Celebrating Advent & Christmas: A Sourcebook

Author: Women for Faith and Family

The following are excerpts from:




The Advent Wreath Collects

Counting Down to Christmas Advent Calendars The Jesse Tree The O Antiphon House The O Antiphons

The Creche and Christmas Crib

Origins of Christmas Customs The Christmas Mass The Christmas Tree Christmas Cards Santa Claus Christmas Greenery The Christmas Feast Mealtime Prayers

Christmas Novena

The Hymns and Carols

Feast Days and Holy Days


A Word of Introduction.

Pope John Paul II has repeatedly referred to the family as the "Domestic Church." In his exhortation on the family, "Familiaris Consortio," the Pope refers to the home as 'the little Church,' and speaks of the way families must make God present to each of its members (parents and children) and to the world. Each 'little Church' must radiate the life- giving power of Faith, the courage and comfort of Hope, and the strength of generous, self-giving Love. For this is how we respond to Christ's command to evangelize--to bring the "good news" of Salvation to all the world.

In a society such as ours, where the family has been weakened by cultural forces which undermine and threaten its integrity almost daily, it is essential that we Christians accept our responsibility to make the liberating Truth of Christ known first of all to our own families. This is, in fact, our true vocation.

The liturgy of the Church, her "work" among us, is the principal means by which most us receive nourishment for our task as Christians. In times past, we know that the feasts and seasons of the Church year formed the basis for a "Christian culture"--a culture which is now all but lost. Modern civilization, for all its many benefits, seems to regard religious belief as "quaint" at best, but more often as a survival of ignorance and superstition which is an oppressive and dangerous threat to human freedom. It is up to us, who know the Lord and love His Church, to help correct this terrible error.

And that is where this booklet we have prepared for you comes in. Many parents are concerned about the excessive commercialism of the Christmas holiday season. Although giving and receiving of the Greatest Gift ever given to mankind makes gift-giving appropriate, we are only too conscious of the "media-hype" which almost totally obscures the reason for this activity. Most of us remember Christmas celebrations of our childhood as being high points of our young lives. We want to make the celebration of Our Saviour's birth important to our children, too--for the right reasons.

Several years ago a new "icon" appeared: a fat, jolly, gift-bearing American Santa Claus kneeling in prayerful adoration before the Baby Jesus. We can see a bit of irony in this image, of course--American commercialism paying homage to the Inspiration for all the buying and selling during the biggest merchandising season of the year. But the representation of Santa Claus, the beloved "Saint Nick" of our childhood, as actually worshiping Christ is also a surprisingly novel and rather touching attempt to "re- Christianize" what has become an essentially secular "saint."

There is no lack of truly Christian symbols, however. Many traditions connected with observances of Christmas have their origins in Christian, not pagan, culture, despite what we often read. Our heritage of holiday traditions learned from our families which we faithfully continue to practice in our homes for our own children helps to "connect" both the past and the future. We can make this vital link even stronger when such practices are informed by vigorous faith which most of us also received, by the Grace of God, through our families.

We have collected here information about Advent and Christmas customs from many cultural traditions. We have included historical notes, prayers and instructions for making truly Christian celebrations in your own 'little Church', and we hope you will find these ideas useful. We also invite you to make suggestions for inclusion in a future edition of this booklet. Because America has been and continues to be, indeed, the "melting pot" for an immensely rich variety of cultures and ethnic groups (most American families today are a true blend of several distinct cultures), it seemed to us appropriate to introduce this collection to you on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Patronal Feast of our nation. May you and your family ever grow in the knowledge and love of God and His Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ. This Christmas and always, may "God bless us, every one."

WOMEN FOR FAITH & FAMILY Feast of the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1989


The custom of using Advent wreaths in homes has increased during the past couple of decades, although they have been used in churches in Europe for many generations. The wreath's symbolism of the Advent of Light into the world by Our Lord's birth is clear. The gradual lighting of the wreath, one candle each week of Advent, combined with the liturgical colors of the candles (purple is the penitential color used during Advent and Lent; rose is used only on Gaudete Sunday in Advent and Laetare Sunday in Lent) help to symbolize not only our expectation and joyful hope in Our Lord's first Advent, but also in his Second Coming. During this season we prepare our hearts and our homes to celebrate His birth into our world, of course, but especially to receive Him in preparation for our redemption....


