Editor's Note: This story was originally posted as part of our Dec. 15, 2013, issue.
Popular culture says Christmas is over on Dec. 26.
But Catholics know that Christmas is 12 days (from Christmas Day through the Epiphany) — and then some (the Christmas season ends on the feast of the baptism of the Lord in January).
Santa Claus may be society’s holiday staple, but his Catholic roots as St. Nicholas shouldn’t be ignored either.
Three years ago, Rebecca Even felt frustrated over frenzied merrymaking condensed into celebrating just on Christmas Day.
So she rewrote the traditional
Twelve Days of Christmas carol as Our Father Gave to Us the 12 Days of Christmas, replacing the secular with the spiritual.
She created an illustrated book, uploaded a YouTube video with a children’s choir singing the song, devised a family ornament project and launched a website (LivetheTwelveDays.com).
"I wanted to create a work that would allow families to make something beautiful and that would help center their prayer for the whole season of Christmas," Even told the Register, with enthusiasm about her mission to help families celebrate Christmas fully.
"When our family began this journey, I had no idea of the peace that we would find at Christmas," she said. "When we celebrated Christmas for the whole 12 days, it transformed everything. Somehow, it broke the chaos of consumerism. Now, it is a 12-day season that is rich in prayer and family time."
Even’s song illustrates that each of the 12 days has a faith gift, like the Trinity, the beatitudes and the Ten Commandments.
Because of the song, Even, her husband, John, and their three children began to focus on God’s gifts of faith on each of the 12 days, and they give a personal gift each day as well. For example, a gift certificate for the whole family to go out to dinner.
The effects become immediate and positive, with a shift to gratitude for God’s gifts, she said.
"Our family is more focused on the spiritual, traditions and just being together, baking together, playing games together," Even said.
Last year, the Evens went to several daily Masses between Christmas Sundays, and this year they hope to make it to daily Mass each day.
"We experience huge blessings and that peace brought into the family from not buying more, but entering more into the spiritual journey," Even said of their celebrations focused on the "gift of peace as we’re celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace."
Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted sees the 12 days of Christmas initiative as an important step in restoring the true spiritual meaning and celebration of Christmas.
"The 12 days of Christmas have, for centuries, helped Christians to enter more profoundly into the meaning of the incarnation and birth of Jesus," Bishop Olmsted shared.
"This wondrous mystery of the Son of God becoming one with us in our humanity will always go beyond our ability fully to understand, yet it is not an irrational event. The simplicity of the Child Jesus and the example of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi invite us to draw nearer, little by little, into the beauty of this mystery of Divine love."
If anybody knows the true identity and spirit of Santa Claus, it’s Father Joseph Marquis, pastor of Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church in Livonia, Mich.
Father Marquis has spent more than 40 years bringing both saint and Santa to life.
Before he turned 5, he convincingly told his mother and twin brother, Richard, "I want to be Santa’s helper someday, too."
His decision came when he was first introduced to St. Nicholas in what started as a disappointing encounter with Santa’s helper.
It was 1953. His family was poor. That fall, his father was taken to a sanitarium to recover from tuberculosis, and his mother was going through a very difficult pregnancy. But she took her twin boys to see Santa.
The brothers thought they were going to see the real Santa at J.L. Hudson Co. in Detroit, but they only went as far as a small town on the outskirts of the big city. In the "Santa" cabin there, the brothers saw a man with rouged cheeks in a cheap corduroy suit, sagging nylon beard and phony boots. They were not fooled.
When his mother told her son to tell Santa what he wanted, Father Marquis remembers saying, "I want my dad to come home from the hospital."
"All of a sudden, I saw the man’s eyes change, and it really struck me," he recalled for the Register. "They watered. He had Santa Claus eyes. He said, ‘I just want to promise you Santa is going to pray for your dad to come home.’"
Afterward, when he told his mother that was not the real Santa Claus, she explained that he was one of Santa’s helpers who listens and takes a list to Santa.
"That really impressed me," recalled Father Marquis, announcing then and there that he wanted to help Santa someday.
When the twins’ mother was taken to the hospital on Christmas Eve, their aunt led them in prayer for their sick parents before the Baby Jesus in their first five-and-dime stable. She told them that Jesus listens to the prayers of children.
On Christmas Day, they received a blessed phone call: Their mother was okay, and they had a new baby brother.
Their answers to prayer didn’t end there. The family had a devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, and on her feast day in February, their father was released from the sanitarium.
"Although that was a painful experience, that was probably the most important Christmas of my life, and I’m grateful to God for that," Father Marquis said.
He kept his word, too, becoming the Santa at Hudson’s from 1977 to 1989. He also appeared as Santa in many venues, winning a personal Emmy for a television special, playing Santa in another Emmy-award winner and writing the script for
How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus: The True Story, as seen on EWTN. He was also elected to the Santa Claus Hall of Fame. He appeared on EWTN’s Living Right With Dr. Ray in 2012 [the episode will rerun Dec. 19 (2pm), 24 (3:30am) and 28 (10pm) on EWTN. All times Eastern.]
Father Marquis is dedicated to sharing Santa’s true origin and spiritual roots in St. Nicholas.
"It’s unavoidable children are going to encounter St. Nicholas as a jolly old elf," said Father Marquis. "However, if they understand the real living person behind that image, they will have a greater depth [of knowledge] and never look at Santa Claus that way again."
Father Marquis teaches how St. Nicholas — born in 270 and a fourth-century bishop of Myra, which is modern-day Turkey — was a great gift-giver who was always compassionate to the poor and marginalized, especially children. His feast day is Dec. 6.
"That’s a pretty special guy," stressed Father Marquis. "He was always focused on the needs of others."
When the Year of Faith began last year, Father Marquis knew what he wanted to do: "Reclaim St. Nicholas."
So he founded the St. Nicholas Institute (StNicholasInstitute.org) to train men to be Santas who are authentic spiritual successors of St. Nicholas, animated by the same Holy Spirit who empowered the beloved saint.
"The spirit of Christmas is joy, peace, love — those are fruits of the Holy Spirit; they are indications of the identity of the Holy Spirit," emphasized Father Marquis. "The Christmas Spirit and the Holy Spirit are one in the same."
"So the Christmas Spirit is not a feeling," he asserted. "It’s a Person — the Holy Spirit. That Spirit manifests (itself) 365 days a year. It’s a grace we’ve been given. If we accept it, we can be filled with the hope and joy of Christmas every day of the year."
Hope of Christ
After all, as Pope Francis told the faithful multiple times since becoming pope, Christ is our hope.
In his homily to conclude the Year of Faith on Christ the King Sunday, the Pope said, "In searching for an ideal king, the people were seeking God himself: a God who would be close to them, who would accompany them on their journey, who would be a brother to them. Christ, the descendant of King David, is the ‘brother’ around whom God’s people come together. To him, we can bring the joys and the hopes, the sorrows and troubles which are part of our lives."
That’s what Christmas is all about: God becoming man to journey with us as the Light of the World.
"When Jesus is the center," Francis added, "light shines even amid the darkest times of our lives; he gives us hope."
That is the best Christmas gift of all, one particularly suited to family life.
"Of all the mysteries of the Christian faith, Christmas is especially one for families," Bishop Olmsted shared.
"The Child Jesus is at the center of the mystery, but he is not alone. He is caressed by Mary and protected by Joseph. Even little children can learn from their parents how to love Jesus, and parents find inspiration in their vocation from God."
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.