Reflections on Christmas in a Catholic Household
By Rosemary Bernth
When I was a child, Christmas was my favorite season, and is even more so now that I’m an adult. To me, the holiday was more than just one day of unwrapping presents underneath a decorated tree or singing cheesy carols as the snow piled up outside. It was a celebration of life that lasted weeks, forming a link between the old year and the new one.
In the liturgical calendar, Advent is the four-week period before Christmas Day. While attending a Catholic grade school, I learned the word advent means “coming” in Latin, which sounds appropriate since we were waiting for Jesus’s birthday. Just like in the church, we created our own Advent wreaths in school with construction paper and toilet paper rolls, one for each of the four candles to mark off another week. Three candles were purple and one was rose. This one was to be lit on Gaudete Sunday, the week before Christmas. I remembered that by using a track race analogy—the officials ring the bell when the lead runner has only one lap left.
While most kids in my class went to sleep on Christmas Eve, dreaming of Santa and the presents they’d open the next morning, I headed to the church with my family for Midnight Mass. My mother would remind me, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” The stained glass windows would be dim with the night, but it only made the many candles and white Christmas lights around the nativity and the sanctuary glow brighter. The figure of Baby Jesus was the same size as the Cabbage Patch doll we used in our school play, except it looked more fragile from years of use. I would glance from the nativity scene to my family sitting with me. Since my father wasn’t Catholic, he never went to Sunday Mass with us. But for Christmas, it seemed he would make an exception.
For us, Christmas didn’t end on December 25th. Our church wouldn’t add the three wise men to our nativity scene until the Feast of the Epiphany, which is celebrated on the Sunday closest to January 6th. The word epiphany comes from a Greek word that means “to appear or manifest.” That’s why the feast day celebrates the moments Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God through his humanity. Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, is celebrated on February 2nd, the same day as Groundhog’s Day. On this day, we attended Mass to have the priest bless the candles we brought, to symbolize Jesus being the “Light of the World.” It would also mean the end of the Christmas liturgical season. My family made a holiday out of taking down the tree and packing up the ornaments. We would look at each one and reminisce about the memories surrounding it before wrapping it up in tissue paper to be saved for next year.
Now that I’m married and hoping to have children of my own, I want to continue celebrating these traditions of faith. Not only do they connect me to my family and friends, they also connect me to a history that spans larger than my lifetime.