9 Catholic traditions that highlight the Christmas season
NEW YORK — Christmas is more than just Santa Claus, bright lights and presents. For Christians, the season, marked by the start of Advent, begins a period that culminates with the birth of Jesus. While Christians of many denominations observe this period, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the four weeks preceding Christmas with many special observances in order to prepare for the coming of Christ. This time of year is regularly referred to as “the holidays” when they’re really holy days.
The Latin word adventus is a translation of the Greek parousia, a term used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. While it is unknown when the period of Advent first began, historians believe it came into existence around the year 480. It was formally introduced by the Council of Tours in 567 as an edict to order monks to fast every day for most of December leading up to Christmas Day.
For centuries, the Catholic Church has begun the season of Advent on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Fasting is not observed — unlike in the Eastern rite — and no canonical penalty has ever been imposed by papal decree for neglecting Advent. In 1963, the Second Vatican Council introduced minor changes to Advent, emphasizing it as a season of promise of Christ’s return.
“We Christians are called to safeguard and spread the joy of waiting,” Pope Francis said on Saturday in an address at the Vatican. “We await God who loves is infinitely and at the same time we are awaited by Him. In this way, life becomes a great betrothal.”
Advent begins a period that features several notable feast days on the liturgical calendar. The Christmas season as a whole stretches into early January with the Feast of the Epiphany. Below are nine traditions that Catholics celebrate to mark this very special time of year.
Primarily a Lutheran tradition (like the Advent calendar) borrowed from a pagan custom, it symbolizes the passage of the four weeks of Advent in the Western church. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches in Germany towards the end of the 19th century. Roman Catholics began to adopt the custom in the 1920s. Within a decade, its use spread to North America.
Also known as a creche, this tradition dates back to Saint Francis of Assisi, who is credited with with creating the first live nativity scene in 1223 as a way to make public worship of Jesus part of the Christmas season. The recreation of the birth of Christ, featuring people dressed as Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, was meant to bring the Bible to life for a population of believers who were not literate. The use of small figures and elaborate displays was perfected during the 1700s in Naples, Italy. These recreations are featured in churches and homes around the world to this day. Typically the manger is kept empty and only filled with the baby Jesus on Christmas Day.
Feast of Saint Nicholas
Observed in most countries on December 6, this feast day is meant to celebrate the man who is the precursor to Santa Claus. The day takes on different manifestations depending on the country, but often is an excuse for exchanging presents. The notion of Santa Claus comes from this story. Indeed, the tradition is an homage to this early Christian bishop from the fourth century who had a reputation for secret gift-giving. Born in modern-day Turkey, the remains of Saint Nicholas, a man revered by Catholics as well as the Orthodox, are now enshrined in Bari, Italy. He is also the patron saint of Greece.
December 8 is the day Catholics celebrate the belief in the pure conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Known as the Immaculate Conception, this day is one of the most important Marian feasts on the liturgical calendar and is celebrated by Catholics around the world. It is generally considered a day to spend time with your family and one in which Catholics are obligated to attend mass. Should the day fall on a Sunday, it is celebrated the following day. Several countries are under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception by papal decree, including the United States.
Feast of Saint Lucy
Celebrated on December 13, the feast day of Saint Lucy marks the life of this virgin martyr killed by the Romans. Executed in Sicily in 304, her veneration quickly spread across Europe. A number of traditions incorporate symbolic meaning to her as the bearer of light in the darkness of winter. Since some versions of her story recall that her eyes were removed by her executioners, Saint Lucy is the patron saint of the blind.
The day before Christmas is widely observed as a full or partial holiday in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Celebrations throughout Christendom have a tradition of starting on the evening of December 24 due in large part to the liturgical day starting at sunset the previous day, a practice inherited from the Jewish tradition of marking the sabbath.
Catholics, as well as some Protestant denominations, celebrate mass at midnight. The ceremony, held in churches throughout the world, celebrates the birth of Christ, widely believed to have occurred at night. While Catholic families throughout the world celebrate a Christmas Eve meal with various meats, many Italians celebrate by eating fish. It is a tradition that Italian immigrants have taken with them around the world starting in the early 20th century.
The annual day commemorating the birth of Jesus is celebrated by all Christians who adhere to the Gregorian calendar. It is commonly celebrated by exchanging gifts and spending time with family.
Although the date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, several factors contributed to the choice of December 25. Most notably, it was the day of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. Saint Augustine, in his writings, said the date chosen to remember the birth of Jesus was “on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”
Feast of Saint Stephen
The day is set aside to remember the first Christian martyr and used to extend the Christmas holiday. Celebrated by Catholics on December 26, it is considered a holiday in much of Europe. A deacon of the early church who lived in the first century, Saint Stephen aroused the ire of rabbinical authorities for his teachings. Accused by them of blasphemy, he delivered a speech denouncing Jewish authorities in Jerusalem who sat in judgment of him. The Book of Acts chronicles that Saint Stephen was stoned to death.
Solemnity of Mary
Jan. 1 not only marks the start of a new year, but is also a day Catholics attend mass. The feast is a celebration of Mary's motherhood and dates back to the early days of Christianity. In later centuries, Christians observed the circumcision of Jesus on that day, seven days after his birth as is customary in the Jewish tradition. In 1965, the Vatican set aside that practice and replaced it with the ancient tradition of dedicating the day to Mary.
Feast of the Epiphany
Also known as Three King’s Day, it marks the official end of the Christmas season for Catholics. It is a day where children throughout much of South America receive gifts. The holiday marks the adoration of the baby Jesus by the magi. In the Gospel of Matthew, the men found the child by following a star for 12 days that led them to Bethlehem. The men — Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar — presented Jesus with three symbolic gifts.
Those gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — are steeped in symbolism. The gold represents Jesus’ standing as “King of the Jews,” while frankincense manifests the divine nature of His existence. Myrrh, often used to embalm corpses in ancient times, is a symbol of Jesus’ mortality, a prelude to his death on Good Friday.