Trimming the tree. Baking cookies. Hanging out the stockings. Sending greetings. Welcoming visitors. Wrapping presents. Singing carols… The list of Christmas activities goes on and on. Some of these traditions have been part of my celebration of the holidays for as long as I can remember. Others, like sending cards, are off and on again activities, depending on my store of time and energy. Some endure year after year because “it just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”
The Christmas tree seems to be one of those traditions. Trimming the tree is a great opportunity in which to recall memories and to cherish the people in my life. I inherited some of our ornaments from my mother, who loved Christmas above all other seasons of the year. A good deal more were gifts from her and from other members of my family. A cherished few were made by my children when they were small while others were picked up on travels with Ron over the years. A family Christmas tree tells a profound story.
In the O Antiphons – the prayers that celebrate the Octave of Christmas (December 17-24) – I particularly love the reference to the “Root of Jesse.” It refers to the lineage of Jesus, which stretches back to King David and his father, Jesse. Since this antiphon falls on my father’s birthday (December 19), it brings to mind the importance of ancestral heritage. While the Christmas tree in our living room is no longer attached to the earth, it still retains a semblance of roots that stretch back into my family history. Plugging in the lights each evening is a delight as they illuminate the space around us with warmth and color. After the Christmas season comes to an end on January 13th, I will pack away the ornaments with the hope that I will live to celebrate the season when it comes round again and that, in the meantime, the roots of my faith will continue to grow and to anchor themselves in both memory and promise. In such a way, the tree has come to represent Christmas past, present, and future. No wonder it’s a tradition I hold sacred.
Initiate a conversation with your family or class about your favorite holiday traditions. How do they bring together a sense of past, present, and future?
Learn more about the season of Christmas and consider how you will extend the celebration of this sacred season past December 25th.
Download my “Prayer of Christmas Past, Present, and Future” and use it in your home or parish as a way to celebrate the season of Christmas.
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This Sunday we light the odd candle on the Advent wreath. Long before pink became a symbol of breast cancer awareness, it took prominence in the third week of Advent as a sign of joy. “Guadete” (meaning “rejoice”) Sunday marks the halfway point on our Advent journey. Paul’s letter to the Philippians encapsulates the joy that marks our faith in God’s eternal love and mercy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).
Joy, like hope, is often mistaken for something it is not. It doesn’t equate with happiness or excitement, both of which can come in short bursts and flame out as quickly as they emerge. Joy is deep-rooted and grounded in an interior sense of well-being. It often emerges at unexpected times and in unusual ways. Paul was witness to this. He was able to encourage his followers to rejoice even though he had been subject to humiliation, rejection, intimidation, and incarceration. He gives witness to Phillip Neri’s observation that there is no such thing as a sad saint.
Much as we banter around the word during the holidays, true joy seems to be in short supply as we rush around trying to put every Christmas tradition in order. Nevertheless, it seems that the simplest things bring the most joy. When our children were small, we let them take down their stockings first thing on Christmas morning. While they loved the unwrapping of presents from under the tree, it was the little trinkets and pieces of candy they found in their stockings that brought the greatest squeals of delight.
As the pink candle sheds additional light on this Advent season, perhaps it can caution us against being killjoys. Might we, in the words of the prophet, share with each other the “oil of gladness” (Isaiah 61:3)? By bringing comfort, compassion, and companionship to all of our holiday activities we infuse each one with joy. In the process, we might reclaim a child-like delight in simple gifts that express our love and happiness at being beloved by a God of infinite joy.
Take an inventory of your holiday traditions. Which ones bring joy? Which ones have become a burden? How might you increase your level of rejoicing this Advent?
The Octave of Advent and tradition of praying the “O Antiphons” begins on December 19th. Plan a time to pray these prayers and to spend time in reflection or discussion with your family or class.
Download my “Joy to the World” prayer and use it in your home or parish.
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The O Antiphons, a tradition of prayer that marks the Octave of Advent, provide a beautiful framework for reflection in the week preceding Christmas. As holiday activities, ramp up, they provide a respite in the midst of the day to consider different aspects of this sacred season.
Download my reflections on the “O Antiphons” and incorporate them into your personal reflections, as well as into your family or class activities. These seven cards can be used on a day-to-day basis throughout the Octave of Advent!
My favorite season of the year is approaching. Setting out familiar symbols puts me in the mood for a time of joyous expectation. Advent is about to begin.
