The Twelve Days of Christmas: Profound Nonsense

Creativity and Persecution

We have all heard the song The Twelve Days of Christmas and to most of us it probably sounds very much like nonsense.  Why was this song written?

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (the sixteenth century) it was a crime to be Catholic in England privately or publicly.  During this time when many were dying for their faith, how was the faith preserved?  Catholics in those days had to be very creative and they often disguised Catholicism in ways they could still practice their faith without getting caught (hopefully).

The Twelve Days of Christmas

This nonsensical song about the twelve days of Christmas, was invented by a Jesuit missionary during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to teach children the fundamentals of the Catholic Faith.  It was known as a “catechism song.”  The song was easy to memorize so they could not be caught with anything in writing.

So what exactly do the words in the song mean?

A Secret Code

Twelve Days of Christmas – The season of Christmas from December 26 until the Epiphany on January 6

My True Love God the Father

Me – Every baptized person

The Partridge – Jesus

The Pear Tree – The cross of Christ

Two Turtle Doves – The Old and New Testaments

Three French Hens – The Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity); the Blessed Trinity; and the gifts of the Three Wise Men (Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh)

Four Calling Birds – The Four Gospels and Evangelists of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the four Major Prophets of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel)

Five Golden Rings – The first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and God’s eternal nature, love, and faithfulness

Six Geese A-Laying – The six days of creation

Seven Swans A-Swimming – The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; the seven sacraments; the seven Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy; the Seven deadly sins; and the seventh day of creation when God rested

Eight Maids A-Milking – The Eight Beatitudes

Nine Ladies Dancing – The nine Choirs of Angels

Ten Lords A-Leaping – The Ten Commandments

Eleven Pipers Piping – The eleven faithful Apostles (Peter, James, John, Andrew, Phillip, Jude Thaddeus, Thomas, Matthew, James, Bartholomew, and Simon)

Twelve Drummers Drumming – The twelve points of belief in the Apostles Creed; the twelve original apostles (see eleven but add Judas, the traitor); Twelve Minor Prophets of the Old Testament (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi); the Twelve Tribes of Israel; and the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit

New Meaning

This Christmas, when you hear the song The Twelve Days of Christmas playing, you can think of the marvelous gift of Jesus’ birth and the many blessings He showers on us every day!  Remember, Christ comes to us “disguised” in the form of a baby and present in everyone around us.

Where will you find Him this Christmas?

“Who is the stranger here in our midst, looking for shelter among us?  This is Christ revealed to the world in the eyes of a child, a child of the poor.”

The Manger Scene: Making Room for Jesus

The Significance of the Manger Scene

The very first manger scene came to be the day of the very first Christmas:

“[Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

When Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem there was no place for them to stay except a stable.  The King of Heaven came to earth in utter poverty reminding us that He was like us in all things but sin.  He knows the struggles we face and the sacrifices we make.  He knows and understands.

The Very First Manger Scene

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first manger scene in Greccio in the year 1233.  The world had grown indifferent to the coming of Christ and Saint Francis wanted to revive the reverence and sacredness that belongs to that holy night when Christ was born.  This nativity scene was a live one and took place in a cave.

A Tradition Spreads

Within a hundred years of the Greccio Christmas, the tradition of the manger scene had spread and almost every church in Italy is thought to have had a live one at Christmas time.  Eventually, figurines replaced reenactments.  Manger scenes can be made out of many different materials and can range from very simple to quite elaborate.  Some nativity scenes are elaborated to include an entire village.

There is often a debate over whether to place the baby Jesus in the manger during Advent or whether it is more appropriate to wait until Christmas.  There is no right or wrong answer.  Most churches wait until Christmas Eve night to place Jesus in the manger and many families hold to this tradition as well.

Bambinelli Sunday

In Italy there is a beautiful tradition that takes place on the third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday – or Bambinelli Sunday.  On this day, families take their baby Jesus figurines to the Vatican to be blessed by the Pope from the audience window.  The tradition was begun by Pope John Paul II and it is customary for the children to hold the figurines for the blessing.  Adapting this tradition, it may be special to take one of your or your family’s figurines to be blessed by your parish priest.

The Empty Manger

Jesus said that foxes have dens and birds have nests but He has nowhere to lay His head.  Using the theme of the empty manger is a great way to involve children in Christmas preparations.  At the beginning of Advent an empty manger can be set up.  Throughout Advent, for every sacrifice or good deed they do, children can place a piece of straw into the manger.  Each piece of straw – each good deed and every sacrifice – makes Jesus’ bed a little softer.  The empty manger can symbolize our hearts and with every good deed we do we are preparing a home for Jesus in our hearts.

A Christmas Wish

I love Christmas and truly believe “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”  Every year, however, I become overwhelmed with the rush of finishing school, sending Christmas cards, and preparing Christmas presents.  Every Christmas Eve, when the rush dies down, I finally have a chance to breathe and think.  I often wish I could have been one of the people present at that first Christmas and be one of the first to behold…and maybe even hold…the Christ-child.  My favorite figurine was a curly haired baby Jesus the size of both of my hands put together.  He has a big smile on His small face.  Being able to hug this Baby Jesus was a secret wish of mine for several years.

