Liturgical Living for Busy Families in December
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Welcome to December, friends, and the start of a new liturgical year! In addition to Advent and Christmas, this month is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is a plethora of liturgical living activities to enjoy this month, and it can get very overwhelming if you try to do them all. Just pick a few that appeal to you, mark your calendar, and enjoy what you can! This is an especially holy time of year, so if all else fails, just lean into the daily mass readings and work on cultivating the silent night of your own heart in hopeful, joyous preparation for the Incarnation. I wish you all a blessed Advent and a very Merry Christmas! Happy feasting!
· All Month Long – The Immaculate Conception, Advent, and Christmas
· December 3 – St. Francis Xavier
· December 4 – St. John Damascene and St. Barbara
· December 6 – St. Nicholas
· December 7 – St. Ambrose
· December 8 – Immaculate Conception
· December 9, 12 – St. Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadeloupe
· December 10 – Our Lady of Loreto
· December 13 – Bambinelli Sunday/Guadete Sunday and St. Lucy
· December 14 – St. John of the Cross
· December 16, 18-19 – Ember Days
· December 17 – St. Lazarus and the Beginning of the “O Antiphons”
· December 24 – Adam and Eve
· December 25 – The Nativity of Our Lord
· December 26 – St. Stephen
· December 27 – The Holy Family and St. John the Evangelist
· December 28 – The Holy Innocents
· December 29 – St. Thomas a Becket
All Month Long – The Immaculate Conception, Advent, and Christmas
The Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception of Mary is one of four Marian dogmas espoused by the Church. This dogma does not refer to the miraculous conception of Jesus by Mary, as many assume, but instead refers to the immaculate conception of Mary by her mother, St. Anne. The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception states that Mary was preserved, by the grace of God alone, from the stain of Original Sin from the moment of her conception. She still needed Jesus as Savior, but, in a manner of speaking, she was “pre-saved” so that her womb would be a fitting, spotless tabernacle for Our Lord.
Developing an understanding of typology is extremely helpful to understanding the Marian dogmas. In this case, the Old Testament passages relating to the Ark of the Covenant are illuminating. The Ark housed the presence of God and was so holy it could not be touched except at very specific times of the year by very specific priests fulfilling very specific functions. It was crafted out of acacia wood – an incorruptible wood – and pure gold, and the very presence of the Lord was contained within it. Just as everything in the Old Testament foreshadows what is to be revealed and made even greater in the New, Mary, then, is the New Ark of the Covenant, immaculate and incorruptible.
It is beautiful and appropriate that the Church highlights the Immaculate Conception during the month of December with the seasons of Advent and Christmas. By meditating on Mary’s Immaculate Conception throughout the month, we recall the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and its continuing effect on us and all of creation. We can marvel at God’s salvific plan, how from this brokenness God prepared the hearts of the faithful throughout the generations, from Abraham to Moses to David all the way down to one elderly and faithful but childless couple, Anne and Joachim. He then blessed Anne and Joachim, and all of us in turn, with His loveliest creature of all: the Blessed Virgin Mary. By the grace of her sinlessness, she was able to give the full and perfect “yes” to undo Eve’s “no” at the Annunciation, which we celebrate March 25 (nine months before Christmas!). Her fiat ushered in the very center of human history, the Incarnation, finally allowing human life to experience that Divine dimension He intended us to have from the very beginning (paraphrasing Pope St. John Paul II).
Advent is the four-week liturgical season preceding Christmastide, and the First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year! Historically, it was a season of fasting and spiritual preparation, somewhat akin to a mini-Lent, and like Lent, the liturgical color is purple (and rose for the third Sunday of Advent, also similar to Lent). Although secular society does its best to skip Advent altogether and rush headlong into Christmas, it is incredibly spiritually fruitful to observe Advent as it was originally intended.
There are so many ideas and resources to help you lean into the Advent season. Two traditions that my family will be observing this year are the Advent Wreath and the Jesse Tree. We have a kid-friendly (read: non-breakable) Nativity set that we bring out at the beginning of the season, and we bless each piece with Holy Water before setting it up (just remember to not put baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas Day and don’t bring out the wise men until the Epiphany!).
