by Charles A. Coulombe
December 7, 2016
…I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder
I need a little Christmas now
–Jerry Herman, “We Need a Little Christmas”
As anyone knows who has been out shopping in this strange electoral Winter of 2016 knows, the stores — as some have been since before Hallowe’en — are filled with Christmas trappings. Many of the music stations are playing a straight month of anodyne “holiday music” — with only the occasional “First Noel” or “Do You Hear What I hear?” to remind easy listening fans of the religious roots of the holiday. For all that, the usual war against Christmas seems muted this year; perhaps because so many of its paladins are still shell-shocked by Mr. Trump’s victory, and have other things to contemplate than de-Christianising Yule-tide. Even so, we have fallen a long way from the days when movie theatres routinely gave their patrons quasi-religious Christmas greetings, and nary a “holiday” party or activity could be found. Whatever else one said about the theological content of such films as Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Carol, there could be no question as to what holiday they were about. The general atmosphere of good cheer and good will is precisely what the character Auntie Mame was asking for in the Jerry Herman song quoted above. Although he is Jewish, Herman (as with Irving Berlin in White Christmas) was able to grasp at least the external feelings generated by Christmas without the need to feel offended.
That grasp, compounded with the sort of vestigial religiosity exhibited by such things as the movie theatre greetings linked to above epitomise the Christmases of my childhood. The cultus of Santa Claus (complete with reindeer led by Rudolph, elves, the North Pole, Mrs. Claus, his own presence at Macy’s, and all the rest) mingles in my memory with the cold of a Westchester County winter, the Santa Claus Lane Parade (after we moved to Hollywood), Midnight Mass, the Christmas Tree, Nativity set, religious carols, and, of course, the presents in the morning and Christmas dinner that night. All I need to bring back those far off days and the memory of my beloved parents is to drive around in the relative chill of Southern California in December, and enjoy the Christmas lights in such places as Altadena’s Christmas Tree Lane, Pasadena’s Hastings Ranch, and San Marino’s St. Alban’s Road. One of the few things that distinguished our Christmases from our neighbours’ was that we NEVER put up the tree until Christmas Eve. Truly, if all Christmas were about was my personal nostalgia, my cup would runneth over this time of year, for all that I am colder, sadder, and older than the little boy who thrilled to hear his father recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and sing “Minuit, chretiens.”
But in truth, that culture of Christmas — for all its eggnog and hot roasted chestnuts — was in itself a stage in the feast’s decay. Writing in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, in a lecture that was later published as part of his 1958 book. Bread of Life, Fr. Leonard Feeney made an observation that may seem to harshly conflict with the generic feeling of comfort we have been describing:
I do not know what Christmas in the United States is going to be like from now on. I frankly do not! I have seen how it has deteriorated in the past twenty-five years. I know the deceivers and haters of Jesus and Mary, across the street at Harvard College, will go through this Christmas religiously as fraudulently as they went through the last one. There will be red lights blinking on Christmas trees, this year the same as last year. Light, revealing nothing! Light, meant to be the means of making things visible, with nothing to show!
Undoubtedly, somebody like Theodore Spencer, of Harvard — who called Jesus a “myth,” before he died — will get up and read Dickens’ Christmas Carol. That is supposed to be very Christmasy! Some noted actor, if he is able, will do a little Christmas barking on the radio. Some notorious comedian will roar like Santa Claus!
That is the culture that goes with Christmas now. And because I, once a son in the Society of Jesus, see it as sad and tragic, and say it is sad and tragic, I am resented. People do not want to see! They would much prefer to hear about an invisible Christmas, and an invisible Church, that we could have in common with those who deny or despise Christ’s Divinity and His birth at Christmas from the womb of a little Jewish girl, Mary of Nazareth.
When the angels said to the shepherds, “Go over to Bethlehem!” they did not mean, “Go over and commune with nature.” They did not mean, “Turn to Bethlehem, the way a wild Mohammedan would turn to Mecca!” They did not say, “Close your eyes and imagine what profound depths there are in you.”
The angels said, “Run like men, and find the Baby — and His little Mother, with Him!”
As with so much else Fr. Feeney said, our modern sensibilities are easily offended — though given what we do tolerate, those sensibilities may not be the best guide to moral reality. I love Frosty the Snowman and A Charlie Brown Christmas as much as anyone. But if they detract from our clear view of the true reason for celebrating Christmas, they are not merely amusing or silly — they are evil. Not because of any intrinsic wickedness on their part, but because of our allowing them to veil from us the literally awe-full reality of Christmas to any degree. As Fr. Feeney wrote in Hail Mary, “One does not say, in true Catholic faith, on the twenty-fifth of December, ‘This was Christmas Day.’ One says, ‘This is Christmas Day.’ … When one says the Holy Rosary and meditates on the mystery of the Nativity, it is not by way of something which once happened and is now over. It is by way of something which once happened and is never over.” What appears to be harshness on his part was frustration at how the truth of Christmas was — and is — smothered under a pile of tinsel. But despite all that, it need not be so for us, in our homes and wherever we have influence.
