Making Christmas Reverent

Now that we're well into Advent, the time has come to make more immediate preparations for Christmas.

A few families we know actually wait until Christmas Eve to put up the tree and decorate their homes. Their perseverance in swimming against the cultural current is admirable.

In our own family, we've compromised a bit, and decorate during the last week or so of Advent. A number of signs in the Church's liturgy indicate that this is fitting.

Gaudate Sunday

On the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, the pink candle is lit at Mass, and we're called to “Rejoice! The Lord is near!” (Entrance Antiphon).

As a family, we take this as our cue to begin playing Christmas tapes and compact discs. Sometimes, we do a little simple decorating, such as laying fresh evergreen branches on the windowsills. We also replace the branches in our home Advent wreath with fresh ones.

Then, on Dec. 17, the liturgy moves into high gear in anticipation of our Lord's birth. At each Mass until Christmas, we beg our Savior to come into our lives, using one of his messianic names drawn from Old Testament prophecies.

These petitions are called the “O Antiphons” (“O wisdom, who came from the mouth of the most high …” “O Lord and ruler …” “O root of Jesse …”). If you attend daily Mass during this time, you'll hear them in the Alleluia verse before the Gospel. They're also recited at evening prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.

The O Antiphons are meant to stir our souls to the very depth of longing for our Savior, and they will if we meditate on them. Whether the children and I make it to Mass on these days or not, we make it a point to read the day's O Antiphon very slowly and solemnly at dinner each night just after we say grace.

When dinner ends, we sing the appropriate verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” because this hymn is really a musical setting of the O Antiphons. (If you try this, note that the hymn's first verse is often skipped until Dec. 23.) Each succeeding night, we add a new verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and sing the previous ones, until by Dec. 23 we're singing all seven verses.

The Fourth Sunday

By this point, it feels more appropriate to shop for a Christmas tree, decorate the house, and do all the holiday baking. Traditionally, our tree and house lights go up the weekend before Christmas. (Since my husband routinely threatens the kids with his childhood practice of no-tree-till-Christmas-Eve, they're more than relieved that we do it as soon as this!)

Around this time, too, the manger figures of Mary, Joseph and the donkey begin traveling from one end of the house to the living room. The youngest children love to move them closer each day. They arrive on the morning of Dec. 24.

Every family has its own Christmas Eve customs, many based on ethnic traditions. All are lovely.

Because of my heritage, we follow some Polish traditions. We scatter clean bits of straw over the tablecloth to remind us of the stable, and set one empty place to let our Lord know how much we want him to be with us. We share an unleavened wafer called Oplatki, a sign of family love and unity.

Following dinner, we shift back to American customs and take a driving tour of neighborhood light displays. By the time we return, it's close to bedtime for those who are too young for midnight Mass. Our last Christmas Eve ritual is a candlelight procession carrying the figure of the infant Jesus to the manger while singing “Silent Night.”

Long Christmas

There is no need to describe our family's routine on Christmas Day — it must closely resemble everyone else's. But we continue to celebrate Christmas during the 12 days that follow.

On Christmas night, following a European folk custom, we place one more present for each child under the tree. This custom comes from the notion that the generous three kings are known to leave presents for good boys and girls. (We don't trek out to the stores to buy something extra. We simply hold back some of the Christmas stash for this.)

On the morning of Dec. 26, the figures of the three kings embark on a journey from the eastern side of the house. They'll arrive at the manger on Epiphany Sunday.

We try to do most of our holiday entertaining during the 12 days of Christmas rather than before. It's more relaxing both for us and our guests, as well as liturgically suitable. Our home-schooling group also holds an Epiphany party during early January.

Another way to keep the 12 days interesting is to observe the various feasts — the Holy Innocents, Saint Stephen, Saint John the Apostle, the Holy Family. You can explain each feast as it comes, go to Mass or do the day's Scripture readings at home. Festive recipes to accompany these feasts can be found in A Continual Feast (Ignatius Press) (Ignatius Press) and Catholic Traditions In Cooking (Our Sunday Visitor).

If Advent and Christmas are observed by incorporating some of the ideas described here, I believe some positive things will happen.

That harried pre-Christmas feeling that comes to parents who try to do everything at once will decrease. You'll help your children channel their high holiday spirits in more positive unselfish directions. Most importantly, having spent Advent as a true preparation for Christ's coming, your family will approach his altar on Christmas Day “caught up in the love of the God we cannot see” (from the Preface to Eucharistic Prayer for Christmas).

Daria Sockey writes from Venus, Pennsylvania.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.