We also completed our Christmas shopping and Christmas cards prior to the beginning of Advent in order to diminish the rushed feelings and materialistic aspect that tends to creep into Christmas. Finally, I created a separate Advent playlist on Spotify, and we plan to save the traditional Christmas carols for the true Christmas season. I also know some families who decorate slowly over the course of the season (putting up outdoor lights on the Feast of St. Lucy and not decorating the Christmas Tree until Christmas Eve, for example) and do their best to limit Christmas treats and parties until the actual start of the Christmas season.
There is also a myriad of excellent Advent-themed Bible studies. Two of my favorites are Bishop Barron’s from Word on Fire and Blessed is She (they also have an Advent study designed for children!). Kendra Tierney at Catholic All Year and Genie Shaw at Barefoot Abbey have also each created budget-friendly printable booklets containing the prayers, readings, hymns, and celebratory ideas to observe as a family throughout Advent. Finally, I love this free Lord of the Rings-themed Advent Journey created by Katie Marquette at Born of Wonder.
To encourage a spirit of giving throughout the season, consider creating a manger for the baby Jesus. Each time your child does something kind or helpful, let them put in one piece of straw or yarn to make a soft bed for baby Jesus! Many churches also hold food drives, facilitate Angel Trees, and collect Christmas cards for prisoners during this season, all of which are wonderful corporal works of mercy.
I also love Kristkindls, a tradition I just learned about this year. Basically, each member of the household picks another person of the household to be their “Kristkindl” (a form of the German word for Christ Kind or Christ Child) to treat as Christ throughout the season of Advent. You can do the picking by drawing names out of a hat to keep it secret. Then, throughout the Advent season, you pray for and find ways to quietly serve your Kristkindl (like secretly doing a chore for them, making their bed, unloading the dishwasher, picking up toys without being asked, etc.). It requires no purchases, no preparation, and no crafts or cooking, only daily spiritual and corporal acts of mercy.
Although secular society likes to begin Christmas on November 1, Christmas doesn’t actually begin until the Nativity of Our Lord on December 25. While the official start of the Christmas season is easy enough to pinpoint, pinpointing the end of the season is a little more complicated.
According to the current liturgical calendar promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Christmas Time runs from First Vespers of the Nativity of Our Lord … up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6.” The Epiphany (when we remember the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child) is celebrated the Sunday following Christmas, and the Baptism of Our Lord is celebrated the Sunday following the Epiphany.
Things get tricky if Christmas falls on a Sunday, however, because then the following Sunday is January 1, which is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. In that instance, the Epiphany is bumped to the following Sunday and the Baptism of Our Lord is bumped to the Sunday after that. All of this means that the official Christmastide can end as early as January 7 or as late as January 13, depending on the year.
In addition to Christmastide, you might also hear people speak about the Octave of Christmas, which simply means the 8 days beginning Christmas Day and ending on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on January 1.
Finally, to further complicate matters, you’ll also hear some people talk about the 40 Days of Christmas as being the true Christmas season. In ancient Jewish culture, the Law of Moses required first-born sons to be dedicated to the Lord. As such, Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the Temple for his dedication and circumcision forty days following His birth (which is February 2) (Luke 2:22-38). In some places, it is traditional to keep Christmas decorations up until this feast, known as the Presentation of Our Lord or Candlemas.
However long you choose to celebrate Christmas – either through the Octave, until the Baptism of Our Lord, or all the way up through Candlemas – make it a season of joy and giving. Consider spreading your family’s Christmas gifts out throughout the season rather than giving them all on Christmas Day. Swap out your Advent Playlist for a true Christmas playlist, and turn your Advent wreath into a Christmas wreath by replacing the purple and pink candles with white ones.
