Reviving Catholic tradition at Christmas time

Michael Matt has a lovely piece at The Remnant on the tradition his father kept alive and that he now observes with his seven children.  Here’s an except, but go read the whole thing.  It’s marvelous:

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 ofO 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.”

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2 Responses to Reviving Catholic tradition at Christmas time

  1. Matthew the Wayfarer says:

    I am intrigued by these traditions that come from the “old world” ethnic churches. Wish there was a book that explained them. Part of my Catholic side of the family are from, Germany, Croatia and Hungary. By the time I came along everything was lost. Glad someone is carrying on. Don’t know what ethnic tradition this story is from. Interesting though!

    • Rev22:17 says:

      Matthew,

      You wrote: I am intrigued by these traditions that come from the “old world” ethnic churches. Wish there was a book that explained them. Part of my Catholic side of the family are from, Germany, Croatia and Hungary. By the time I came along everything was lost. Glad someone is carrying on. Don’t know what ethnic tradition this story is from. Interesting though!

      Yes, ethnic customs are often fascinating — but ultimately, from a spiritual perspective, the only thing that really matters is that they bring us into a deeper relationship with our Lord and Savior. It does little good to carry on a spiritual custom when its spiritual significance has been forgotten, reducing it to a cultural curiosity. In exploring spiritual customs, we always need to ask how — or even whether — they help those who follow them to draw closer to the Christ.

      And in this regard, your experience may be very different from mine!

      In a similar vein, many popular devotions evolved because laity, for one reason or another, were not able to follow a particular pious practice. Here, the classic example is the rosary — in the middle ages, laity who wanted to emulate the contemplative monastic practice of praying the psalms every day, but could not read, substituted a “Hail Mary” for each of the 150 psalms. This is what gave us the original custom of 150 repetitions of the “Hail Mary” in a full rosary, which consists of fifteen decades. These repetitions were then broken into decades, each punctuated with the doxology and the Lord’s Prayer (also prayed in the monastic office). The attachment of the decades to mysteries in our Lord’s life was a later development. But in the present era of widespread popular literacy, the obstacle to the original practice of praying the psalms — and thus the need for a substitute for the daily office — is gone. Shouldn’t we, who no longer face the obstacle, turn to the original spiritual practice rather than continuing to adhere to the substitute?

      Just asking….

      Norm.

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