Reclaiming Christmas: Catholic Customs of Christendom
Published on Dec 21, 2015
Michael Matt and Michael Matt discuss family, Christmas and the great Catholic cultural alternatives of Christendom to Macy’s phony-baloney, plastic-banana “holiday” marketing gimmicks.
Two years before his death, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed the Quintet in A for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola and Cello. It was his contribution to the annual Christmas concert for widows of Viennese musicians, and it was destined to become so well loved that it would still be performed in the world’s great concert halls at Christmastime centuries later. At its premiere, Mozart surprised Vienna by taking to the stage unannounced beforehand and playing the viola part himself.
The date was December 22, 1789. Yes, 1789—the year the French Revolution sent waves of horror across Europe, including in Imperial Vienna. Yet the maestro managed to insulate himself from the din of bloody revolution and compose a piece of music so sublime it would capture the sweet essence of the old world and stand in stark contrast to a new one in violent making.
Then as now the holy Feast made it possible for weary men to make believe the world hadn’t gone mad after all. Like that Quintet of 1789, Christmas still has the power to put revolutions on hold.
For this reason it is difficult for many of us to go along with those fundamentalist Protestants and even some traditional Catholics who in an effort to counter the commercialization of Christmas, are doing to the Feast what the French Revolution did to Europe—stripping it of its noblest traditions.
As Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Target and the rest attempt to transform Christmas into Capitalism’s high holy day, many good folks are doing to their children what the Grinch tried to do to Whoville. But I wonder if this isn’t an example of good intentions gone awry. To Calvinize Christmas, to secularize it, to commercialize it—what’s the difference? Christmas is undermined just the same and the Devil is the victor!
Don’t get me wrong, global capitalism’s highway robbery of our sacred Holy Day surely presents a problem that demands our attention. When even countries such as Germany and Austria ban Santa Claus altogether (as they did a few years ago), calling it a secular caricature invented by Coca-Cola that robs Christmas of its meaning, it’s evident that the world is growing tired of the inanity of the “holiday season”.
Bettina Schade, of the Frankfurter Nicholas Initiative in Germany (the group attempting to restore St. Nicholas to the heart of the German Christmas tradition), put it quite well:
We object to the material things, the hectic rush to buy gifts, and the ubiquity of the bearded man in the red suit that are taking away from the core meaning of Christmas. The Christian origins of Christmas, like the birth of Jesus, have receded into the background. It’s becoming more and more a festival that is reduced to simply worldly gifts and commerce.
Exactly!, why not replace the fraud and gimmickry of Happy Holidays with authentic Christian tradition? In many traditional Catholic households the old German Christkind (pronounced kris-kint and meaning Christ Child) custom is being revived, whereby the Baby Jesus Himself comes on Christmas, providing, of course, that Advent has been kept well.
Incredibly, even such venerable traditions as this are under fire by fundamentalist Protestants and semi-Jansenist traditionalists who regard all such customs as part of the same commercialized perversion of Christmas. A child needs Midnight Mass on Christmas, the “super trads” argue—not candy, toys, gifts and feasts.
Bah, humbug! We’re talking about children, not theologians! And children do indeed need Christmas!
Midnight Mass is THE heart of Christmas, to be sure, but Holy Mother Church in her maternal wisdom long ago surrounded the Holy Day with the trappings of celebratory tradition and grand custom that made the celebration of the birth of Christ otherworldly from every perspective. The Christmas traditions—liturgical and otherwise—took on a mystical quality, capable of solidifying the Faith in the heart of a child and seamlessly uniting the doctrine of the Incarnation with the most joyous human celebration of the year. That was the great secret of the “Catholic thing”:
Ah! No eve is like this Christmas eve!
Fears and hopes, and hopes and fears,
Tears and smiles, and smiles and tears
Cheers and sighs, and sighs and cheers,
Sweet and bitter, bitter, sweet,
Bright and dark, and dark and bright
All these mingle, all these meet,
In this great and solemn night
Children are not imbeciles. They can be taught to distinguish between Christmas and the “Holiday Season,” and they can certainly celebrate Christmas without turning it into Jingle Bell Rock and plastic-banana Santa Claus Day.
I touched on the old Christkind custom in this column last year, but perhaps an additional word will serve the interests of those preferring to re-Catholicize Christmas customs rather than throwing them out the window.
If the idea resonates with you as it has with my family and so many traditional Catholic families over the years, don’t be surprised. That’s the way it is with the rich cultural heritage handed down to us from the old Catholic world that, if we can learn to think outside the Americanist box, makes so much sense—much more than banishing Christmas celebrations as did the puritanical pilgrims of Plymouth.