The Advent calendar or Adventhaus began in Scandanavia and Germany, especially in the regions of the Palatinate and Hesse. Its purpose is to help children become aware of the expectancy of Advent. Sometimes the Advent calendar is a picture of a house with 23 small windows and 1 large window that are opened to reveal the tiny religious symbols, icons and pictures behind them. Another variation is to construct a Jacob's Ladder that leads step by step to the day of Christ's birth.

Every morning or every evening before bedtime, the child opens a window, behind which appears a star, an angel, a manger or some other picture appropriate to the Advent season. (If there are several children in the family, the privilege of opening the windows rotates from one to another.) An appropriate bible verse can serve as a caption to the picture. On the 23rd, all twenty-three small windows are open; the big window remains closed until Christmas Eve, when it is opened to reveal the Holy Child in the manger. When all the windows are opened, stand the calendar in from of a lamp or window. The light will shine through the paper, giving the little house a Christmas glow.....


The symbolism of the Jesse tree is based on the renowned prophecy of Isaiah: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of this root. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness." The rod was taken to represent the Virgin Mary and the flower to stand for Christ Himself....

Some examples of ornaments to be hung on the Jesse Tree are the Dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit and of Wisdom; the Burning Bush, the symbol of God the Father who gave Moses and the Jews the law on Mount Sinai; the Root of Jesse, symbol of Christ's kingly ancestry; the Key of David and Scepter, symbolizing Christ's Kingship; the Tablets, symbol of the Old Law and the cornerstone of the New Law in Christ; and the Sun in the Manger, symbol of Christ our Savior.

During each evening in Advent, a family member places a Jesse Tree ornament on the Tree and explains its significance to the rest of the family. The Jesse Tree itself can be a small three or four foot tree apart from the family's larger Christmas tree.


The use of the crib (French creche; Italian praesepio; German krippe) is often first ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi, who is 1223 celebrated the Feast of the Nativity in a new way that helped the Church establish a new devotional practice....

Another custom that evolved from the creche is the Preparation of the Manger. The custom originated in France but spread to Germany and other European countries. It is the practice of having children prepare a soft bedding in the manger by using little wisps of straw as tokens of prayers and good works. Every night the child is allowed to put in the crib one straw for each act of devotion or virtue performed throughout the day. Thus when the Christ Child comes on Christmas Eve he will find plenty of straw to keep him warm and to soften the hardness of the manger's boards....


Despite many historians' attempts to link the Christmas tree to an ancient pagan practice, it is completely Christian in origin. The Christmas tree goes back to the medieval German mystery plays....

Family Prayers for the Christmas Season....


In Central and South America, the nine days before Christmas are devoted to a popular novena in honor of the Holy Child (La Novena del Nino.) In the decorated church, the crib is ready; the only figure missing is that of the Child, since the manger is always kept empty until the Holy Night. The novena service consists of prayers and carol singing accompanied by popular instruments of the castanet type.

In Central Europe the nine days before Christmas are kept in many places as a festive season. Since most of the religious observances were held after dark or before sunrise, people began to call this season the "Golden Nights." In the Alpine region, it is the custom to take a picture of the blessed Virgin from house to house on these nine evenings. Every night the family gathers before the image, which stands on a table between flowers and burning candles. There they pray and sing hymns in honor of Our Lady the Expectant Mother. (Francis X. Weisner, "Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs." New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958, p. 56- 57)....

The "O Antiphons"

The theme of the Advent season has been one of joyous expectancy as the Church, in vigilant preparation, waited and watched for the first signs of the coming of the Lord. The very name Advent, and the Masses of the four Sundays, with their urgent plea to Christ to "hasten and delay not" have reminded us that we are awaiting His coming in grace at Christmas, and in glory at the end of time....


The first hymns in honor of the Nativity were written in the fifth century, soon after Christmas was fully established as one of the great annual feasts. These Latin hymns were solemn, dwelling exclusively on the supernatural aspects of Christmas. A few of the best known early Latin hymns are:...


The pantheon of Holy men and women whose feasts fall during Advent and Christmas contains some of our best loved saints. Celebrating theses feasts in a special way is fitting during these festive seasons of anticipation and joy. Celebrating St. Nicholas Day reminds the family of the holy origins of Christmas gift-giving, and paying special attention to the traditional feast day celebrations that are central parts of the season in some cultures is an excellent way to keep the family ever mindful of the true meaning of Christmas....


Copyright 1989 by Women for Faith & Family, PO Box 300411 St. Louis, MO 63130-0261