From mistletoe in doorways to an elf on the shelf, there are dozens of Christmas traditions. Some, like stockings, are widely beloved, while others, like fruitcake, are openly scorned. Yet, no matter which ones warm your heart, yearly customs are a staple of any Christmas celebration.
While many secular traditions bring great holiday cheer, as Catholics, we never want to overshadow the pinnacle of Christmas: the birth of our long-awaited Savior. So, in the spirit of not losing sight of the “reason for the season,” here are five unique traditions for you to consider for your upcoming Christmas celebration.
1. Include Some Apples
During the Middle Ages, the Church began to celebrate Dec. 24 as the Feast of Sts. Adam and Eve. That is right, the ones who brought sin into the world have a feast day. According to ancient Church tradition, after being ejected from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve repented of their sins and led lives of holiness. (Good news: there is hope for us all!)
The Church chose Christmas Eve for this feast of the first man and woman because it is a powerful reminder of our need for a savior. Making the connection between Adam and Jesus, Early Church Father St. Irenaeus wrote, “[Jesus’] obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden.”
As a little nod to Adam and Eve on their feast day, consider incorporating apples into the dinner spread or toast to our Savior with a hot apple toddy or cider this Christmas Eve.
2. Bake a Birthday Cake
No modern-day birthday celebration would be complete without a cake, and Christmas is indeed a birthday celebration. I love this tradition because you can make it as simple or complex as you want. Create a classic cake with a box mix or combine this tradition with an old one by placing some candles on a Yule log. Either way, nothing will drive home the birthday factor better than singing happy birthday and blowing out candles, especially for little kids!
3. Repurpose your Advent Wreath
You would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic who does not hold fond memories of lighting an Advent wreath. As a kid, the joy that came with finally getting to that fourth candle made me almost burst with anticipation. So rather than toss your wreath aside once Christmas arrives, consider repurposing it by turning it into a beautiful centerpiece.
To do this, remove the purple and pink candles, rearrange the greenery to cover the candle holders, and place a large white “Christ Candle” in the middle of the wreath. You can also spruce it up with some holly berries or gold ribbons if you want to go the extra mile. I love this tradition because it ties the seasons of Advent and Christmas together, and it serves as a great reminder that the long-awaited Light of the World has finally arrived. ⊲
4. Level-Up the Nativity Scene
A nativity scene is a classic Christmas essential for any Catholic family, so you likely already have one. Rather than let it sit on a table collecting dust, one way to enliven the scene is to make it more liturgically accurate.
Before Christmas, no one has arrived at the stable, so fill the scene with your farm animals and an empty manger. Then station the shepherds and their sheep off to the side in their “field” and place Mary, Joseph and the wise men heading towards the stable from different locations. If you really want to have fun with this one, make sure the wise men come from the actual east and inch the travelers closer to the scene each day until their appointed arrival. For Mary and Joseph, this is, of course, Christmas day, when baby Jesus finally arrives and is laid in his manger. For the wise men, it is not until the Feast of the Epiphany on or around Jan. 6. (And do not forget to call in the shepherds from their field and add an angel on Christmas Day!)
Playing out a nativity scene slowly is a slight but powerful change to a classic tradition. The presence of the empty stable serves as a beautiful reminder that we are preparing our hearts for Jesus’ arrival. And once the scene is finally filled with a sweet baby on Christmas Day, his presence there becomes all the more powerful.
5. Keep on Celebrating
As a kid, I can remember returning to my church after Christmas and thinking, “Man, our church must be lazy. They still haven’t taken down their decorations!” (Sorry, parish staff members, I now understand how hard you all work, especially around Christmas!) Little did I know that my parish was far from idle; they just understood something that I had somehow missed.
For Catholics, Christmas is not a one-day event. It is an entire liturgical season. This means that our celebrations of Christmas should not lead up to Christmas; they should begin with Christmas. Do you know that traditional song about 12 days of Christmas? The carol author never intended them to be a countdown. Instead, the days represent the 12 days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. (With the movement of the Epiphany to the Sunday between Jan. 2 and 8, the numbers are a bit thrown off these days.)
So, when everyone else is taking down their lights and dragging their trees to the curb, keep on celebrating! Watch Christmas movies, listen to carols, decorate gingerbread houses purchased on Christmas clearance, and invite the neighbors over for a Christmas party. Will they think you are crazy? Of course, but it makes for an excellent opportunity to share your faith with them as you explain how we do things a little differently as Catholics.