December 3 – St. Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of missionaries, was born in 1506 to a noble French family and raised in chateau at the foot of the Pyrenees. He studied theology at the Sorbonne, where he met St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose motto, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?,” had a major impact on this young man accustomed to wealth and privilege. He renounced his wealth and became a co-founder of the Jesuits along with St. Ignatius in 1534. He was ordained a priest in 1537 and sent as a missionary to India, Southeast Asia, and eventually Japan. He died of a fever in China, still evangelizing until the end, in 1552.
Today, talk to your children about how we are all called to be missionaries. Not all of us will be sent to foreign lands, but we are all called to evangelize those around us daily through our words and deeds. Nearly 40% of the world remains un-evangelized, so the need for courageous missionaries remains as prominent today as it did in St. Francis Xavier’s time. You can also incorporate St. Francis Xavier into your homeschool geography lesson this week by finding the countries he visited on the globe! Finally, enjoy French, Indian, Japanese, or Chinese food for dinner, and pray for those called to the global mission field as a family.
December 4 – St. John Damascene and St. Barbara
St. John Damascene
St. John Damascene, known as the “golden speaker,” (similar, but distinct from St. John Chrysostom, whose moniker is "golden mouth" or "golden tongue") was born in Damascus in 676 AD and lived most of his life in the monastery of St. Sabas near Jerusalem. The last of the Greek Fathers of the Church, he is most famous for his writings against iconoclasts, his poetry, and his treatise, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, which is considered to be the Eastern equivalent of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.
Today, celebrate by reading some of his famous poetry and enjoying Greek food for dinner!
St. Barbara was born in the 3rd century in the town of Nicodemia, located in modern-day Turkey. Essentially a Catholic Rapunzel, her wicked father Dioscorus, a pagan, locked her in an isolated tower to hide her great beauty from the world. Barbara secretly converted, however, and had a third window created in her tower-prison to symbolize the Trinity. When her father discovered this, he became enraged and turned her over to the Roman authorities. Barbara refused to renounce her faith and was tortured for days, but every night her wounds miraculously healed! The governor then had her paraded naked through the streets, but she prayed to God and was miraculously covered by a luminous garment to shield her nakedness. Her father, having lost his patience, beheaded her himself on December 4. In an act of Divine retribution, he was immediately struck and killed by a lightning bolt! As such, St. Barbara is the patroness of fireworks, firefighters, artillery men and against thunderstorms.
If you have any leftover fireworks from the 4th of July, today is the perfect day to use them! If firearms and explosives aren’t your thing, you could work St. Barbara in to your homeschool science curriculum for the day and learn about thunderstorms.
December 6 – St. Nicholas
While many people have heard of Santa Claus, few realize the now-secular custom has its roots in a real and holy historical figure. The real St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra (in Asia Minor). Born around 270 AD to an extremely wealthy family, legends about St. Nicholas abound. As an infant, he refused to nurse on fasting days. When he became older and was orphaned, he distributed his family’s wealth to the poor (most famously secretly tossing bags of gold through a poor man’s window, which landed in his daughters’ shoes that they were then able to use as dowries). Another legend claims he calmed a storm at sea, saving the boat that was carrying him to the Holy Land from sinking. He gained his reputation as the patron of children when he brought back to life two schoolboys who had been dismembered and pickled in a brine tub by an evil innkeeper. The French song La Légende de Saint Nicolas retells this particularly gruesome story, and in France Père Nöel visits the good children in December, while Père Fouettard punishes the naughty ones.
To celebrate today, leave chocolate gold coins in your children’s shoes to surprise them the morning of this feast, and listen to the re-telling of the legend of the gold coins on the Saint Stories for Kids Podcast Episode 48. If you’re more of a Flannery O’Connor type Catholic (thank you Genie Shaw for this amazing literary reference), you can celebrate with pickles and sing La Légende de Saint Nicholas! While some Catholic families do not celebrate Santa Claus, if your family does, a good way to tie in Santa Claus with the real St. Nicholas would be to write letters to Santa or have the children take pictures with Santa on today’s feast.
