Joyfully Welcome the Child of Bethlehem

The Importance of Family and Church Traditions at Christmas

Christmas is a joyous time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. But with all the secular distractions, what can modern families do to keep their attention on the wondrous event in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago?
The Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety gives simple guidelines that families and individuals should be mindful of, saying: “Much of the richness and complexity of the mystery of the Lord’s manifestation is reflected in displays of popular piety, which are especially sensitive to the childhood of Christ, which reveals his love for us.”

The first guideline: importance of the “spirituality of gift,” which is proper to Christmas.

Lisa Hendey, author of The Grace of Yes: Eight Virtues for Generous Living (Ave Maria, 2014) and founder of, described how her family, like many others, gives simple gifts at Christmas to commemorate the birth of our Savior and to show love for one another.

When her two sons, Eric (now a working adult) and Adam (a university sophomore) were younger, the family gave small gifts on Dec. 6 to commemorate the life and mission of St. Nicholas. They also celebrated the Las Posadas novena tradition in their parish community, tying pre-Christmas festivities to Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.

“I’ve always believed that our gifts to our children should be given both in union with celebrating the gift of the Christ Child’s birth and as a sign of our love for them,” Hendey said. “In this, we’ve tried over the years to err on the side of simplicity in giving.”

The second guideline: message of solidarity conveyed by the event of Christmas. Solidarity with the poor should be on everyone’s list, the Church reminds the faithful.

In more recent years, the Hendeys have done so by both supporting charitable causes and purchasing fair-trade gifts, such as those offered by Catholic Relief Services at

“In uniting our giving with support of others, we have the ability to share some of the gifts showered upon us so richly by our loving God,” Hendey explained. “It’s important to teach our children to give of themselves as well. Along with helping them to offer small, often handmade gifts to their loved ones, we have always participated in our parish’s ‘Advent Giving Tree’ program to donate gifts to women from our local Holy Cross Women’s Shelter, which supports women and children in need in our community.”

Jeff and Kathy Fyke — with their four children, ages 4 to 12 — participate in the giving tree at their parish, St. Albert the Great in Huntingdon Valley, Pa.

Through the giving tree, the parish assists Holy Family Home, Birthright, Guiding Star Ministries, the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Joseph Villa, the St. Vincent DePaul Society, the homeless and others.

Kathy Fyke explained that the older children get to take the gift requests off the tree and then she takes them shopping for the items; they choose the gifts themselves.

The Sunday before Christmas, at the parish’s “Festival of Carols,” the children get to present the gifts. Their mother said this tradition teaches them concern for the poor.

The third guideline: sacredness of human life and the wonderful event that is every birth.

According to Kathy Fyke, the giving tree gifts tie nicely into the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life. The gifts “are simple things, little things for babies and for women who need things for their babies,” she said.

Hendey shared that, in their community, one of the most festive pre-Christmas parties supports the local Right to Life organization.

That support continues at home. “In pondering the gift of the Christ Child, often by meditating upon our simple Nativity scenes, we are called to both pray for and to actively support women in precarious situations who choose life for their babies,” she said.

“We should also be mindful of the other end of the spectrum, too, because the Christmas season also calls us to actively treasure our elderly relatives and community members, many of whom struggle with ill health and loneliness,” Hendey added.

“Christmas is a time to gather together all of our loved ones, to pray for the souls of our beloved departed and to fully commit ourselves to being champions for life all year long,” she further explained.

The fourth guideline: Messianic joy and peace to which man has aspired in every age. As the angels announced at the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, “Peace on earth to men of goodwill” (Luke 2:14).

“We try to keep the peace at home,” said Kathy Fyke. “And we talk about peace and how to work together with people. We show the children by example at home.”

As Hendey reflected, “Especially during this year, when we have suffered so much unrest and war in both our own country and our world, Christmas reminds us to prayerfully commit ourselves to peace.”

She continued, “We are called to be ‘instruments of peace.’ This often can begin most immediately with repairing any broken relationships in our own families, which often create added stress during the Christmas season.”

During the Octave of Christmas, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Holy Mother of God (Jan. 1). The piety directory notes that it is “an eminently Marian feast.” And as the “Holy See shares the profound aspirations of man for peace,” since 1967, this day has also been designated World Day for Peace.

The fifth guideline: spirit of simplicity and poverty and humility and trust in God, suggested by the events surrounding the birth of Christ.

To bring this theme across, Kathy Fyke employs the Christmas crib, which the family leaves up through Jan. 6, the Epiphany, often known as “Little Christmas.” Because the Church celebrates on that day how the Wise Men arrived to worship Jesus, Fyke uses this opportunity to talk with her children about gifts.

“We do highlight how, when Jesus was born, the Wise Men only brought him three presents,” she said. “We highlight for the kids [that] not everybody gets as much as they get.”

The Fykes tie this in beautifully with being mindful of other gifts they provide. Through their church, they learned of a Christian organization, Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, and through it, adopted a little girl. The family talks together about their young charge.

“We let the kids know that this is someone we help every year, so that she has food and clothing and an education,” Kathy Fyke said. “We let them know there are kids in the world who don’t get as much as they get.”

Their reaction? “They become humble when we pull out the picture of the little girl,” their mother said.

The sixth guideline: inauguration of the crib in the homes of the faithful.

Hendey pointed out that one special tradition for children can be adding straw to the family manger scene, while leaving the crib empty until they celebrate the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas.

“Throughout the season, children can be invited to add a piece of straw to the manger for each prayer said or good deed performed,” she said. “By encouraging our children to prayerfully anticipate the arrival of Jesus, we teach them that our homes joyfully await the birth of our Savior and that our prayers and deeds are a true blessing.”

And while the piety directory suggests that, at the end of Midnight Mass, “the faithful could be invited to kiss the image of the Child Jesus, which is then placed in a crib erected in the church or somewhere nearby,” why not teach the children to do that when placing Jesus in the manger at home, too? It would be a wonderful way to welcome him.

As Pope Francis said on Christmas Day 2013, “Let us pause before the Child of Bethlehem. Let us allow our hearts to be touched. ... We need this! Let us allow ourselves to be warmed by the tenderness of God; we need his caress.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.