Years ago I started a practice of beginning each day in Advent with natural light. Since I generally rise an hour or so before dawn, this means making my way downstairs in the dark and fumbling around for a fire starter. Then I light a candle on the Advent wreath. Its warm glow illuminates the room and creates a mood that lingers well into the morning. As the weeks wear on, the light accumulates as more candles are lit. All of it culminates with the bright feast of Christmas.
This Advent I am offering a retreat on the Infancy Narratives, so I have been immersed in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each provides an entirely different picture of that long-ago time. Luke’s portrait includes angels proclaiming astounding news to a young maiden and to shepherds in a field. It is filled with wonder, light, and exclamations of praise from expectants parents, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zacharias. Matthew paints his story with darker hues. Joseph takes center stage as he is awoken from sleep to be told where to go and what to do in order to take his part in this mysterious story of redemption. Herod’s bloody rampage is shocking even by today’s standards of violence and brings into focus the dangerous times into which Jesus was born.
John’s Gospel begins in different fashion. There is no manger scene, shepherds or wise men following a midnight star. In place of an infancy narrative there is an ancient song extolling Jesus as the incarnate Word of God and light of humanity. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4). Perhaps it is this image that brings such comfort as I ignite the Advent wreath in the early morning darkness. It reminds me of the light that Jesus brings in the midst of all distress and despair, agony and anxiety, confusion and chaos. The great mystic, Julian of Norwich, wrote about a vision of God telling her all would be well. This was not a promise of a life without labors, disquiet, or troubles. Rather, God told her, “You will not be overcome” (Showings, 315). Advent’s light is a beacon of hope and a call to trust in the presence of Christ’s love shining in the midst of our darkest days.
Find resource ideas and information about celebrating the season of Advent with your family or class by clicking here.
Download my “Prayers for Lighting the Advent Wreath” and use it in your home or parish.
photo © iStockphoto
The candy cane is a treat often associated with Saint Nicholas, the patron and protector of children. Its distinctive shape is attributed to a 17th century German choirmaster, who bent the candy into the form of a shepherd’s staff and gave it to children attending church services. The crook symbolizes the gentle image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. As shepherd of his people, a bishop carries a hook-shaped staff called a crosier. Since Saint Nicholas was also a bishop, the candy cane serves as a perfect symbol for this patron and protector of children.
Download your Saint Nicholas Day Blessing of Candy Canes prayer cards today!
*Download includes both English & Spanish translations
Bring your parish together for an Advent event that includes prayer, faith-sharing, and ideas for marking this sacred time of year.
Each Gather In My Name event focuses on a particular seasonal theme, one developed through prayer, presentation, discussion, interaction, and print and Internet resources. The Advent: A Time of Watching and Waiting event contains:
A Leader's Guide with a step-by-step outline of the session
A handy preparation chart serves as a checklist for assembling materials and resources
Handouts and templates are provided for use before, during, and after the event
This advent event also has two options available depending on group configurations. Pick the one that best suits the size, needs and interest of your parish or school!
For a fully multigenerational event, choose Option 1. It gathers together children, youth, and adults for prayer, sharing, and learning about an aspect of our faith. Use this option as a way to build upon the corresponding seasonal chapter about Advent in We Believe.
Click here to access the handouts for Option 1!
For a multigenerational event with age level breakouts, choose Option 2. Children, youth, and adults gather for an opening icebreaker and prayer service and then break into grade level or cluster groups. The entire assembly reconvenes for a closing prayer. Use this option with the grade level groups as a way to draw upon the corresponding seasonal chapters about Advent in the We Believe program within the context of the whole community. Use this option with cluster groups when there are not enough children registered for Gather in My Name to form grade level groups.
Click here to access the handout for Option 2!
Each year, decorating the Christmas tree is an occasion for storytelling in our family. The ornaments are the trigger. Some date back to my childhood and before, so they offer an opportunity to relate stories about my parents and grandparents. Others were hand-made during the early years of our marriage. Ron was in the Coast Guard at the time and, on the nights he had to be at the base, I used my free time to paint or crochet bells, stars, and angels. Others were made by our children when they were in pre-school or accumulated during our family travels. Each ornament has a memory attached to it, ones that seem to grow warmer with each year. In some ways, our Christmas tree tells the story of our family.
The liturgies we celebrate during the season of Christmas tell our story as a Christian family. The late Henri Nouwen described it as the fulfillment of our greatest expectations, the birth of God into a world in agony. The simple birth of a child in a faraway time and place is a story some of us have heard hundreds of times, yet it never loses its poignancy. Humble shepherds from nearby fields and noted astrologers from exotic lands both come to pay homage to the Holy Child, Emmanuel – “God with us”. Could there be a better story to tell this and every Christmas?
