For many Catholics, Christmas seems to stop on the evening of Christmas Day. The presents have been unwrapped, the turkey eaten, Midnight Mass took place last night and the visiting grandparents have had a happy day and are snoozing gently.
Inevitably, the next morning brings a sense of anticlimax. But the glory of Christmas lasts for much longer than the day itself — and for Catholics the ensuing days ought to be a time to savor the feast and bring out its true meaning.
Remember the old carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? It's a reminder that the Christmas celebrations continue until Epiphany — Jan. 6, the day we commemorate the revealing of Christ to the wider world, as the three Magi arrive from the East to worship him.
There are several important days to celebrate up to and including Epiphany, and preparing for these, and marking them, each in their own way, can be a wonderful way to ensure the true spirit of Christmas shines in our homes and reminds us of the real meaning of the feast.
Dec. 26, St. Stephen's Day. In Britain, it is known as Boxing Day — a reference to “Christmas boxes” or presents. St. Stephen was of course the first martyr, and we can read about him in the Acts of the Apostles. This day is associated with the tradition of “wassailing” in England which, like caroling in the states, involves going from house to house. A traditional song is sung, invoking a blessing on the family: The wassailers are then invited in for a hot drink and a mince pie or slice of Christmas cake
Dec. 27, St. John's Day honors the great apostle and evangelist who stayed with Our Lord right to the foot of the cross, standing with Our Lady. He is a wonderful saint to honor, and we can recall Christ's words to him urging him to take Mary into his own home. We must take her into ours, too, though the day is known by some children because by an old custom, they get to drink a little bit of spiced wine that day.
Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, reminds us that Christmas is bittersweet — a joyful time, but the inauguration of a salvation that was won through Christ's suffering. The Holy Innocents were the little boys who were killed at the command of Herod, who desperately wanted to eliminate the newborn king. In medieval times it was the day on which altar boys and choristers had their party, after working hard at all the great liturgical celebrations over Christmas. In cathedrals, a boy would be elected “bishop” on St. Nicholas Day in December and would hold office until Holy Innocents Day, when his reign would finish with a party! The day has increasingly been used to commemorate those killed by abortion.
Dec. 29, the feast of St. Thomas a Becket, honors the great martyr of Canterbury Cathedral in England. He was killed on this day in 1170 in the reign of Henry II. Refusing to conform the Church to the wishes of the King, he was slaughtered by four soldiers and the spot in the cathedral where he fell is still marked today and visited by pilgrims and tourists. Geoffrey Chaucer described a pilgrimage to Canterbury in his famous Canterbury Tales. Going “Thomassing” — yes, trips from house-to-house again! — was a tradition in England on this day, with money being collected for the poor. St. Thomas was seen as a winter saint, one whose aid could be invoked for those suffering from cold or hunger at this season. Enjoy some of the poetry from T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral on this day (Google.com can find it).
Dec. 30, the feast of the Holy Family, is a day to thank God for our family, and to pray for all refugees and those made homeless as were the Holy Family as they fled the threat from Herod. A day to pray for the defense of family life against the many threats, including legal ones, that the family and marriage face today.
Dec. 31. And so to New Year's Eve and St. Sylvester. He was an early Pope, and is significant because he was one of the first non-martyr saints, canonized simply because of the holiness of his life. He served in the fourth century as the first Pope elected following the end of persecution and the start of a new era under the emperor Constantine. In Germany and elsewhere, celebrations of St. Sylvester have blended into New Year's Eve celebrations.
Jan. 1, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and World Day of Peace. She's the mother of God and she's also the “Mother” of the New Year. If the secular world gives us “New Year's resolutions” on this day, the Church does the world one better by asking us all to report for Mass on the first day of the year. Just as early queens were brought out to send off new ships, the Queen of Heaven and Earth is here to launch the New Year. It's also the World Day of Peace, and Pope Benedict will deliver the annual Peace Message from the Vatican.
Jan. 6 is Epiphany in most of the world. This feast of the arrival of the Magi — or Three Kings — has often rivaled Christmas, and has its own delightful traditions. Try the delicious French galette (a cake made of two layers of puff-pastry with marzipan baked between) with its hidden bean which makes the finder a king for the day. Or discover the Italian Befana, who brings presents for children on this day and hides them in a box of bran or flour. We all dip in to find a parcel, and some are blanks, so there are some worries until everyone has found a little gift!
And as we take down the Christmas tree and put the Nativity figures away, don't forget that, for many, the Christmas season is 40 days long and lasts until Feb. 2nd — Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
So keep some candles ready and plan a little party for that feast too.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.