helping with the house cleaning, the anticipated hour of 7 o’clock would finally arrive.
The children would gather in the back room and sing Christmas carols in candlelight as our mother would read aloud the story that always began the same way: “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…” We listened as Father disappeared into the “Christmas room” to take down the curtain and see to the final arrangements for the holy ritual. Only he was worthy to “take over” for Christkind.
The wait seemed interminable. Then, all at once, his voice would call out from the darkness: “Come children, Christkindhas come.”
Breathlessly, we’d make our candle-lit procession from the back room to the living room, singing the words of the old German carol as we went: Ihr Kinderlein, kommet, O kommet doch all! Zur Krippe her kommet in Bethlehems Stall.
We’d gather around my father, who now was kneeling in front of the nativity scene. We’d do our best not to crane our necks and look at the darkened Christmas tree or whatever might be lying beneath it. Each child placed a crib figure into the crèche, and the youngest put the Baby in His manger.
Then, prayers were said, Christmas carols were quietly sung, deceased family were remembered, and Father spoke of the marvelous thing that had happened long ago “at midnight in Bethlehem in piercing cold.”
I can still see the cast of Bethlehem bathed in a warm, peaceful glow, seeming as real to me as if I were a shepherd boy looking down from that hillside over Bethlehem. I can hear my father and mother’s hushed voices as they prayed and sang to the same royal Baby that shepherds and angels had adored centuries ago. That sacred moment was like a porthole in time, where traveling back to the city of David just then seemed not only possible to a child, but imminent.
Those long ago Christmas Eves remain vivid in my memory, some thirty-five years later. And the gifts under the tree? I don’t remember many of them. There was no question what Christmas was about—we could feel it in the depths of our souls; we could see it in the tears that formed in our father’s eyes as he prayed aloud; we could hear it in our mother’s voice as she sang softly—silent night, holy night, all is calm.
Christmas was about the Baby, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels and Bethlehem. It was something so powerful that it could even cause our father’s voice to tremor in the darkness as he explained Who the Baby is and what He expects of us.
We knew that Christkind was real because our father and mother were kneeling on the floor before the manger… praying to Him.
Moments later, the magic of Christmas—the feast, the Catholic family celebration—burst into the quiet reality of the manger. The majestic tree was lit; there was singing and dancing; bowls of nuts and candies, specially delivered by the Baby Jesus Himself, seemed to appear out of nowhere. And there, under the tree were the gifts, the second-to-last phase of the ritual. He’d come. He’d brought little rewards for Advent efforts. The family was together, united in love for each other and a Child King we cherished with all our hearts.
You must understand, my parents had no money. And yet, somehow, Christmas came, year after year, and it was fit for a King! That was part of the miracle.
But this was just the beginning. The toys and good things to eat were set aside to be enjoyed on each and every one of the twelve days of Christmas. Now, the soul of Christmas Eve was about to be celebrated.
Coats and hats, mittens and scarves were the next order of business. The old station wagon groaned in the frosty night air as Father turned the key in the ignition. Nine children were loaded up, and, moments later, the little ones peered through frosted glass in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Bethlehem’s star on the way to Midnight Mass.
It would be Christmas Day before this night would draw to a peaceful close in a dimly-lit church filled with the scent of pine needles and candle wax and incense. Not long before the first light of Christmas Day glowed in the East, sleepy children would crawl into chilly beds as content as a child can be this side of Heaven’s gate. And, why not! Christ is born!
And So It Continues…
The years have passed by so quickly since those childhood days that I can scarcely believe that the seven little ones who process into my living room each Christmas Eve are my own, that my beloved father is no longer with us, and that the rest of us have aged more than we care to admit. But, strangely enough, the Baby Jesus remains unchanged and unchanging. Ever young, ever new, He’s the same now as He was then. My children’s imaginations are as captivated by Him now as mine then. Life is moving on, but somehow Christmas is the one thing that stays the same.
Needless to say, His midnight visit on Christmas Eve is the highpoint of the year for my children. Why? Because, as I see it, this old European Christmas custom is profoundly Catholic. There is nothing plastic-banana or phony-baloney about it! Children are neither taught to equate Christmas with wicked consumerism or Godless Puritanism. They are taught the mystery of the birth of Christ and the importance of celebrating the Feast.
Advent is a most essential part of the process, even as Midnight Mass is its climax.
Even now, my own children—walking in the footsteps of their little Catholic counterparts from the old world—are trading daily acts of kindness and virtue for little pieces of straw that are lovingly tucked away into an empty manger. For one night soon the Child of Bethlehem will transform their home and their souls into a place fit for a King. For a few miraculous moments, life will stand perfectly still and the line between the physical world and the spiritual one will become mercifully obscured.
And President Barrack Obama? Who’s he!
Christkind creates in children an indissoluble bond between the joy of Christmas—which celebrates His birth—and the Catholic Faith itself which is His greatest gift. In real Christmas magic the two become one, and the proper celebration of the Holy Day plants seeds of Faith in the little garden of children’s souls even as they shout for joy.
As they grow older, their faith in Christkind transforms itself naturally into belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament—the true meaning of Christmas.
There is no deceit in the Christkind custom, for, indeed, there is no deceit in the Christkind. He does come down to earth on Christmas Eve; His providence provides everything we need in this life; and He exists just as surely as we do. He was born, He has a mother whom we all know and love, and He comes to us often at Mass—Christ’s Mass. He comes to us at Christmas.
Has fallen man ever had more reason for Feast or feasting than this? Advent is here already. Christ is coming soon.
Viva Cristo Rey!