One year, during Christmas Eve Mass, I was looking at the no longer empty manger and Baby Jesus lying there with His arms outstretched as if He wanted someone to pick Him up and hold Him.  After that Mass, my brothers served a Midnight Mass at a smaller chapel close to the church.  I was cold, tired, and dizzy, wishing more for my bed than anything else.  Baby Jesus had been brought to the chapel and placed in the center in front of the altar.

Carrying Christ

Once Mass was over, the different items that had been moved into the chapel for Mass were being carried back to the church.  The two priests, my brothers, sisters, and parents were all wheeling carts of items back to the chapel.  Because of my dizziness I had not been asked to help and stood watching, feeling very useless.  One of the priests and my brother wheeled the last cart out of the chapel.  Baby Jesus was lying in the cart wobbling dangerously.  Father walked over to where I was standing, “Monique, do you think you can do something very special for me?”  I nodded.  “Can you carry Baby Jesus back to the church?”  My eyes grew wide and I nodded in disbelief.  There was Jesus, lying on the cart, in the cold, and I could finally respond to His open arms and pick Him up and hold him.  The two minutes it took to walk to the church were the best two minutes of my life.

The church was dimly lit as I walked over to the Manger Scene and laid Baby Jesus in front of Mary and Joseph.  Father said to the other priest, “Monique carried Baby Jesus all the way from the chapel, just like Mary.”  The other priest replied, “Very special.”  I smiled.  That little instance – a moment of grace – reminded me how we all must carry Jesus to those around us.

“O Come Let Us Adore Him”

Every Advent is a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and every Christmas is an opportunity to allow Him to enter and make His home inside our hearts.

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

These words the Angel spoke to the shepherds echo through time and should reach each one of us.  EWTN (The Eternal Word Television Network) often says at Christmas time, “The Word Became Flesh – For You!”  And those words should touch each and every one of us.  Christ did not come at one moment in the past but He comes to us all individually in a very special way every Christmas and every day of the year.

His arms are outstretched waiting to embrace us.  His heart is open ready to receive us.  We must return His openness and embrace Him in any way we can – however little.

May the manger scene be a reminder this Christmas of the great love God has for you.  He sent His only Son to save us.  May that little child, lying in a manger with outstretched arms remind you that you are loved and wanted today, Christmas time, and always.

“Come to the manger, come to the manger, come to the stall; Come to the manger, come to the manger, come one and all.

Come to the manger, come to the manger, by early morn; Come to the manger, come to the manger, Jesus is born.

Come to the manger, come to the manger, this to explore; Come to the manger, come to the manger, come and adore.”

– Richard Kountz “Come to the Manger” a Slovak Christmas Carol

The Christmas Tree: Pointing to the Truth

The Very First Christmas Trees

The origins of the Christmas tree are debatable but most likely originated about 1,000 years ago.

The tradition of the Christmas tree spread slowly because it was largely seen as a pagan tradition.  Germany became the “home base” for the spread of the tradition.  In England it is said that King George III’s wife, Charlotte, who was born in Germany, first introduced the concept of the Christmas tree to the United Kingdom (UK).  The tradition did not spread too widely at first.  When Queen Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert, he also brought the Christmas tree tradition to England.  The tradition then spread because if the royalty were doing it…it couldn’t be that bad!

Despite their uncertain origins, Christmas trees contain great symbolism that may often be forgotten.

“How Lovely Are Your Branches”

Christmas trees are traditionally evergreens which symbolize eternal life.  The Christmas tree, like the Advent wreath, can remind us of the immortality of our souls, the eternity of God, and how the ultimate goal of our lives is happiness with God in Heaven – forever.  Christ came to conquer death and to give us life – eternal life.

For non-Christians, evergreens were said to keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

Evergreens are tall and point skyward, reminding us of our home in Heaven and how our thoughts should rise above earthly matters and keep our eyes focused above and centered on Christ.

The presents that we wrap and place underneath the tree can symbolize the gift of our redemption and the gift of the coming of Christ.

Christmas Tree Decorations

The earliest German Christmas trees were decorated with colored paper and edibles such as gingerbread, apples, and sweets.  Overtime, popcorn (sometimes colored popcorn), nuts, and cranberries were also used as decorations.  It was common, at first, to have baby Jesus on top of the tree.  Overtime it became an angel, symbolizing the one that appeared to the shepherds.  A star could also be used, like the one the Wise Men followed.

Candles, symbolizing the light of Christ, were used to decorate the trees.  Martin Luther is credited with developing the tradition of adding candles to the indoor Christmas tree.  It is said that one Christmas Eve, while walking through the forest, he looked up and saw the stars shining through the trees.  When he arrived home he told his children it reminded him of Jesus who left His home in Heaven amid the stars to come to earth.  To recreate this image, he placed candles on the tree.