Here’s the general idea.
It all starts four weeks before Christmas when the Advent wreath is placed in the middle of the kitchen table. A family council is convened to determine who is going to give up what for Advent. For the little ones it’s usually sweets; for the slightly older ones it might involve swearing off eating between meals altogether. But everyone gives up something. It’s not as severe as Lent, of course, as Advent is a joyous season, but it’s a time to wait, pray and offer small sacrifices.
That settled, it’s time to sing O Come Emmanuel. With the lights dimmed and the candles lit, the words of the antiphon are sung with all the gusto a tone-deaf five-year-old can muster. This ritual is repeated without fail before every evening meal throughout Advent. Children wouldn’t have it any other way.
Next up—the Advent Prayer. Beginning on St. Andrew the Apostle’s feast day, the Advent prayer is added to grace before meals. It keeps children mindful of the necessity of preparing for Christ’s coming.
Hail and blessed be the hour and moment In which the Son of God was born Of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His blessed Mother. Amen.
Then there’s the Straw Box. It’s just an old cigar box covered in tacky gold paper with a picture of Baby Jesus rather inartistically taped to its lid, but no one would even think of replacing it. Every detail of keeping Advent becomes as much a part of the tradition as the wreath itself, and tradition can’t change.
Children are natural born traditionalists, of course. For them, the Straw Box is like the Ark of the Covenant—tangible proof that something wonderful happened and that something wonderful will happen again if the traditions are properly observed. Around here, then, a semi-liturgical hunt for straw or dry swamp grass in the woods behind the house kicks off each Advent Season.
Throughout Advent, every good deed done (upon verification from mom or dad) merits the placement of one piece of straw in the Straw Box—the idea being to collect enough to make up the Baby Jesus’ bed by Christmastime. Rather than cookies and milk left out for Santa, good deeds made of straw are meant to fill the manger of the Christ Child–a rather Catholic notion, wouldn’t you say?
All of this makes perfect sense to a child, as does the ominous warning that if Advent is not kept well and the pursuit of straw not vigorously maintained, Baby Jesus will certainly have no reason to call on Christmas Eve. Nothing is presumed. December 24th is D-day, and the time of waiting presents countless opportunities to teach virtue and life’s vital lessons to the little ones.
Just the other day, for example, I took my children to town to run a few errands. We were right in the middle of Advent when I rolled into the drive-thru at the bank and made a deposit. After I’d concluded my business, the kindly-looking lady behind the glass asked: “How many kids do you have in there today?”
“Looks to be about five,” I guessed. She smiled, and when the little tube came back through the shoot, five lollypops were wrapped in the deposit slip inside.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, thinking to myself: Great, a sugar high times five!
The lollypops were passed out and I was just becoming aware of crinkling wrappers being peeled back when suddenly the five-year-old’s panic-stricken face appeared in the rearview mirror: “Daddy, what about Advent?”
“Good Lord,” said I, “it’s Advent! Daddy forgot!”
“I didn’t forget, Daddy”— it was the ten-year-old in the back seat, speaking rather smugly from behind her ever-present open book. “I’m saving mine for Sunday.”
In years past, some practical soul introduced the idea that Sundays in Advent are so important that brief reprieve from sacrificial rigors are in order on those four days of Advent. I’ve never researched it, but it works for me! Strikes me as one more reason we refer to the Church as Holy MOTHER.
In any event, this was Tuesday and the expression on the four-year-old’s face suggested that Sunday might as well have been 2018, since her unwrapped lollypop was at that moment suspended just millimeters from her watering tongue. “What should I do, Daddy? I’m only this many,” she held up four little fingers.
Recalling some admonition against stealing candy from babies, I equivocated à la Alan Alda and dully asked: “Well, what do you guys think we should do?”
The four-year-old’s face lit up as it tends to do on those rare occasions when someone leaves something—anything—up to her: “Well, Daddy, the wrapper is off. Mommy says Jesus doesn’t want us to waste food.”
Never missing an opportunity to rain on a sister’s parade, however, the eight-year-old retrieved a crinkled wrapper from the floor of the car and gallantly suggested a solution to the dilemma: “I think it’ll keep as long as you wrap this around it.”
An ominous silence from the front seat meant Daddy concurred.
Defeated and wounded, the little one looked at the wrapper as she’d looked at a salamander he’d tried to give her last summer. Slowly, she twisted the wrapper around her lollypop, her bottom lip quivering and fully extended.