It is important, first of all, to remember that Christmas is the beginning of our Salvation — the first time Christ comes to us, as a little child. The second also occurs continually and tangibly, in His daily descent into Bread and Wine on all the altars of Christendom. The third shall be at the end of time, when He comes in glory and majesty to judge the living and the dead — rewarding those who hailed Him as an Infant and in the Blessed Sacrament, and allowing those who refused to do so to reap what they have sown. Each of us will be in either company on that dread day — and most of us shall have spent time in both camps. May we all persevere in staying on the right side!
If we make the reality of Christmas the centre of our celebration, however, the attendant customs handed down to us, so far from being a distraction become a positively useful method of honouring this central and eternal mystery. No less than Dom Prosper Gueranger in his Liturgical Year speaks of the value of such customs at Christmas and Epiphany:
How often have not we ourselves been charmed at seeing the traditions of the old Catholic customs still kept up in some families, especially in those favoured parts of the country, where heresy has not been able to corrupt the simplicity of the people. We have seen, and it is one of the most pleasing recollections of our childhood, one of these families seated together, after the frugal evening collation, round a blazing fire-side, waiting for the hour to come, when the whole house was to go to the Midnight Mass. A plain, but savoury, supper, which was to be eaten on their return home, and so add to the joy of holy Christmas-Night, was prepared before-hand. A huge piece of wood, called the Yule-Log, was burning cheerfully on the hearth; it would last till the Mass was over, and warm the old men and the little children, as they came in chilled by the sharp frost.
Meanwhile, till it was time for Mass, their conversation was upon the Mystery of this much-loved Night. They compassionated the Blessed Mother and the sweet Babe, exposed to the inclemency of wintry weather, and with no other shelter than that of a wretched stable. Then, too, there were the Christmas Carols, in the practice of which they had spent many a pleasant evening of Advent. The whole soul was evidently in these dear old melodies, and many a tear would fall as the Song went on to tell how the Angel Gabriel visited Mary, and declared to her that she was to be Mother of the Most High God—how Mary and Joseph were worn with fatigue, going from street to street in Bethlehem, trying to find a lodging, and no one would take them in—how they were obliged to shelter in a stable, and how the Divine Child was born in it—how the loveliness of the Babe in his little crib was above all the beauty of the Angels—how the Shepherds went to see him, and took their humble gifts, and played their rude music, and adored him in the faith of their simple hearts.—And thus they spent the happy Eve, passing from conversation to song, and from one song to another, and all was on Mary or Jesus, Joseph or Bethlehem. Cares of life were forgotten, troubles were gone, melancholy was a sin—but, it was time to leave; the Village clock had just gone eleven; and of the happy group, there was a little one, who had been too young the other years, and this was his first Midnight-Mass! There was no brighter face in the procession than his. Would he ever forget—that beautiful Night!
In many of our readers, these reminiscences will excite a feeling of regret, that the miseries of the world around us make such Catholic customs as these, unrealities: at all events, they will show, how the holiest feelings of religion may blend with the best joys of family and home. The lesson is worth learning, though the examples that teach it are too Catholic for these rough times.
There was another custom, which originated in the Ages of Faith, and which is still observed in many countries. In honour of the Three Kings, who came from the East to adore the Babe of Bethlehem, each family chose one of its members to be King. The choice was thus made. The family kept a feast, which was an allusion to the third of the Epiphany Mysteries—the Feast of Cana in Galilee—a Cake was served up, and he who took the piece which had a certain secret mark, was proclaimed the King of the day. Two portions of the cake were reserved for the poor, in whom honour was thus paid to the Infant Jesus and his Blessed Mother; for, on this Day of the triumph of Him, who, though King, was humble and poor, it was fitting that the poor should have a share in the general joy. The happiness of home was here, as in so many other instances, blended with the sacredness of Religion. This custom of King’s Feast brought relations and friends together, and encouraged feelings of kindness and charity. Human weakness would sometimes, perhaps, show itself during these hours of holiday-making; but the idea and sentiment and spirit of the whole feast was profoundly Catholic, and that was sufficient guarantee to innocence.
King’s Feast is still a Christmas joy in thousands of families; and happy those where it is kept in the Christian spirit which first originated it! For the last three hundred years, a puritanical zeal has decried these simple customs, wherein the seriousness of religion and the home enjoyments of certain Festivals were blended together. The traditions of Christian family rejoicings nave been blamed under pretexts of abuse; as though a recreation, in which religion had no share and no influence, were less open to intemperance and sin! Others have pretended, (though with little or no foundation,) that the Twelfth Cake and the custom of choosing a King, are mere imitations of the ancient pagan Saturnalia. Granting this to be correct, (which it is not,) we would answer, that many of the old pagan customs have undergone a Christian transformation, and no one thinks of refusing to accept them thus purified. All this mistaken zeal has produced the sad effect of divorcing the Church from family life and customs, of excluding every religious manifestation from our traditions, and of bringing about what is so pompously called, (though the word is expressive enough,) the secularisation of society.