Glass-makers in Germany invented the first ornaments.  In 1895, Christmas lights became well-known thanks to President Grover Cleveland who decorated the White House Christmas tree with electric lights first invented by Thomas Edison.  In the early 1900s there were many fires related to candles on Christmas trees and Christmas lights eventually became more preferred than candles – especially due to their safety!

“O Christmas Tree!”

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the tradition of having the National Christmas Tree on the White House Lawn.

A Christmas Tree is set up every year in Trafalgar Square in London, England.  It is a yearly present from Norway to the UK as a “thank you” present for the help the UK gave Norway during World War II.

Artificial trees became popular in the early 20th century.  They have been made from various materials including feathers, papier-mâché, metal, glass, and plastic.  In certain countries, the evergreen is not used.  For example, in India, banana or mango trees are sometimes decorated.  In New Zealand a tree that has red flowers and is known as “Pohutakawa” may be decorated.

Record has it that the oldest artificial Christmas tree is about 131 years old and is located in Bath, England.

Record Breaking Christmas Trees

The world’s tallest live Christmas tree is said to have been cut in December 1950 in Seattle, Washington.  It was a 221 foot Douglas fir.

In 2010, Paris, France became home to the record breaking 32-foot tall, 4-ton chocolate Christmas tree.  It was the tallest chocolate Christmas Tree surpassing the previous world record of a 22-foot tall chocolate Christmas tree.

In Wausau, Wisonsin, a live Christmas tree stands waiting as it has since Christmas 1974.  A man by the name of Neil Olson set up a Christmas tree when 2 of his 6 sons were serving in the Vietnam War.  He planned on taking it down when they were all together for Christmas.  Since that has not happened yet, the dusty Christmas tree that has somehow maintained all its needles, still waits in the living room for the family to be reunited.

The Greatest Gift

The Christmas tree should remind us of the true reason for the wonderful seasons of Advent and Christmas.  The hope it brings and represents mirror the hope that should be present this time of year and always.  The Christmas tree, with the color and joy it brings, can serve as a reminder of the eternal joy waiting in Heaven.  Christ came as a little baby to bring hope and life but our hearts must be open to receive this gift.  We should call to mind every Christmas, that the greatest present of all time cannot fit under the largest Christmas tree but instead, seeks a home in our hearts.

“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.”          – Roy Smith

From Saint to Santa: How Santa Claus Came About

America Meets Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas’ introduction to America is uncertain.  The Dutch are commonly given the credit for introducing Saint Nicholas to New York but there is little evidence to support this.  In Pennsylvania, colonial Germans still celebrated the feast of Saint Nicholas.  In 1558, the English had begun exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve instead of the feast of Saint Nicholas.  Dutch settlers in New York began adopting this tradition saying that Saint Nicholas would visit on Christmas Eve.

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers tried to go back to their Dutch roots.  Saint Nicholas was promoted as the patron saint of the New York Historical Society and the city.

On Saint Nicholas’ feast day in 1809, Washington Irving, an early American writer and member of the Historical Society, published a piece of satire: Knickerbocker’s History of New York.  In this fictional work, Saint Nicholas was portrayed as a jolly, Dutch, elfin peasant with a clay pipe.  After this story was published, the idea of Saint Nicholas coming down the chimney with gifts spread.

In 1810, the first image of Saint Nicholas was presented at the New York Historical Society’s first Saint Nicholas Anniversary Dinner.  The image showed Saint Nicholas putting treats in stockings hanging by a fireplace.  The poem that went with the picture stated:

“Saint Nicholas, my dear, good friend, to serve you ever was my end.  If you will now, me something give.  I’ll serve you ever while I live.”

Change Begins to Happen

During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Saint Nicholas’ popularity suppressed.  Saints were not viewed in a good light during this time.  Traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas were not changed very much except in England, where Puritan Christians began to view Saint Nicholas in more of a secular light.

Over the years, Christmas had become a very secular, riotous, and often dangerous holiday.  During the nineteenth century, New York many people wanted to refocus the Christmas season.  For Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other Protestants during the first half of the nineteenth century, December 25 – Christmas Day – had no religious significance.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, people’s views on childhood began to change.  Childhood became a more protective, nurturing, developmental stage of life.  With this change, and many others, Christmas became a tamer holiday and Saint Nicholas was about to take on a more prominent role.

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”

A poem called Sancte Claus was published in 1821 and mentioned reindeer, chimney tops, and gifts.  It is thought that this poem might have been published earlier in 1807 or 1808.

In 1831, an illustrated book called The Children’s Friend was published.  Saint Nicholas was called “Sante Claus” and arrived on Christmas Eve from the North in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer.  It was at this time that the focus drifted away from the Saint and towards a more secular image.  In this story, Sante Claus rewarded the good and punished the bad.

