Transmitting the faith through Christmas traditions

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

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: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!