December 7 – St. Ambrose
St. Ambrose was born in 340 AD to a Roman Christian family. He is the patron saint of beekeepers and candle makers, a patronage that arose when, as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face, leaving behind droplets of honey! His parents took this as a sign that he would be honey-tongued as an adult. This omen was fulfilled when he so eloquently settled the dispute caused by Arian heretics, he was immediately declared to be the Bishop of Milan! In this role, he continued to be such an excellent preacher that he played a major role in St. Augustine’s eventual conversion.
Today, celebrate St. Ambrose by enjoying a spoonful of honey as a treat. You can also make candles by melting down the stubs of other candles you’ve burned throughout the year, or decorate a votive candle with tissue paper and mod podge.
The Feast of St. Ambrose is also the vigil of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. This vigil was originally observed as a day of fasting and abstinence, so enjoy this hearty (and meat-free) Milanese Minestrone soup for dinner!
December 8 – Immaculate Conception
The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.” CCC 492
Although we remember the Immaculate Conception all month long, today is the actual Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. In 2017, the year of my conversion, it snowed on this solemnity (which is highly unusual for Baton Rouge, Louisiana!), and seeing the world covered in pure white snow was such a beautiful grace.
This feast was originally established by the Eastern Church during the 8th century and was adopted as a feast day in the Western Church by Pope Sixtus IV in the 15th century. In 1854, Pope Pius IX elevated it to a Holy Day of Obligation, so the faithful are required to attend mass today. Until 1983, the vigil of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception was a day of fasting and abstinence, so prayerfully consider whether this is something you would like to observe in your home.
Today is the perfect day for an at-home Marian procession (just have each child carry a statue or image of the Blessed Virgin and process around your yard singing Immaculate Mary!), and the traditional prayer for today is the Litany of Loreto. For dinner or dessert, anything white, to evoke images of purity, would be appropriate (think a white pizza, alfredo sauce, mashed potatoes, vanilla ice cream, etc.).
December 9 – St. Juan Diego; December 12 – Our Lady of Guadeloupe
Although these feasts fall on different days, they are connected as it was Saint Juan Diego who experienced the apparition of Our Lady of Guadeloupe on December 9, 1531. This apparition became a great source of healing for both the Hispanic and Native people living in Mexico, who lived in tension, and thousands of Natives converted from pagan religions that involved child sacrifice as a result. Our Lady of Guadeloupe is the patroness of the Americas and the pro-life movement.
Juan Diego was a poor man of Aztec descent who lived in Mexico during the time of the Spanish conquest. He converted to Christianity, and one day, while walking many miles to Mass, a beautiful woman who appeared to be of both Spanish and Native descent appeared to him. Her mantle was covered in stars, and the rope tied about her waist indicated she was pregnant. She revealed herself to be the Blessed Virgin Mary, and asked Juan Diego to request the Archbishop build a church dedicated to her on the spot where she appeared.
Juan Diego did as she asked, but the Archbishop, who was from Spain, asked for a sign. In response, on December 12 Mary caused beautiful Spanish roses, not native to the area, to bloom on the spot where she appeared although it was the middle of winter. Juan Diego gathered these in his tilma, and when he opened his tilma to show the roses to the Archbishop, the famous image of Our Lady of Guadeloupe appeared printed there. The Archbishop fell to his knees, and a church that is now a major pilgrimage site was immediately erected.
The original tilma is now housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, and it is truly miraculous. For one, it has not decayed despite being made of a cactus fiber cloth that should have disintegrated centuries ago, and the colors have not faded. In fact, modern science is completely unable to explain the image!
Celebrate today with authentic Mexican food if you can, or recreate your own tilmas with brown paper bags and paint! You can listen to the story about St. Juan Diego on the Saint Stories for Kids Podcast Episode 49, and there is also a short chapter book on St. Juan Diego that is perfect for children 8-11 (my daughter is reading it as part of our homeschool curriculum for the month of December). Pray this beautiful prayer composed by Pope St. John Paul II when he visited the shrine in 1979. Many Catholics also adorn their Nativity scenes with roses to honor Our Lady of Guadeloupe on December 12.