The “jolly elf” image begun by Washington Irving took flight in 1823, with the publication of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” also known as “The Night Before Christmas.” This poem quickly became an American classic.

He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; a bundle of toys he had flung on his back and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack. 

His eyes – how they twinkled!  His dimples – how merry!  His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.  His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow. 

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.  He had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.  He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…..

Santa Claus Emerges

Around 1824, through the influence of all previous literature, Santa Claus came to be.  In German, Saint Nicholas would be “Sankt Nicklaus” which gives us the American version of Santa Claus.  During the Civil War, Santa Claus came to be pictured as a bearded, round man dressed in fur, carrying a clay pipe.

Santa Claus became incorporated into schools, homes, and Christmas Carols.  Over the years, Santa Claus was pictured with many variations.  In the 1920s, the standard American Santa emerged: a life-sized, bearded, chubby man in a red, fur-trimmed suit.  Santa Claus spread quickly and was used in all kinds of billboards and commercials.

Santa Claus Takes Over

Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus are virtually one and the same.  Saint Nicholas represents the religious side of Christmas, while Santa Claus can represent the evolution of Christmas into a more secular holiday.  They are two sides of the same coin.

Santa Claus has many names all over the world:

France – Père Noël

Germany – Kris Kringle

England – Father Christmas

China – Lam Khoong-Khoong

Sweden – Jultomten

Poland – Star Man

Brazil – Papá Noel

Japan – Hoteiosho

Chili – Viejo Pascuero

The popularity of Santa Claus has almost overshadowed his early origins as the Bishop of Myra.  Christmas has become more centered on gift receiving than on gift giving.  Buried underneath the jolly elf, is the giving bishop who comes every Christmas to give joy and to help those in need.

“Good Saint Nick”

Saint Nicholas placed Christ at the center of his life and so should we.  Santa Claus is not a bad figure.  Christmas, however, should revolve around Christ, not Santa.  Every Christmas should be a time to focus on the gift of Christ who came as a baby to bring us life and salvation.  Underneath Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas might be silently begging us to refocus and place Christ at the center.  There is room for Santa Claus in Christmas as long Jesus remains the “reason for the season.”

“I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Advent and Christmas Traditions Around the World

Many Countries, Many Traditions

Advent and Christmas are exiting times of year in any country.  Depending on what part of the world they are celebrated, however, there are many different traditions that are observed.  It would be impossible to cover every tradition extensively, but a few are mentioned here.  Any tradition from any country could be used in another country.  Sharing traditions helps to add a sense of culture and history to Advent and Christmas celebrations.

Advent traditions in every country are almost nearly the same.  Advent wreaths, Jesse Trees, and Advent calendars can be found in many countries.  Christmas traditions, however, are varied!

The United States and Canada

In some French-Canadian communities, Christmas is celebrated on December 24.  Christmas traditions center around setting up Christmas trees and decorating them with lights and ornaments.  Nativity scenes are also widely set up.  Stockings are placed on fireplaces or staircases to be filled with little gifts.  Presents are wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree and exchanged between friends and families.  Most families celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts, attending Midnight Mass and exchanging Christmas Cards.  In both the United States and Canada people often reach out to help those less fortunate with gift, toy, clothing, and food drives.  Baking, decorating, and sharing cookies is a popular tradition.

Europe and England

The Irish began the tradition of placing a ring of Holly on the front door as decoration.  Many Irish attend Midnight Mass and many businesses are closed between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  An older Irish tradition involved lighting a candle in the window to welcome Joseph and Mary.  Nollaig Shona is Merry Christmas in Gaelic.

In the Czech Republic, Christmas is celebrated with food and gift giving between immediate and extended families.  Often times, a place for the child Jesus is set at the table.  In Czech they say Veselé Vánoce.

In Norway, gingerbread houses are a widespread tradition.  Families bake these houses and decorate them elaborately.  God Jul is how Norwegians wish you a Merry Christmas!

English traditions are very similar to those in North America including hanging stockings by the fireplace, decorating Christmas Trees, and making Christmas lists.  The tradition of caroling is prevalent in England more-so than other places.

Russia and Poland

Russians usually celebrate Christmas on January 7.  On Christmas Eve, after several long services, families return home and have what is called the “Holy Supper,” made up of 12 dishes to commemorate the 12 Apostles.  There is another service called the “All Night Vigil.”  On Christmas morning the Divine Liturgy of the Nativity is celebrated.  Russians wish people Schastlivogo Rozhdestva!

The Polish have many traditions.  However, one special tradition that originated in early Christian times is that of Oplatki (O-pwaht-kee) – Christmas Wafers {Singular: Oplatek (O-pwah-tek)}.  These wafers are made out of flour and water, are very similar in consistency to Communion hosts, and are imprinted with Christmas images.  The breaking of the Oplatek mirrors the Last Supper and the celebration of the Mass.  The tradition originally came about because Bethlehem means “House of Bread.”