Half a mile down the road there was another errand, another drive-thru, another nice lady behind glass, and, wouldn’t you know it, another supply of freebies for the kids.
Before I could say a word, bags of animal crackers and candy canes were being passed through the car window. Five pairs of eyes moved from the goodies, to Daddy, and then back again to the goodies. The tension wasn’t broken until the ten-year-old, enjoying every minute of her father’s predicament, blurted out: “Maybe you could start a candy store, Daddy.”
The troop erupted. Even the baby squealed, having no idea what was funny, of course, but enjoying the moment anyway. The candy and crackers were bagged up and put in the glove compartment until Sunday. After all, it was Advent!
A certain little lip was back in its proper place, smiling, and no tears were shed.
My children are no angels! But they, like their young counterparts for a thousand years before them, are quite capable of grasping the simple, Catholic teachings and customs of Advent and Christmas. It’s not rocket science and it hardly demands heroic virtue. All we parents have to do is teach them as we were taught and as our fathers were taught and as their fathers taught them. The wheel need not be reinvented!
Children can easily recognize the injustice of a world such as ours daring to take Christ out of Christmas. Like Cardinal Newman in his “Christmas Without Christ”, they are revolted by the very idea:
How can I keep my Christmas feast
In its due festive show,
Reft of the sight of the High Priest
From Whom its glories flow?
In our desire to keep Christ in Christmas, we need not throw the Baby out with the bath water. The old Christmas customs served families, Catholic society and the Feast brilliantly down through the centuries. There is nothing secular or commercial about Christmas as it is observed in the old mode by those who keep the Catholic customs.
The Christkind, for example, comes in the middle of the night before Christmas Eve. A curtain is hung over the entrance to the living room, meaning that all day on Christmas Eve no one is allowed near the place which, if Advent has been kept well, will have been transformed into the Christmas room by the Baby Jesus Himself.
After sundown, children are dressed in their Sunday best, Christmas hymns are sung, candles are lit and a little procession winds its way from the back of the house to the Christmas room. Presents are under the tree, yes, but that’s for later. For the moment, a half hour will pass before anyone goes near the tree or hazards a glance at whatever might lie beneath.
Kneeling quietly before the crèche with mother and father, who use that holy moment to plant the seeds of the old Faith deep in the souls of their little ones, the children are quite ceremoniously transported back in time to the City of David, to midnight and to piercing cold. All eyes are on Baby Jesus. It’s His birthday, and nobody—not even the two-year-old—is allowed to lose sight of that sublime reality. After the souls of the deceased are remembered, a decade of the Rosary is prayed for various intentions, and the Christmas hymns are sung, the vigil at the crèche ends with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday. After all, it is!
The ritual continues on then, deep into the night, until climaxing at the very apex of the Catholic Christmas—Midnight Mass.
The Christkind custom faithfully connects its modern-day observers to the past—to the days before television, rock music, video games, the noise of revolution and commercialism— when Holy Mother Church reigned supreme in every aspect of Catholic family life.
Today, we have become a society of extremists—wayward men forget God’s Divinity, and, in reaction, good men tend to downplay His humanity. But the old customs and traditions of Christendom—those of sacred liturgy and family life—taught men to live and love the Faith whole and complete, day in and day out, without losing sight either of the spiritual needs of the soul or the temporal needs of mind and body. Jesus is both God and Man; His Church is both divine and human; and Christmas is a time to celebrate with body and soul the magnificence of Incarnation and Redemption. It’s more than the Mass and it always was.
Puritans and Calvinists our Catholic fathers most definitely were not! It was not just rigorist rules and ominous obligations that led them to cling to the old Faith and hand it down lovingly to their children. It was centuries’ worth of family and cultural tradition borne out of Faith, sustained by Hope and nurtured through Charity. This is the great “Catholic thing” that taught men for a thousand years how to live, love, worship, and die in God’s good grace and in the loving arms of the human family in which He, in His great mercy, has placed every one of us.
Let us raise a glass of good wine to Christmas, then! Let us celebrate the Feast as our fathers did. Let us keep Christmas sacred and merry as it should be and as it always was. After all, it is a Catholic Feast and this is the Catholic thing to do!
Come we shepherds whose blest sight
Hath met lov’es noon in nature’s night;
Come, lift we up our loftier song,
And wake the Sun that lies too long.
To all our world of well-stol’n joy
He slept; and dreamt of no such thing.
While we found out heav’n’s fairer eye
And kist the cradle of our King. …Richard Crashaw