December 10 – Our Lady of Loreto
Today’s feast celebrates the home where Mary grew up as a child with her parents St. Anne and St. Joachim in Nazareth. The twist? The house is not in Nazareth, but instead is located in Loreto, Italy!
According to legend, after Jesus’s Ascension, the apostles converted Mary’s family home in Nazareth into a chapel, where it was rediscovered by St. Helena in 336 AD. A basilica was then built around the house, and Christians worshipped there for nearly 1,000 years until the time of the Crusades. In the 1300s when many surrounding areas were being destroyed by the Turks, four angels picked up the house and moved it safely to a hill in Loreto, Italy to save this holy site from destruction! A new basilica was built around it in the 1600s (so it’s essentially a house inside a church inside another church).
This is not dogma, so Catholics are free to choose whether to believe the legend of Our Lady of Loreto. At least one pope has suggested that rather than being moved by angels, the house was dismantled in Nazareth by the Angelo family during the Crusades, who then brought the pieces safely back to Loreto, where it was then reassembled. Definitely more believable, but definitely less fun.
Regardless, today is a wonderful day to pray the Litany of Loreto and take a virtual tour of the Basilica of Our Lady of Loreto. You can also “baptize” a secular tradition and make gingerbread houses today! If your want a sugar-free option, constructing houses out of Legos or blocks will also work just fine.
December 13 – Bambinelli Sunday/Gaudete Sunday and St. Lucy
Bambinelli Sunday and Gaudete Sunday
The third Sunday of Advent is known as Bambinelli Sunday and Gaudete Sunday. We light the rose-colored Advent candle at Mass today. “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice,” so this Sunday marks a mini-celebration during this season of penitence and preparation. The priest may switch the purple vestments for rose-colored ones today, and you can join by wearing pink to Mass!
Today is also known as Bambinelli Sunday. Bambinelli is the plural form of the Italian word bambinello, which means little baby boy. Pope St. John Paul II began this tradition by inviting all the children to bring little baby Jesuses to St. Peter’s Square on the Third Sunday of Advent for a special papal blessing following the noon Angelus. Many parishes now recreate this on their own, but if your parish doesn’t, just bring the baby Jesus from your family’s Nativity scene and ask father to bless him after Mass (then put him away again until Christmas Day!).
You can also celebrate today by learning more about the history of Nativity Scenes, which were started by St. Francis of Assisi! You can learn more about the story by listening to the Saint Stories for Kids Podcast Episode 51.
Today is also the Feast of St. Lucy, another early Christian martyr. According to legend, St. Lucy of Syracuse lived in the late 300s AD amidst the terrible persecutions of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. As a young child, her mother became deathly ill, and St. Lucy was inspired to call upon the intercession of St. Agatha, another early Christian martyr. A miraculous cure ensued, which moved St. Lucy to a deeper conversion and life of piety.
Moved by Christian charity, she began to give away her possessions to the poor, a move that angered her pagan fiancé. In retaliation, he denounced Lucy to the Roman consul, who then ordered her to be taken to a house of prostitution and raped. When the guards came to take her, she became so heavy that neither a thousand men nor a thousand oxen were able to drag her away. The consul then tried to burn her with boiling oil and tore out her eyes, but St. Lucy still refused to renounce her faith. He then ran a sword through her throat, and she still refused to die until she received Holy Communion!
When she was finally presented for burial, all her wounds were miraculously healed and her eyes restored. Devotion to her quickly sprang up, and she is now the patroness of the blind and those with eye problems (my favorite icons of her depict her holding a platter with her own eyes on it).
Given the fact the name Lucy derives from the Latin word lucis for light, today is the perfect day to put up your outdoor Christmas lights or take a drive as a family to see the lights around your neighborhood. In the Middle Ages, St. Lucy’s Feast also fell on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, so St. Lucy candles and bonfires arose as a tradition (you’ll notice many images of St. Lucy also show her with a wreath of white candles on her head). Some cultures also celebrate St. Lucy by dressing up! Girls get a white dress with a red sash and a crown of candles, and boys wear star hats! St. Lucy buns are the traditional food for the day. You can find a classic recipe here, or you can do what I did last year: just put candy eyes or raisins on regular canned cinnamon rolls rolled in the shape of an S!