Oplatki are usually shared before the Christmas Eve meal.  The eldest family member breaks off a piece of the wafer and hands it to another family member offering a blessing – a kind of Christmas wish for the other person.  Since animals were among the first to greet Christ, even pets can share in the Oplatki.  The wafers are generally white but most packs of Oplatki come with one or two pink wafers for family pets.  This tradition is not only observed in Poland.  Americans call them Christmas Wafers, Lithuanians have plotkele, and Slovaks have oblatky.  The sharing of the Oplatek is a time for families to come together in love and forgiveness.  To wish you a Merry Christmas the Polish would say Wesołych Świąt!

The Alpine Countries

In these European countries, there is a tradition of carrying a statue of Saint Joseph to a different home every night.  The custom can be adapted by moving a statue of Saint Joseph to a different room in the house during Advent.  On Christmas Eve, Saint Joseph joins the Nativity Scene with Mary, Jesus, and the shepherds.

In Germany, Christmas trees are very popular tradition.  In some cases, there can be a Christmas tree for every member of the family!  The trees are decorated with lights and candy.  The lighting of the Christmas tree is often a special part of Christmas Eve and children open presents afterwards.  A roast goose can be part of the Christmas dinner.  Merry Christmas is Fröhliche Weihnachten!

The French often celebrate Christmas throughout December.  In some cases, gifts are given on December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas, as well as Christmas, and sometimes on New Year’s Day also.  Shoes are placed by the fireplace instead of stockings.  Figurines in manger scenes are sometimes dressed in traditional French apparel.  Merry Christmas in French is – Joyeux Noël!

Italians in almost every town and village have contests for the best Nativity scene.  Depending on the family and where in Italy they are from, gifts may be opened on December 13 (the feast of Saint Lucy), December 25 (Christmas), or January 6 (the Epiphany).  Christmas is a very family and food centered holiday in Italy.  The Christmas season begins on December 8 – when decorating and major Christmas preparations begin.  A traditional Christmas bread is pannettone which is shaped like a dome and made with raisins and candied citrus peel.  Buon Natale is how to say Merry Christmas in Italian.

Spain and Mexico

There are many traditions in Spanish and Mexico for celebrating Advent and Christmas.  In Spain, gift giving is often saved until the Epiphany when the Wise Men bring the gifts for baby Jesus and all children.  Christmas Eve is known as Noche Buena and is celebrated with friends, family, and food.

In Mexico, Christmas is celebrated for nine days leading up to Christmas.  Festivities can include costumes, music, food, and Piñatas.  The Novena to the Holy Child is traditionally prayed throughout Advent.

The tradition of La Posada (The Inn) is widespread in Latin American countries.  The Posada is a play that acts out the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and their struggle to find a place to stay.  People in the different villages go door to door knocking and singing Advent and Christmas carols.  Every house turns them down except for one.  The Posada begins on December 16.  Some versions of La Posada have been adapted for Parish use.  Merry Christmas in Spanish is Feliz Navidad – and has become known all around the world because of the fun Christmas song!

The Asian Continent

In the Philippines, Advent is celebrated by attending nine Masses in a row.  These are known as Misas de Aguinaldo – or Gift Masses.  They begin on December 16 and end on Christmas Eve.  After every Mass, families celebrate together by eating traditional desserts and sweets.  Maligayang Pasko is how Filipinos would wish you a Merry Christmas!

In the Middle East, tradition has it that a twig from a fruit tree (usually a cherry) is placed in water.  It is named after Saint Barbara, a Christian martyr, and is known as the “Barbara branch.”  It is said that things will go well for the family whose branch blooms on or before Christmas day.  This tradition comes from Jesus being the root that sprouts from the stump of Jesse.  Merry Christmas in Arabic is Eid Milad Saeid and in Turkish it is Mutlu Noeller.

During Advent in China, Christians light paper lanterns to decorate their houses.  Chinese Jesse Trees can be decorated with paper lanters, chains, and flowers.  Similar to the United States, children in China hang stockings by the fireplace.  The Chinese say Shèngdàn jié kuàilè to wish you a Merry Christmas.

Different Traditions – Same Holiday

It does not matter how or where you celebrate Christmas.  Traditions do not make a holiday – but they certainly do enhance it.  Many traditions are rooted in history and culture and have many hidden symbolisms and meanings.  In many countries the focus is on Christ, family, and food – and that is as it should be.  Advent and Christmas are times to refocus and put first things first.  During Advent we refocus on the coming of Christ and during both Advent and Christmas we come together with those we love to celebrate the best gift of all – the gift of Love incarnate and His presence in each one of us.

“Though the customs might change and the language is strange…It’s Christmas time all over the World!”

The ‘O Antiphons’ – Preparing for Christmas

Origins of the ‘O Antiphons’

The ‘O Antiphons’ have been present in the Church since around the 8th century.  They are typically said in the context of the Liturgy of the Hours.  They can, however, be prayed by families and meditated on by anyone.  There are seven antiphons beginning on December 17 and ending on December 23.

