Transmitting the faith through Christmas traditions

Every family is called to build a culture in their home, with unique traditions and practices. The season of Christmas is a great opportunity to make this a reality and to center it around Christ. Fortunately, Christmas and its preparation already have long-standing and rich traditions that can help us enter into the Mystery of the Nativity as a family.

Here we explain some of the Christmas practices along with their Christian meanings. It’s important for Christians to recover their religious meanings, as they are palpable signs that can help parents pass on the faith to their children in an engaging way.

Christmas Tree and Lights

One of the most common Christian symbols is the Christmas tree: we see it in homes, churches and even public places. While there are different theories of the true origin of the Christmas tree, the most important part of this practice is that it is a symbol that comes from an act of faith and can be used to highlight the true meaning of Christmas.

One of the most popular theories for the origin of this symbol has to do with the figure of St. Boniface. The story says that in the eighth century an English monk named Boniface arrived to Germany to preach the Gospel. As it turned out, he had his work of evangelization cut out for him, as the Germans had very different beliefs and rituals, one of which involved a tree. 

St. Boniface struck down the tree with a blow of his ax and then used it as a sign from God. He decorated it with apples, which represented temptation, and candles, to signify that Jesus is the light of the world. Thus, the German people would turn from their religious beliefs but keep the tree as a Christian symbol and tradition.

Some experts believe its origin is more tied to the plays about Adam and Eve that were done in Europe around the 11th century on Christmas Eve, in which the tree of paradise appeared on the stage.

Regardless of its true origin, the Christmas tree possesses great Christian meaning. It is a symbol and reminder that Jesus, who is born unto us, is the tree of life and the light of the world.

Christmas Tree Symbolism

Symbol of Christ, who is the “light of the world,” and of his divine and human characteristics and virtues.

The fruits of the tree of life, that is, the fruits of Christ, and the gifts that God gives each one of us.

The star on top represents the star which guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem and the faith that must guide every Christian.

The green color of the Christmas tree is an ancient sign of eternity.

The bright decorations represent God’s glory and the joy of Christ’s birth.

The Nativity Scene

Photo by Ben White | Unsplash

Another popular and meaningful Christmas tradition is the display of the nativity scene. Its origin is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, who made a Bethlehem scene in Greccio, Italy, with live animals. He was able to do it with help from other friars and people from the neighborhood.

“I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem, and how he was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how he was bedded in the manger on hay… For once I want to see all this with my own eyes,” the saint said.

When he saw the completed Nativity Scene, illuminated with torches at night and in the company of his fellow friars and a crowd of people form the town, he was “overcome with devotion and wondrous joy.”

Besides its great meaning, the Nativity scene can become a place of family unity. It can be an opportunity for children to be creative as they help prepare the landscape. Also, as part of the Christmas preparation and celebration, some families gather in front of the Nativity Scene to say a prayer or pray the rosary at night.

Laying Jesus in the manger

A practice that can help the family keep Christ at the center of the Christmas celebration is placing Jesus in the manger after midnight or after attending midnight Mass. Various customs have developed around this tradition in different countries, but it mainly consists in singing carols to greet baby Jesus and lay him in the manger, which had been empty until that point.

In some Hispanic countries, it’s also common to “rock” baby Jesus to sleep while signing Christmas carols. The statue of the child Jesus is either passed from person to person to be rocked and kissed or one person holds the figurine while everyone else steps forward to kiss him good night. After baby Jesus is placed in the manger, families can use the moment to say a thanksgiving prayer together.

The Poinsettia

This beautiful red and green plant has become a popular symbol of the Christmas season and it has a deeply Christian meaning. It is native to Mexico and Central America, and in some Spanish-speaking countries it is known as “Flor de Nochebuena,” which means the “Holy Night Flower.” Its English name was given in honor of Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who brought the plant to America in 1829. Its connection to Christmas is tied to the shape of its red leaves, which resembles a star.

Photo by Jessica Johnston | Unsplash

There is also an old Mexican tale that speaks of its origin. It tells the story of a poor child who decided to go visit Jesus in a church on Christmas Eve. But when he arrived, he was very sad and dared not go in because he had nothing to gift baby Jesus. Instead, he kneeled outside, and, in tears, told God he had a great desire to gift him something, but that he would not go in with empty hands. As he stood back up, he saw a beautiful red flower bloom in front of him. He knew it was an answer to his prayers, so he happily went inside the church and placed it at the foot of the manger as his gift for Jesus.

This story can be a reminder of the strong love for Christ we are called to have, and the desire for Jesus that we would like to instill in our children.

Remembering those in need

Christ came to us in our poverty. As St. Paul says, “Christ came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Thus, remembering people in need is a practice that can help children understand the true meaning of Christmas and God’s gift to us, who in one way or another are poor.

A way of doing this this is practicing a work of mercy as a family: clothe the naked, visit (or call) the sick, comfort the afflicted, etc. This can include giving Christmas presents to other families in need through our parish or personally. Although making personal contact may be difficult during the pandemic, sometimes a call or a letter can make all the difference in the world for someone. 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.