December 14 – St. John of the Cross
St. John of the Cross is a true spiritual giant. Born in 16th century Spain, St. John of the Cross experienced a vision of the crucifixion in prayer one day that greatly convicted him. He sketched the image, and Salvador Dali later used it as inspiration for his 1951 painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross. A contemporary of St. Theresa of Avila, together they helped reform the Carmelite Order to create the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. Faced with great opposition by the Calced Carmelites, St. John was imprisoned in a cell with no lamp, no change of clothes, and only a crust of bread and water and the occasional salted fish to eat for nine months! During this time of intense suffering, he composed his “Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom of Christ,” largely considered to be one of the greatest Spanish poems ever composed. Eventually, he was aided in a daring escape by Our Lady.
Today, celebrate by reading St. John of the Cross’s famous poem, and perhaps make an art study out of Salvador Dali’s work! For dinner, enjoy some traditional Spanish fare (paella is a perennial favorite of mine!) or any food made in the shape of a cross (think crossed fish sticks, asparagus, peanut butter cookies, breadsticks, etc.).
December 16, 18-19 – Ember Days
Ember Days are optional, seasonal days of fasting and abstinence that occur on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following Ash Wednesday, Pentecost Sunday, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and the Feast of St. Lucy (Lenty, Penty, Cruci, Lucy is the rhyme to remember when they fall).
Traditionally, the winter Ember Days were offered in thanksgiving for the olive harvest, from which we get the holy oils used in the anointing of the sick, priestly ordinations, baptisms, and confirmations. All three days are days of fasting (meaning two small collations and one regular meal). Wednesday and Saturday are also days of partial abstinence, meaning meat is only eaten at the main meal, and Friday is a full day of abstinence from meat.
Although not required, observing the Ember Days is a beautiful way to offer sacrifice and thanksgiving for the many ways God blesses us and for those serving in the vocation of priesthood. You can read more about the history of Ember Days here, and if you’re looking for kid-friendly meatless meals to make, I love this list of recipes from the She Likes Food blog.
December 17 – St. Lazarus; Beginning of the “O Antiphons”
In the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, we read the marvelous story of the resurrection of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany and a family that was dear to Jesus’s heart. When Jesus learned of Lazarus’s death, He went to Bethany despite great personal risk (it was near Jerusalem, and the religious leaders were seeking to kill Jesus by this time). When He arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days, and Jesus, comforting Mary and Martha, wept. Martha then makes a great act of faith, and together with Mary, the three went to the tomb. Jesus had the stone rolled away and cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man arose, covered in his shroud.
We don’t know for sure what happened to Lazarus after this remarkable event, but tradition holds that he and his sisters left for France following the Resurrection (the Jews sought to kill Lazarus, as he served as a living reminder of Jesus’s power and divinity). He became the first bishop of Marseilles and was eventually arrested and beheaded for his faith. In the 8th century, his relics were moved to Autun, but the cathedral in Marseilles retained his head in a reliquary.
Today, read the Gospel account of the resurrection of Lazarus in John Chapter 11 and make shrouded Lazarus hot dogs for dinner (just used canned croissants and wrap them around hot dogs like pics in a blanket and bake!). You can also take a virtual tour of the Cathedral in Marseille or Autun and view St. Lazarus’s relics.
The “O Antiphons” are added to the Evening Prayer portion of the Divine Office the last days of Advent and are more than one thousand years old. Adding these to your family’s evening prayer along with the associated readings are a beautiful way to intensify your devotion and spiritual preparation for the coming Incarnation during the last few days of the Advent season. In our house, we have O Antiphons ornaments (you can find examples here) that we hang each night on a mini-Christmas tree shaped rosemary bush in our kitchen.