These short, beautiful antiphons proclaim the coming of Christ through biblical references, expressing the hopes of the Old Testament.  Each ‘O Antiphon’ begins with “O” followed by a different name referring to Christ.  The repetition of the word come throughout all the antiphons emphasizes the longing and expectation present during the time leading up to the coming of Christ.  It also represents the anticipation of Christmas.

The ‘O Antiphons’ from December 17-23 are:

December 17

O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!

December 18

O Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power!

December 19

O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay!

December 20

O Key of David, opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom: come and free the prisoners of darkness!

December 21

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.

December 22

O King of All Nations and Keystone of the Church: come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

December 23

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law: come to save us, Lord our God!

“Christmas, Christmastime is near!”

As the antiphons are prayed, they can serve as a reminder that Advent is nearly over, our waiting is coming to an end, and Christmas is finally upon us!

“Come Savior, quickly come…while we are waiting come!”

Violet and Rose: The Colors of Advent

Four Sundays – Two Colors

Advent is a time of preparation leading up to Christmas.  Every liturgical season has its own color and Advent is no exception.  There are two main colors of Advent – violet and rose.  Each of the four weeks of Advent, beginning with the Sunday, has a corresponding color.  The first two Sundays are violet, the third one is rose, and the final one is once again violet.

These colors are used to decorate homes and churches and are also the colors of the candles used on Advent Wreaths.

Violet – A Penitential Color

Violet represents prayer, penance, sorrow, and sacrifice which are central themes in the season of Advent although the approach is gentler than during Lent.  Advent is a time of hope and expectation but we must still prepare for the holy feast of Christmas.  We must be sorry for our sins, repent, and sacrifice, in order to prepare a fitting home for Christ.  It is similar to housecleaning – spiritual housecleaning.

The first two Sundays and weeks of Advent are violet, reminding us of the penitential aspect of the season.  Then, after a week of joy, the final week of Advent is also violet, bringing us to a final week of preparation before the coming of the Lord at Christmas.

Rose – Joyful Expectation

Rose is the liturgical color of joy.  It reminds us that on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, our waiting is almost over.  It is a time to rejoice in what we have been given and in what is yet to come.  This Sunday is the midpoint in Advent.  Two weeks have passed and roughly two are yet to come before Christmas.  It is a break from the solemnity of the season to rejoice in the hope that Christmas is almost here!

A Colorful Reminder

The colors of Advent should serve to bring us closer to the true meaning of this holy season.  Through prayer, penance, and sacrifice we can achieve the joy of Christmas.  Advent is not meant to be a melancholy time but a time of joyful expectation and preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas.

Let us prepare a place for Christ in our hearts so that he may have a warm, welcoming place to lay His head.

“A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”  Isaiah 40:3

 

Saint Lucy: Let Your Light Shine

Who is Saint Lucy?

Much of what we know of Saint Lucy is buried in legend.  It is very hard to tell what is true and what is not.  Lucy was a Christian from Syracuse, Sicily.  She lived with her mother, Eutychia, since her father died when she was young.  Her family was supposedly wealthy and her father may have been Roman.  Eutychia did not know that her daughter had made a vow of virginity and so she tried to convince her to marry a pagan man.  In some stories, Eutychia actually arranged for Lucy to marry a nobleman.  Lucy postponed the marriage as long as she could.  During this time, Eutychia became very sick and so both mother and daughter went to pray at the tomb of Saint Agatha.  Through a miracle, Eutychia was cured!

Lucy eventually told her mother about her vow and Eutychia stopped pressuring her to marry.  The rejected nobleman was furious and he told the governor that Lucy was a Christian – which was a crime at the time and the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian was going strong.  Lucy was brought into the court and the soldiers were going to take her to a bad place but God made her unmovable – the guards could not move her at all not even with a team of oxen!  They even tried to burn her but when that did not work, she met her death by the sword.  Saint Lucy is said to have died sometime in the early fourth century – probably 304 A.D.

The Bearer of Light

So, why is Saint Lucy usually pictured holding her eyes?  Legend has several different explanations.  One legend says that the Governor ordered the removal of her eyes as a punishment.  Another legend, however, says that Saint Lucy took them out herself because the man she was supposed to marry really admired them.  At the time of her burial, her eyes returned more beautiful than before!

Because of these legends, Saint Lucy is the patron saint of the blind and of those with eye disorders.  Her name means light or bringer/bearer of light and most art portrays her holding a palm branch as a symbol of her martyrdom and a little plate or cup with her eyes inside.  Saint Lucy is also the patron saint of Syracuse, Sicily.  On her feast day, a silver statue with her relics is carried throughout the streets.

By the sixth century, the whole Church acknowledged her courage in defending the faith.  She was recognized as a Saint before canonization was an official church practice and her name is mentioned in the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.

