Or, a beginner's guide to celebrating Christmas with the Church.
In America, Christmas begins the day after Thanksgiving and ends promptly after all the presents have been ripped open on Christmas afternoon. Trees come down, Valentine's decorations come up, and life goes on. As a child, the last present on Christmas day was bittersweet; with that gift, Christmas would be over. December 25th marked the end of the Christmas season -- not the beginning.
The Church celebrates Christmas so differently that coming into such a rich tradition has been both challenging and fulfilling in so many ways. Instead of busting out the Christmas CD's and going full-blown Christmas on everyone in November, we quietly and patiently observe Advent. This is a season of joyful anticipation that takes place on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas day. It's a special season of its own, with decorations, activities, and tradition -- all a reminder that it's almost Christmas (!!!!)... but not quite yet. We put out our nativities but keep Jesus in a separate place; we are preparing the way for our Lord, reflecting the anticipation of Mary as she awaited his birth. It's also fun to put a special emphasis on celebrating the feast days that occur during Advent, like St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6th), the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8th), and Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12th).
Then, after waiting and waiting and waiting, Christmas Eve is finally here! This is the beginning of the liturgical season of Christmas. Most people attend vigil Masses on the night of Christmas Eve or Mass on Christmas day, but we like to stay up way too late and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. After that, the party begins! We celebrate Christmas all the way through (a few days past) Epiphany, the celebration of when the Magi visited Christ.
On the Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord which marks the official end of Christmas. The USCCB explains, "The liturgical season of Christmas begins with the vigil Masses on Christmas Eve and concludes on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord." This is the point where most Catholics take down their Christmas decorations and we enter into Ordinary Time. If you want to be super traditional (and according to Vatican II, you don't have to be, but it might be fun) you can celebrate "Christmastide" -- a traditional Christmas of 40 days! Catholic Answers writer Christopher Check wrote an article titled "Catholics! Keep Your Trees Up!" in which he said, "And if you want to be really traditional, you can celebrate what the faithful called “Christmastide” before the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council. In the old rite, or what we today call the Extraordinary Form, Christmastide lasted for 40 days to correspond with the 40 days of Lent, and the 40 days from Easter to Ascension Thursday."
So even though we tend to sit out from most of the holiday festivities going on mid-December, we make up for it with a crazy long, rich with tradition, meaningful Christmas that goes on long after most Christmas decorations have already been put away. We're coming up on our second anniversary of our confirmation into the Catholic Church, and while we've learned so much about celebrating and following the liturgical calendar, it all still feels so new, exciting, and kind of overwhelming! But mostly exciting. ;)
So that's how we do things around here. How do YOU celebrate Christmas?