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'Tis (not quite) the Season...But There's Still Plenty to Celebrate!

By David Morrison

Winter Table Display, photographed by David Bennett

What is there to celebrate between Halloween and Christmas? For Christians, especially Catholics, there are plenty of holidays and feasts to keep us feasting and focused on Christ. Morrison explains what we can do to celebrate Christ the King Sunday, Advent, St. Martin's Day, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Immaculate Conception feast, and other important Church holidays.

I don't know about your town, but in mine here in the Great Northwest, it IS beginning to look a lot like Christmas...and has been since Halloween. As soon as the plastic pumpkins, orange twinkle lights, masks and costumes came down from the shelves in the stores, the Christmas paraphernalia went up. In some stores the Yuletide merchandise was being displayed before Halloween! Of course, there is some Thanksgiving merchandise but, in all truth, Thanksgiving is losing its original significance and becoming a part of the "Christmas Season". The sad part is how many individual households are following suit! Every day since Halloween more and more houses have Christmas lights up and I counted ten (!) that put up their Christmas trees on Halloween night!

Now, I can understand that sort of behavior from secularized Americans who have no real idea what they are supposed to be "celebrating" or commemorating. I can even forgive it in those Protestants whose churches abandoned the ecclesiastical calendar in the 1500s. However, Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox, and (especially) Catholic Americans ought to know better. We DO know (and should) what we are commemorating and celebrating in the Church Calendar. The seasons and feasts of the Church are there to give a "holy rhythm" to our lives as Christians. Also, each holy day is there to help us participate in the mystery of our Faith that is being commemorated. When we follow the Church's calendar we move logically and mindfully through Salvation History and are provided both plateaus of high celebration (like Christmas and Easter) and also "quiet times" of reflection and repentance (Advent and Lent). The many saints' days give us opportunity to realize that we are "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses" who, from their triumphant vantage point, cheer us onward and aid us by their prayers.

Although there is a lot of pressure to conform to the secular season of "Christmas" that is going on around us now, let's try to resist and to keep, as much as we can, the Christian calendar. I have a theory that much of the holiday depression one hears about stems from folks getting caught up in the HYPE of the Holidays, without understanding the MEANING of the holy-days. They let commercial America rush them from season to season with no time to breathe, enjoy, or contemplate. You know, we Christians, if we keep our own calendar, can have great opportunities to witness to the secular culture about Jesus Christ. If we choose not to take part in that office "Christmas party" on December 4th say and are asked why we aren't participating, we can say that, for us, it isn't Christmas yet; we are keeping Advent, a period of quiet waiting for the Lord, not just His birthday on the 25th, but His Second Coming in Glory.

Keeping the Christian calendar and not participating in all the secular holiday hubbub does NOT mean, however, that our daily lives have to be drab and boring religiously or socially. In the rest of this little piece I will be showing you the high points of the Calendar for the time between now and Christmas and ways you, your friends and family, can commemorate these days for a fuller, richer season.

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Late November: Christ the King

Although a "new" feast in the sense that Pope Pius XI extended its observance to the Universal Church, it is actually an old feast that has been kept by various local and national churches since the Middle Ages. Today it is kept not only by Catholics, but by Anglicans, Lutherans, and others. It comes the Sunday before Advent for a couple of reasons. Advent, as we know, looks forward not only to the commemoration of Jesus' birth, but also to His Second Coming. Christ the King teaches us that we do not, however, have to wait until His Coming in Glory to make Jesus King. He is King NOW, among us His people. For Catholics the Millennial Reign of Christ began at the first Pentecost and will continue until He "comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead." Christ the King also gives us opportunity to make Jesus King over our individual lives, to rededicate ourselves to His service. For information, All About the Feast of Christ the King should satisfy. For prayer ideas, Prayers for the Feast of Christ the King is a helpful resource. Also, another writer for our site has written Christ the Crucified King: Reflections on Christ the King Sunday.

Things to Do

- Go to Mass! This is always the best way to keep any holy day.

- As a family, discuss ways to make Jesus "King" of your daily lives. Could you spend more time together doing charity work? praying as a family? taking car-less folks to church? Brainstorm and see what you come up with.

- As an individual, go over your life prayerfully. What areas have you not yet relinquished to Christ as your Lord? Are there things you need to confess before God and His priest?

Late November: Thanksgiving Day:

Thanksgiving Table Display, photographed by David Bennett

We all pretty much have a good idea of the history of Thanksgiving, of how the early English Puritan colonists had a great three day feast with local Natives in Thanksgiving for a good harvest. What many do not know is that the custom behind what those colonists did is very old and very Catholic. For centuries November 11th has been kept in Europe as St. Martin's Day or Martinmas and it was/is the European Thanksgiving Day, a day of celebrating the harvest with wine, goose, pastries, and religious processions.