Saint Lucy’s Day

Saint Lucy’s feast day is December 13 and there are many ways to celebrate this feast around the world.  While she was still alive, Saint Lucy would travel to the catacombs to give supplies to the Christians hiding there.  In order to leave her hands free to carry the supplies, it is believed she wore a wreath on her head with candles to light the way.  Most Saint Lucy Feast Day traditions stem from this legend.

At one time, her feast day was the same day as the winter solstice – the longest day of the year.  This is significant because her name means light.  Saint Lucy’s Day is a feast of light and reminds us that the coming of the Light of the World is very close!

The most popular tradition that is celebrated in many countries but mainly in Sweden is that of a young girl or lady dressed in a white dress (for purity) and a red sash (for martyrdom) with a wreath of candles on her head.  In some countries there are processions and cookies are distributed.  The most traditional dish is that of saffron buns, which appear to be shaped in the form of two eyes.  In other forms of the tradition, the girl rises before her family and serves them all cake or some other special treat.

Saint Lucy is included in Fishing for Saints, plus our Saint Stickers and Fishing for Saints Prayer Book!

“This Little Light of Mine”

Let it shine!  That is one lesson Saint Lucy can teach us.  No matter where we are, we should bring the light of Christ to all those around us.  Each one of us has a different kind of light – the light of our gifts and personalities, and the light of Christ shining in each one of us.  Our light, as the gospel says, was not meant to be hidden underneath a bushel basket.  We must share the light with others so that they will not remain in the darkness.

“Darkness shall take flight soon from earth’s valleys.  So she speaks wonderful words to us: A new day will rise again from the rosy sky….  Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Saint Lucy, virgin and martyr, please pray for us!

 

Find Saint Lucy Coloring Page and Mini Story.

The Advent Calendar: Counting Down the Days

Waiting in Hope

Waiting is hard.  Very hard.  Even the most patient person can have trouble enduring suspense and expectation for a long period of time.  So why does the Church give us about four weeks when the sole focus is – waiting?  Advent is a time when we wait, prepare, and look forward to celebrating the coming of Christ at Christmas. To help pass the time, an Advent calendar can be used.

Using an Advent calendar can help focus our attention on important aspects of Advent and also to count down the days until Christmas.  An Advent calendar is a wonderful way to involve children in Advent traditions and to help them prepare for the coming of Baby Jesus.

The Evolution of a Tradition

The tradition of using Advent calendars originated in the mid-1800s.  German Protestants used to light candles or mark their doors with chalk to mark down the days leading up to Christmas.  They would mark 24 lines of chalk and then rub off one line every day of December.  Some European countries used a fir wreath, similar to a modern day Advent wreath that had 24 candles to be lighted each day.  Another tradition was hanging 24 bags or boxes on the wreath – one to open every day with a little present inside.

The first known handmade Advent calendar dates back to 1851.  Paper calendars became popular in the 1900s although the exact origins of the first calendars are unclear.  In 1904, an Advent calendar insert was included in a German newspaper.  The first “modern” Advent calendars originated in Germany and their creation is attributed to Gerhard Lang.  Lang based his calendar on one his mother had made for him by attaching colored pictures to cardboard and later adding little doors.  The calendars quickly became a success.  Around the same time, the Saint John Printing Company began printing religious Advent calendars containing Bible verses instead of pictures.

Lang had invented about 30 different Advent calendar designs by the time he had to close his company in the thirties due to World War II, the rationing of cardboard, and the banning of Advent calendars with pictures.  The creation of Advent calendars was revived after the war and quickly regained popularity.  In 1958, the first Advent calendar with chocolate was made but these only became popular in the 1980s.

The Advent Calendar Today

Advent calendars usually begin on December 1 and end on December 24/25 – Christmas Eve/Christmas.  Most of the calendars today are made out of cardboard and contain 24 or 25 windows that can be opened to reveal chocolate, play a song, or display an image, saying, or Bible verse.

Personal calendars can be made containing little goals, prayers, and/or sacrifices for every day of Advent or the 24 days of December leading up to Christmas.  Other types of calendars are made out of Legos, fabric, or wood.  Pop-up calendars have also been created.  The Jacquie Lawson online Advent calendar is beautiful and interactive for children.

There are many kinds of Advent calendars – many more than can be mentioned.  Some calendars have retained a Catholic/Christian perspective true to the real meaning of Advent.  However, many others take a more secular approach.

A picture was taken of President Eisenhower opening an Advent calendar with his grandchildren.  This picture was then distributed nationally in several newspapers.  It is said that because of this picture the tradition of the Advent calendar came to the United States.

Record Breaking Advent Calendars

There are some Advent calendars whose creativity is worth mentioning:

England is home to the largest Advent calendar in the world.  It is 232 feet high and 75 feet wide in Saint Pancras Station in London.  The calendar was build to commemorate the renovation of the station in December 2007.

