Did you know the Church celebrates Christmas not just as one day, nor even 12 days, but for an entire season lasting anywhere from 16 to 22 days. (It ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which moves around.)
What can your family do to fill all that time—and more importantly, to fully celebrate the mystery of Christ’s birth? Here are a few of our favorite traditions and practices to consider trying this year! Turn one of these ideas into an annual tradition for your family.
1. Christmas Caroling
“To Sing is to Pray Twice”, at least that is what St. Augustine is quoted as saying. Try arranging a group of family or friends to venture out and sing Christmas carols at your local jail, hospital, or nursing home. (Reach out to the organization’s volunteer coordinator.) It’s a great way to evangelize and do a work of mercy at the same time!
2. Midnight Mass
The very word Christmas comes from the Old English words Crīstes mæss, or Christ-Mass. From ancient times, Mass has been at the heart of the celebration of Christ’s birth. Accordingly, Christmas is a holy day of obligation, on which the Church calls all Catholics to celebrate Mass.
Your parish might celebrate one of four different Masses, each with its own set of readings: the Vigil Mass (held Christmas Eve), Midnight Mass (the “Mass of the Angels”), Dawn Mass (the “Mass of the Shepherds”), and Christmas Day Mass (the “Mass of the Divine Word”). You will hear different readings and liturgical prayers at each of these Masses.
Midnight Mass (these days usually celebrated well before midnight) features the classic Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, and is the most elaborate celebration of Christmas, and many parishes pull out all the stops for it. At some point in the life of your family, your kids should get to experience it. While it may be later and longer than a typical Mass, it is often less crowded, and families do bring young children. If your little ones attend, bring a blanket so they can lie down in the pew.
Many of the strategies that work for a regular Sunday Mass, including previewing the readings with your kids, will also help make your Christmas Mass a more pleasant and meaningful family experience.
3. Nativity Scene
Also known as a creche, this tradition dates back to Saint Francis of Assisi, who is credited with creating the first live nativity scene in 1223 as a way to make public worship of Jesus part of the Christmas season. The recreation of the birth of Christ, featuring people dressed as Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, was meant to bring the Bible to life for a population of believers who were not literate. The use of small figures and elaborate displays was perfected during the 1700s in Naples, Italy. These recreations are featured in churches and homes around the world to this day. Typically the manger is kept empty and only filled with the baby Jesus on Christmas Day. Try waiting to fill your nativity with baby Jesus until Christmas morning and say a prayer of Thanksgiving that God humbly came into the world in the form of a baby for your salvation!
These are just a few of our favorite traditions to help you celebrate Christmas like a Catholic!