December 24 – Adam and Eve
December 24, of course, is Christmas Eve, but it is also the Feast of Adam and Eve! Adam and Eve were our first parents and the cause of Original Sin. It is fitting, therefore, that on the eve of the Incarnation, when the New Adam is born of the New Eve, we remember where this salvation story all began. Today, meditate on how the Creator is about to be fully reunited with the created through Jesus Christ.
In some Eastern traditions, the faithful set up a Paradise Tree in their homes decorated with red apples (reminiscent of the forbidden fruit). This tradition arose from a legend that before being banished from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve took a branch from the Tree of Life and carried it with them. They planted it, watered it with their tears, and it took root but never flowered or sprouted a single leaf. There it stood for thousands of years, barren, until the day of Christ’s birth, when it burst into magnificent fruit and flower. It flowered for 33 years until it was cut down to serve as the tree upon which Jesus was crucified.
Traditionally, as with most Solemnities, Christmas Eve was observed as a day of fasting and abstinence. Although no longer required, spending Christmas Eve in a state of fasting and abstinence is a wonderful way to more fully experience the joy of tomorrow’s feast! In my family, we have always eaten seafood gumbo for Christmas Eve, which ties in nicely with keeping today meat-free, although it is so delicious it can hardly count as penitential.
December 25 – The Nativity of Our Lord
Merry Christmas! Today is a Holy Day of Obligation, so get thee to Mass! Exchange gifts, bust out the Christmas tunes, sing Happy Birthday to Jesus, and avoid the post-Christmas blues by remembering today is only the first day of Christmas. Plan ways to keep Christmas alive through the Baptism of Our Lord on January 10, such as keeping up the decorations, going Christmas caroling, baking Christmas cookies, writing thank you notes for gifts received, and hosting Christmas parties! Today is also a great day to bring out the wise men for your Nativity scene, gradually moving them closer and closer each day as the Epiphany approaches on January 6.
December 26 – St. Stephen
St. Stephen’s Feast Day marks the beginning of series of feasts referred to as the Comites Christi, the Friends of Christ. St. Stephen was the first martyr, stoned to death by Jewish authorities on charges of blasphemy, and we read about his life and death briefly in Chapters 6-7 of the Acts of the Apostles. While it may seem odd at first blush to celebrate the first martyr the day immediately following the birth of Christ, especially since we aren’t sure on what date precisely St. Stephen died, it is a good reminder that Christ came to give us life by dying for our sins, and that we, too, are called to die to self in order to live forever with Him.
Today, listen to the traditional Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas (which really has nothing to do with St. Stephen other than the fact that it mentions the “Feast of Stephen” in the lyrics) and read about St. Stephen in the book of Acts. Since St. Stephen was also the first ordained deacon of the Church, celebrate your Parish’s deacons today with a card or small gift.
December 27 – The Holy Family and St. John the Evangelist
The Holy Family
The Feast of the Holy Family is always celebrated the Sunday between Christmas and the Feast of Mary, Mother of God (unless both Christmas and the Feast of Mary, Mother of God both fall on Sunday, in which case the Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on December 30). The Feast of the Holy Family is a time to reflect on Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, who together form the model for all families. Jesus was obedient to His earthly parents, and His earthly parents are described as righteous, pure, just, chaste, and faithful. They were obedient to God above all else, just as we should strive to be in our own families.
I find it incredible, beautiful, and humbling that God chooses to sanctify us through families – our own and those around us and throughout the centuries. For better or worse, the Domestic Church is where we get our first exposure to theology, so it is incredibly important that we strive our best each day, with God’s grace, to follow the Holy Family’s footsteps. A great place to start is by consecrating your family to the Holy Family on this feast day, or asking for a special family blessing following Mass! If you don’t already have one, find a picture or holy card depicting the Holy Family and place it somewhere prominent in your home to serve as a daily reminder that our families are our paths to Heaven.