What is believed to be the smallest Advent calendar in the world is 8.4 nanometers by 12.4 nanometers and it could fit in a postage stamp 5 million times.  It was created in Germany by a group of nanotech specialists.

The world’s most expensive Advent calendar was made in 2010 by the Belgian company Octagon Blue GCV.  It cost roughly the equivalent of $2,228,190 and was made with gold, diamonds, and filigree glass artwork.  There are 24 diamonds with numbers carved on them for every day of December preceding Christmas.

Advent is for Everyone

Advent calendars do not have to be big or grand in order to be special and useful.  It should provide us with a tool to help us in our waiting for Christmas.  The world waits for that most holy night when we celebrate the birth of our Redeemer!

In the words of an Advent hymn:

“Jesus, our Lord, Emmanuel – while we are waiting come!”

 

The Immaculate Conception: Full of Grace

“Hail Mary, Full of Grace”

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church.

Many Catholics believe this feast celebrates Jesus’ conception through the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary.  However, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception celebrates Mary’s conception in the womb of Saint Anne without the stain of original sin.  Jesus’ conception is celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, nine months before Christmas.

In order to become the mother of Christ she was conceived free from the burden of original sin.

Saints Joachim and Anne prayed for a child for a very long time.  Just when they had begun to lose hope, Saint Anne became pregnant with Mary.  In order for Mary to become the mother of Christ, her soul never suffered the effects of original sin.

Tradition has it that the Eastern Church first celebrated the feast on December 9, as the “Feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God” as early as the fifth century.

As the feast spread throughout the Eastern Church, the focus was more on Saint Anne and became known as “The Conception of Saint Anne, the Ancestress of God.”  It took a long time for the celebration of the Feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception to spread.  During the eighth century it spread to the Western Church and began to be celebrated on December 8.

The feast received its present name in the eleventh century and became a feast for the whole Church during the eighteenth century.

Papal Endorsement

Pope Sixtus IV, on February 28, 1476, extended the feast to the whole Western Church and in 1483, he threatened to excommunicate anyone who opposed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  During the seventeenth century, a lot of the opposition to the doctrine had died out in the Catholic Church.

The Immaculate Conception was declared a Holy Day of Obligation in 1708 by Pope Clement XI through the Papal Bull Commissi Nobis Divinitus.  This Papal Bull declared the feast a Solemnity and a Holy Day of Obligation that was to be celebrated by all the faithful.

On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX, in an apostolic constitution known as Ineffabilis Deus, infallibly specified the importance of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception declaring it a dogma:

“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”

 Pope Pius IX did not change the doctrine through this proclamation; he simply defined the doctrine in an official way.

The New Eve

Our Blessed Mother is the new Eve and the mother of the new Adam.  She was the pure instrument through which the Savior of the human race would come into the world.

Saint Thomas Aquinas called Mary the “holiest of all creatures.”  Many of the saints had a great devotion to the Immaculate Conception.  Saint Maximilian Kolbe was one of them and he said: “He who loves the Immaculate will gain a sure victory in the interior combat.”

“I am the Immaculate Conception”

When Our Blessed Mother appeared to Saint Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 she told her, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Just as she appeared at Lourdes, Mary is usually portrayed as a young woman, dressed in white, with a blue sash or mantle and a halo of stars.  She is often shown standing on a hill and sometimes there are clouds, angels, and flowers shown as well.

There is a magnet of Our Blessed Mother and she has a sticker also in the Saint Sticker Multipack!

A Feast Around the World

In Guam and the Philippines (and other countries as well), the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a public holiday.  It is also a public holiday in Panama, where December 8 is also Mother’s Day.  In many churches around the world, special Masses and services are held to commemorate the feast.  In some places, the feast is celebrated with parades, fireworks, and songs.

The Immaculate Conception is the patroness of many countries including Argentina, Brazil, Korea, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, Spain, and Uruguay.  She was declared the Patroness of the United States in 1846 by the members of the Sixth Provincial Council of the Congress of Baltimore.  A royal decree also pronounced the Immaculate Conception as the Patroness of Portugal.

Ways to Celebrate

There are many beautiful ways that the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception can be celebrated.

One way is to place a blue tablecloth on the kitchen table and pray the Canticle of Mary: The Magnificat before meals or throughout the day.  Cupcakes or a cake decorated with blue icing and sprinkles would be a sweet addition.  Flowers can be placed in front of a statue of Mary.  A fun activity might be to buy white carnations several days before the feast day or right before.  Place the flowers in a jar and put blue food coloring in the water.  Over time, the flowers (sometimes just their edges) will turn a soft shade of blue.  On this day it would be special to make time to pray the Rosary as a family.  Making Rosaries together is a fun activity as well.

“Mother of Christ, Mother of Mine”

On the Cross, before He died, Jesus gave Mary to us as our mother.  She is the mother of God and our mother also.  She takes care of us and loves us as the dearest, gentlest, and purest mother.

Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing, you reign now in splendor with Jesus our King!