Still Christmas: Advent & Christmas Family Traditions
Steven D. Greydanus
All Advent long, observant Catholics and other Christians hold the line against premature Christmas, holding off on decking the halls and singing Christmas carols during what is meant to be a time of preparation.
Now, as the world is busily dismantling what’s left of its Christmas trappings, it’s time for Christians to double down on the continued celebration of the Christmas season, which continues through the Christmas Octave (to January 1, the eighth day after Christmas, and thus the day of Jesus’ circumcision, celebrated as the feast of Mary the Mother of God) until after Advent to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. (This year that means that Christmas runs through January 9, and ordinary time returns on January 10.)
This is especially important for families with young children, I think, to instill in them a proper sense of liturgical time at an early age.
As far as the larger culture goes, the notion of the Christmas season would seem to be a lost battle. (Suz commented recently how depressing it was to get an “After Christmas Sale” catalog before Christmas actually arrived: “It’s like it’s never actually Christmas!”)
Within our families and churches, though, we can sustain a culture of resistance. How do we do this?
Each year it’s good to take a look at the traditions with which we shape our lives. In this post I’ll share some things that we do in the Greydanus household (or Huis Greydanus, to invoke my Dutch family roots). This includes Christmas movies, of course—but I’ll save that for a follow-up post. Please share your own family traditions in the combox.
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The proper celebration of Christmas begins, of course, with keeping Advent in Advent.
I know some hardcore families that don’t light the lights until Christmas Eve. I’m sympathetic to that approach—but if I tried it in this house, there would be mutiny. Anyway, high principles are fine things, but I would feel too Scroogy driving past lit-up houses in my neighborhood and coming to my own darkened house. I don’t want to depress my neighbors.
Our compromise is Gaudete Sunday weekend, the third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete, of course, is Latin for “Rejoice!” and on Gaudete Sunday, when our waiting is more than half over, our liturgical tradition allows us a foretaste of Christmas joy (thus the rose Advent candle and rose vestments).
On this weekend, we buy and trim our tree, light our house, and set up our various creches—without the baby Jesus figures, which come out on Christmas Eve. We have an indoor Nativity set in our dining room, and a larger outdoor set that we actually put up on our porch roof. The younger kids also have toy Nativity sets that they play with, and there’s a plastic Holy Family set that goes by the Christmas tree. Some families set up the Magi at a distance from the creche and move them slowly closer and closer, approaching Epiphany. I think we may have done that one year, but it’s not a regular thing for us.
We have an Advent wreath, of course, and we light the candles each evening during our evening family devotions. We hang up a felt “Jesse tree,” and add Old Testament readings (with corresponding felt symbols) to our devotions. (I usually improvise a bit in selecting OT passages, and sometimes new felt symbols must be devised on the spot for a new reading I’ve suddenly decided to include. Or a symbol originally intended for an omitted reading may do double duty.)
We also add Advent songs to our family devotions: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “O Come, Divine Messiah,” “People, Look East,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” On the last week of Advent, as Christmas approaches, we may sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
On Christmas Eve, after Mass, we light our Advent wreath in the living room by the Christmas tree, and I recite the infancy narratives from Matthew and Luke. I do it from memory, because I like maintaining eye contact with the kids for this. This year, the day before Christmas Eve, I also did the annunciation to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s conception, the Annunciation to Mary, and the birth of John from memory. (I don’t memorize the OT Jesse tree readings.)
After the infancy narratives, we pray a rosary, sing “Joy to the World!”, pray some more prayers, and then, to the verses of “Silent Night,” we process around the house bringing various baby Jesus figures to the various creches around our house.
Christmas presents are in the morning. We don’t do milk and cookies for Santa. We don’t make a big deal about Santa not being real. We figure what really matters and what we’re really celebrating should be obvious to the kids.
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What we do after Christmas is as important as what we do during Advent. It’s important to celebrate the Christmas season as more than a wind-down from the big day. Here are some things we do.
First, as tempting as it may be to take vacation time from work before Christmas, I save mine for the Christmas Octave—and if I can take the first week in January and complete the “12 Days,” so much the better.
We’re fortunate enough to be friends with a number of large families at our parish, and every year our families get together for a Christmas party during the Christmas Octave—never before Christmas. We sing carols and so forth.
This is especially important for me with respect to my kids’ experience, because our family generally celebrates Christmas Day itself with family members who aren’t believers. I want my kids to have a larger experience of celebrating the Christmas season with other believers—not just in our family, and not just in Mass.
Each year we try to make a Christmas season pilgrimage to a local parish, St. Lucy’s in Newark, that puts up a fantastically elaborate Bethlehem village Nativity display. The display fills up an entire wall of a side chapel. It’s an Italian parish, and as with sacred art down through the ages, “Bethlehem” is done up in a markedly Italian style (you can see hocks of ham hanging in the store windows!). The little houses light up, there’s a windmill that turns, there’s even running water. I made a video a couple of years ago on my old iPhone; I’ll embed it here.
So, those are some of our Advent and Christmas traditions. Please share yours!
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register, creator of Decent Films, and a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark.
With David DiCerto, he co-hosts the Gabriel Award–winning cable TV show “Reel Faith” for New Evangelization Television. Steven has degrees in media arts and religious studies, and has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy.
He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. Steven and his wife Suzanne have seven children.