Things to Do

- Although St. Martin's Day was on the 11th, go ahead and commemorate him. Look him up online and read about him before your meal. St. Martin is most remembered for tearing his cloak in half to share it with a cold beggar. With whom could you share Thanksgiving dinner today? Someone, as Jesus said, "who cannot repay you."

- Read about the First Thanksgiving in America. Perhaps a good family table discussion would be: In what good ways have the different cultures blended in America? What particular group (different from your own) do you most admire and why? During prayers, ask God to bless the various people who make up this nation.

- Instead of having the traditional Thanksgiving at home this year, why not volunteer as a family to serve the holiday meal at a local homeless shelter or community kitchen?

What NOT to Do

- Try to resist the urge to put up any Christmas decorations until at least the beginning of Advent.

Late Nov./Early Dec.: First Sunday of Advent:

Advent Wreath, photographed by David Bennett

Advent is from Latin and means The Coming or The Approach. It is actually a penitential season when we prepare spiritually to celebrate the birth of Christ, but also to meet the Lord when He comes again in Glory. It is meant to be a time of spiritual tension when we look forward with joy to Dec. 25th and to the Final and Full Reign of Christ throughout all the worlds of God, seen and unseen; but it is also a time when we look inwardly to see if we are ready with clean consciences to meet the Lord. What Advent is NOT is the beginning of Christmas. It is NOT the time for carols and parties and Yuletide hoopla. For more information on Advent, and prayers, please visit Advent and Advent Prayers.

Things to Do and Not Do

- Make an advent wreath. We have an informational page, The Lighting of the Advent Wreath, that tells you how to do it, and we provide related Scriptures and prayers too. Light the first candle tonight and think that Jesus, the Light of the World, who came as a baby in Bethlehem, will come again in glory as Judge. Are we ready? Will we be as happy to see the Lord returning as we will be to see Christmas Day?

- This Advent might be the perfect time to begin to pray the Divine Office, at least Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline. Several good Catholic versions can be found online, including Universalis, which is completely free. This is an excellent way of praying with the Church.

- You might want to begin writing your Christmas cards this Sunday. If you haven't bought any yet, think about making them. A simple folded card that you decorate with a Christian symbol and the traditional greeting "Christ is born! Glorify Him!" would be a refreshing reminder of the "Reason for the Season." If you don't feel artistic particularly, lovely religious cards can be purchased from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sites online.

- Avoid as much as possible "anticipating" Christmas. There ARE Advent carols. Take a look at these Advent Hymns, or look through your parish hymnal or do a search online.

- What I find fun is to slowly and gradually bring in greens. A sprig of holly today, some more tomorrow, a few branches of evergreen here and there. By Christmas day, my house is full of greens!

- Put up the family creche (Nativity scene) but put no figures in it yet except the animals and shepherds. Add more and more of the characters every Sunday until Christmas Day when you add the Christ Child.

Dec. 6th: St. Nicholas Day:

Born about AD 240 Nicholas became Bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. An extremely generous soul, Nicholas would toss bags of coins through the windows of poor families. He also would intercede with Roman officials for the release of those who had been condemned to death.

St. Nicholas was one of the bishops at the First Nicene Council. He stood up to the heretic Arius (who denied the Deity of Christ) and, in righteous zeal, slapped the heretic for his blasphemies. (Christian love does not mean being a pushover!)

The bones and relics of St. Nicholas now lie in Bari, Italy.

Things to Do

- Find an ikon (or at least a picture) of St. Nicholas and put it in your prayer corner or on your home altar. Specifically remember him before God in your prayers today and ask for his strong intercession. Ask also to be as brave as he to stand up to those who are in willful error.

- If there are children in your household, have them put out their shoes the night of Dec. 5th. Fill them with chocolate coins (or a few real ones) in honor of the generosity of St. Nicholas.

- See if your parish would let you organize a St. Nicholas Day party for the kids in your church. This could be a great teaching tool as well as a great time for adults and children alike. Someone could dress up as the good bishop and distribute candy or other goodies to the kids.

- Is there someone in your neighborhood that is having financial trouble? Be their St. Nicholas and secretly and anonymously send them $5, $10, $20. Maybe several of your parish friends could join you; make it a group gift.

Dec. 8th: The Immaculate Conception:

Protestants and other non-Catholics often confuse the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth. They are two different things. The Virgin Birth refers to Mary's conceiving Christ miraculously through the Holy Spirit and giving birth to Him while remaining a virgin. The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary being free from Original Sin from the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne.