Obviously Dom Gueranger, as far as the details described herein, was speaking primarily of the traditional French Christmas customs. But every nationality has them, and the polyglot nature of this country has ensured that our American customs reflect that cultural diversity. But we can give you some general tips for ensuring that your own practises keep Christ at the centre of your celebration — and help make that celebration a means of tying your own household ever more closely to His Kingdom.
Above all, keep Advent like a little Lent. Avoid Christmas parties to the best of your ability; when you cannot, try not to overindulge in food or drink. Save the Christmas decorations for Christmas Eve — though many families put up a manger scene without either the Infant Jesus or the Three Kings, adding them on Christmas Eve and Epiphany respectively. Be sure any Christmas cards you send out are religious: it is an easy way to evangelise, and an opportunity to do so that comes but once a year. When Christmas Eve finally does come, keep it as a day of fast and abstinence (although if you are Italian, Slavic, or some other nationality that has traditions of delicious meatless Christmas Eve dinners, you won’t find it that tough!). Put up the tree and decorations — the holly and the mistletoe, the Christmas wreathes and garlands; online and in any number of books are blessing you can recite over these. There are, of course, Midnight, Dawn, and Morning Masses of Christmas — some hearty souls attend all three!
But having kept Advent strictly, so too should your Christmas be a days’ long celebration — at least twelve! St. Stephen’s, St. John’s, Holy Innocents, St. Thomas A Becket’s, St. Sylvester’s, the Circumcision, St. Genevieve’s, Twelfth Night, and the Epiphany all have customs proper to them according to different national traditions — and the New Year has its own set as well. Use what you have inherited or adapt as you like whatever may fit your family from online or published sources; but remember that to enjoy yourself in this time — so long as it be in honour of the great Mystery of the Incarnation and Nativity — can be an act of piety as well of pleasure. Drink the eggnog and the Tom and Jerries, eat the turkey, goose, ham, tamales, or whatever festive foods you choose. If you take down your Christmas tree after the Epiphany (as well you might!) leave some decorations up until Candlemas, when the liturgical season of Christmas ends — and do try to attend the Mass proper to that feast — it is one of the most beautiful in the Roman Liturgy, and the blessed candles are themselves sacramentals. The next day’s throat blessing in honour of St. Blaise is another highlight of the time.
So much, indeed, for your own hearth; but what about celebrations on a larger scale? The Church’s feast days were not meant to be hidden at home — and certainly not those of Christmas. What is left to us of the glory of Christmas in Christendom? Well, if you live in Catholic enclaves like northern New Mexico or southern Louisiana, you need not look far. In other areas, national parishes and Eastern Rite churches often host festivals featuring the Christmas customs of their native lands — as do some of the remaining ethnic fraternal organisations. Ironically, a number of secular and non-Catholic groups have revived various elements of the Medieval English Christmas customs: Lessons and Carols originated at King’s College, Cambridge, and have spread across the globe — even to some Catholic churches; the Boar’s Head festival, which started at Queen’s College, Oxford, was adopted by Hoosac School in New York State, found homes in the Episcopal cathedrals of Cincinnati and Cleveland and then throughout the eastern United States; and the Christmas Revels, begun by a folklorist in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1957, and now found coast-to-coast. No doubt many if not most of the participants and attendees are merely enchanted by the festive trappings of these events: but for the believing Catholic, they can give a powerful idea of how things were done when the Faith ruled Society – and perhaps, as they shall be again.
But what of the rest? What of the community caroling and tree lightings? Of the light shows and displays? Of old Santa Claus himself? Enjoy them all — but always keep in mind for you and yours what they are intended to celebrate, even if those putting them on have no idea of that intention. In a word, evangelise the American Christmas. Tell your children of St. Nicholas, and how Santa evolved from him (once it becomes clear he is not really the one bringing the gifts). Tell them of the gift givers in other cultures, and how all of them at once ought to reflect and point toward Him whose birth we are celebrating, and whom the Byzantine Liturgy calls “the giver of all good gifts,” chief of which is His own Body and Blood, and the Salvation that flows therefrom.
Taken in this spirit, even Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer can add some little sparklers to the great feast of light. Our memories of Christmases past with relatives and friends now gone to their rewards can be elevated from pleasant exercises in nostalgia to grateful offerings to Him whose birth we celebrate. As with all the feasts of the Church Year — indeed, as with every Mass — we can have from all of this not mere celebration alone, but a foretaste of Heaven.