St. John the Evangelist
The second Comites Christi is St. John the Evangelist, referred to in the Gospels as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” St. John was the brother of St. James, a fisherman by trade, and a disciple of St. John the Baptist. He is the author of the Gospel of John as well as the three Letters of John included in the New Testament. When Jesus was crucified and the other male disciples fled in fear, St. John remained at the foot of the cross with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, and he was also the first of the Twelve to make it to the empty tomb (although he waited for St. Peter to enter first). It was to St. John that Jesus entrusted His mother at His death.
By tradition, he was the only apostle to die of natural causes, although not for lack of trying by his enemies. He was boiled in oil, drank a cup of poisoned wine, and exiled to the Island of Patmos by the Roman Emperor Domitian, where he remained, evangelizing the faithful until his death.
Today, bring a bottle of wine to mass and have it blessed by the priest, in remembrance of the poisoned wine that St. John survived! If you can’t get it blessed by a priest, you can have the head of the household bless it. At dinner, the head of the household toasts the person to his right, saying “I give you the love of St. John.” He takes a sip, and passes it to the next person, who takes a sip and toasts the person to their right, until everyone at the table has been properly toasted.
December 28 – The Holy Innocents
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is a particularly somber feast, and together the Holy Innocents make up the third Comites Christi.
When the Maji from the East brought news to King Herod of the birth of a new king foretold by a star, Herod ordered the Wise Men to visit the infant king and then return to him to let him know where the child was located so that Herod, too, could go and worship him. Warned in a dream that Herod sought only to kill the child, the Wise Men returned to their home country by another route after bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. Enraged, Herod retaliated by ordering all the male children two and under in Jerusalem to be slain. St. Joseph was also warned in a dream of Herod’s wicked intentions, and he was able to escape with the Holy Family to Egypt, where they remained in exile for several years.
It’s hard not to see the parallels to abortion in this feast day, when so many children in our own day and age are sacrificed on the altars of egoism in the name of advancing careers, education, other relationships, or protecting a certain lifestyle. Today, pray for all those affected by or considering abortion: the men, women, and children. Pray for those who work in the pro-life movement, and consider donating or finding ways to volunteer at your local crisis pregnancy center in the New Year.
You can also read the account of the Holy Innocents in Matthew, Chapter 2 and listen to the hauntingly beautiful Coventry Carol – a 15th century Christmas song sung by a mother to her baby who is about to be murdered by Herod’s men. While today’s feast is difficult to discuss with children, it serves as an opening to explain that in His infinite wisdom, God still allows horrible evil to happen. This does not make God bad or weak, it is simply a consequence of the gift of free will. So many people who leave the Church do so over the “problem of suffering.” By engaging this “problem” head on and discussing it frankly with your family, you can help set them up to better understand (and withstand with Christ!) the inevitable future blows of life.
December 29 – St. Thomas a Becket
We wrap up December with the Feast of St. Thomas a Becket. Thomas was born in 1118 and served as the Archbishop of Canterbury at the appointment of his friend, King Henry II. Thomas warned Henry that as Archbishop, he would have to put the Church first and possibly not give in to all of Henry’s intrusions into Church affairs.
Troubles began shortly after Thomas’s appointment, and though Thomas wavered at one point and attempted compromise, he eventually fully rejected Henry’s attempts to usurp Church authority by denying clergy the right to a trial by a Church court and making direct appeals to Rome. He fled to France for safety, where he lived in exile for seven years. He eventually returned to England and censored bishops who sided with the King over the Church. Henry, in a rage, reportedly cried out, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?!” Four knights took him at his word and slew Thomas in his own cathedral. It is said Thomas met the bravely and opened the door himself to let them in rather than cower in fear.
My middle son’s name is Beckett, so this is his name day feast, and he gets to pick what’s for dinner. Today is also a great day to talk about courage. While we are not likely to be martyred, we will be challenged in our faith by secular culture, oftentimes by those we deem to be friends. I pray often that my children will be graced with both wisdom and courage, so that when the time comes and they are challenged, they will stand firm in their faith, just as St. Thomas a Becket did.