This is a distinctly Catholic solemnity and one that sets us apart from other Christians. Some Catholics would like to downplay both the feast and the doctrine in order to have greater rapport with our "separated brethren", but this we must not do. We must never water down the Faith just to "fit in."

This feast is important because it truly glorifies Jesus Christ and shows just how great He is. An old term for Mary is "Ark of the New Covenant." Just as the old Ark of the Hebrews was the Dwelling Place of God's Manifestation on earth, His Shekhinah Presence, so MARY was the Dwelling Place of God-made-Flesh, Jesus Christ. As such, she was preserved not only from all actual sin, but from even the inherited sin of our race. This was, of course, God's work in her, this infusion of great grace at the moment of her conception, but it does make her, as the Eastern Church says, the All-holy One. As such, she was the fitting vessel to bear the Son of God. For more information, check out All About the Feast of the Immaculate Conception! and Immaculate Conception Prayers

Things to Do

- Go to Mass and give thanks to God for all his goodness to Humanity, especially for His gift of Mary who, though fully human, is the Glory of our Race.

- The family could gather around the home altar and, after lighting candles before an ikon or statue of Our Lady, sing hymns in her honor. Some suggested ones are: "Hail, Holy Queen", "Immaculate Mary", "Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly". Check your parish hymnal or Catholic hymns online.

- Renew as an individual or family, your consecration to the Sacred Heart of Mary and ask her intercession that you may continue a faithful witness to Christ, whom she bore.

Dec. 12th: Our Lady of Guadalupe:

Our Lady of Guadalupe at Christmas, photographed by David Bennett

A quick telling of this miracle is that on Dec. 9th, 1531, Our Blessed Lady appeared to the Indian, Juan Diego, as he hurried down Tepeyac hill in Mexico en route to Mass. She told him she wanted a shrine built there and said he must tell the bishop. Of course his tale was doubted and the Virgin appeared again and had him take off his cloak and fill it with roses. (A miracle in itself for December!) Juan Diego was told to take this bundle to the Bishop and open it in front of him. When Juan Diego did just that, the roses were gone but in their place, on his cloak, was the image of Our Lady. This appearance of the Holy and Immaculate Virgin to an Indian peasant is credited with the mass conversion of Mexico to the Catholic Faith.

Things to Do

- You do not have to be Mexican or Hispanic to celebrate this feast. In fact, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Patroness of the Americas, which includes the USA. Do go to Mass today. You might want to attend a Spanish-language Mass if there is one near you. Do take part in the festivities that follow.

- If you have Hispanic friends or neighbors be sure you greet them today and extend your hand in joy and friendship.

- Put a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on your home altar today if you can find one. Ask her intercession for all the Americas, for peace and understanding between the various ethnic groups here in the New World, and especially for the United States of America.

- Just for pure fun, make (or buy) a pinata and, with some lively Mexican music as background, let the kids have at it! While not a religious custom, it will teach the Christian virtue of tolerance for cultures other than our own and, besides, it's just fun.

Dec. 13th: St. Lucy's Day:

St. Lucy (Santa Lucia) was a Sicilian girl who brought food and comfort to her fellow Christians who were hiding in tunnels during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. She ended up being martyred herself and is commemorated as an example of heroic Christian bravery in times of persecution of the Faith.

Since her name is connected with the Latin word for "light", and Christ is the Light of the world, her day became connected with the pre-Christmas season. It is the custom in Scandinavia and parts of Germany for the eldest daughter in the home, while wearing a crown of evergreens and 4 lighted candles, to serve breakfast to her family. This is a sign of how we all must let our lights shine and serve others for Jesus' sake.

Things to Do

- It might be meaningful for your family to institute a St. Lucy's breakfast. If there is more than one girl in your family, perhaps names could be drawn to see who would play Lucy this year. While an evergreen crown could be worn by "Lucy", for safety's sake I strongly suggest that a candle be carried, not worn, or perhaps just lit at the family altar.

- If there are no girls in your household, perhaps names could be drawn to see who will be a "Lucy helper" and serve breakfast to everyone else.

- If you know of any shut-ins or lonely people, perhaps you could be a Lucy to them? Take them out for breakfast or, better yet, make them breakfast! Lucy also listened to those she served; be sure you do too.

- Tonight would be a good night to put up Christmas lights on the house. Make it a celebration with friends and family. For devotions, you might want to read relevant passages in Scripture about light and service to others.

These are just a few suggestions to keep the Christian calendar and enjoy the season without giving into the secular, commercial side of things. Whatever you do, remember to let Jesus, the Light of the World, be your focus and Guide. Happy Holidays!

Photos by David Bennett