As Advent passes its mid-point, the anticipation for Christmas grows. Some watch, with justifiable alarm, the ramping up of the season as one of commercialism, completely devoid of its original and sacred meaning. We can’t look to the media or the mall for our sacred stories, however. They are ones we tell around festive trees and holy tables where we come to share our story of hope and boundless joy. As you and your family go about your Christmas activities, may you re-discover that sacred story embedded in your own.
Engage children in the re-telling of the Christmas story. Use the figures in a crèche to illustrate each part of the story as you read it aloud with your family or class.
Download my blessing for a Christmas tree and use it as part of your home or class celebration.
Sunday, December 18th, is the Fourth Sunday of Advent! Plan to spend time this week reflecting on the readings and preparing to celebrate the Eucharist. Gather in My Name offers "Question of the Week" - a free resource to incorporate the Sunday Eucharist into your religion classes, family discussions, or community activities.
Question of the Week:
The angel reassures Mary. What reassurance does Christmas bring to you?
Reading 1 Reflection: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16
Reading 2 Reflection: Romans 16:25-27
Theme: Do not be afraid
Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
Looking for discussion Questions for the above Reading Reflections? Click here!
The “O Antiphons” are a tradition of prayer during a period of time known as the Octave of Advent. Thus, they begin on December 17th and continue through the 23rd. The seven antiphons are traditionally recited prior to the Magnificat during Vespers as part of the Liturgy of the Hours. The eighth day of the octave is Christmas Eve, so Vespers for that evening is the Christmas Vigil.
Most of us are familiar with the simple Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which forms the last of the seven O Antiphons. In like fashion, each of the preceding antiphons highlights a name of the Messiah. The “O” at the start of each gives them their unique title.
- O Wisdom…
- O Adonai…
- O Root of Jesse…
- O Key of David…
- O Rising Dawn…
- O King of Nations…
- O Emmanuel…
Even if not used as part of the Liturgy of the Hours, the O Antiphons provide a beautiful framework for reflection in the week preceding Christmas. As holiday activities, ramp up, they provide a respite in the midst of the day to consider different aspects of this sacred season. They also offer parents and catechists a way to help children turn their focus from Santa Claus to Jesus, thus restoring the real “reason for the season.”
Pay particular attention to the music being sung at church during Advent. What words of anticipation do you hear in them? Use this as an entrée for conversation with children to deepen their understanding of Advent.
Download my reflections on the “O Antiphons” and incorporate them into your personal reflections, as well as into your family or class activities. These seven cards that could be cut and used on a day-to-day basis throughout the Octave of Advent.
Our family first celebrated Saint Nicholas Day about twenty-five years ago. We gathered with a cherished circle of friends for a post-Thanksgiving meal that didn’t have anything to do – or so we thought – with Saint Nicholas. Our hostesses – two Franciscan sisters – gave each child a stocking filled with goodies. We sang carols, told stories, and laughed heartily. After repeating the celebration the following year, complete with stockings, it soon evolved into an annual tradition that began to fall around December 6th, feast of Saint Nicholas. Over the years we added new traditions and dropped others as the children all grew up and ventured out onto their own. A couple of the rituals endured, however. We always share a meal, and we join together in prayer that includes a Saint Nicholas Day blessing.
Legends of Saint Nicholas abound. One of the most famous involves the kindly saint leaving bags of gold on the doorstep of a poor family, thus providing the daughters with dowries so that they could marry. This was more than a matchmaking venture, but rather one that spared the impoverished girls from being sold into slavery.
The candy cane is a treat often associated with Saint Nicholas Day. Its distinctive shape is attributed to a 17th century German choirmaster, who bent the candy into the form of a shepherd’s staff and gave it to children attending church services. The crook symbolizes the gentle image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. As shepherd of his people, a bishop carries a hook-shaped staff called a crosier. Since Saint Nicholas was also a bishop, the candy cane serves as a perfect symbol for this patron and protector of children.
This Sunday, my husband, Ron, and I will gather once again with our friends for “St. Nick’s Day” – a celebration of friendship and love, joy and generosity. It’s a tradition we wouldn’t think of missing.
In the spirit of Saint Nicholas, involve your family or class in a Christmas project that provides gifts for children who live in impoverished circumstances. Remember the children each time you gather together to light the Advent wreath.
Engage your family or class in a discussion about favorite seasonal traditions. Which ones have endured over the years? What makes them special?
Celebrate Saint Nicholas Day with a blessing and sharing of candy canes. Download my complimentary Saint Nicholas Day Blessing of Candy Canes! Comes in both Spanish and English translations.