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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Reclaiming Our Holy Days: Putting Christ Back in Christmas

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Reclaiming Our Holy Days: Putting Christ Back in Christmas

Returning to the discussion of reclaiming our Catholic Holy Days. In a previous article, we covered the Advent Season which has substantially disappeared since Vatican II, at least in how it is observed in most Catholic homes.

 

Many Catholics today “deck their halls” well before Thanksgiving, which gives us some indication of how much has been lost. Can you imagine Muslims celebrating Ramadan a month early? It’s unthinkable, but only because most Muslims take their faith seriously.

And what about Christmas itself? For most Catholics today, it’s Santa Claus and Rudolph and that’s about it. Now, I’m not here to beat up on the jolly old elf. It’s just that in many ways, we’ve been had. The secularists have quite literally stolen our Holy Days. And now that we see where this was all heading from the very start—into Christless moral and spiritual chaos— perhaps now would be a good time to look back on what we’ve lost.

I suggest this not to impugn anyone else’s traditions, but rather to suggest Catholic alternatives that may have far greater appeal than many realize.

I suggest this not to impugn anyone else’s traditions, but rather to suggest Catholic alternatives that may have far greater appeal than many realize. And neither am I directing this only at those who have small children. All of us—together with clans united—can pitch in to help restore the old Catholic customs which are part of our birthright as baptized Catholics.

I make no judgment against you or yours. I merely invite you to consider the Catholic alternative.

I would also like to anticipate those predictable Grinches who every year insist that some of the old German Catholic Christmas customs date back to Martin Luther, and thus should be avoided like the plague.

Bah humbug!

I don’t doubt that Luther was moved by the old Christmas customs of his childhood, but let’s not fall for the old revisionist Black Legend that the man invented them, which he certainly did not. And neither did Queen Victoria “invent” the Christmas tree, though the custom was certainly popularized worldwide during her reign.

The actual roots of many of these Christmas customs date back to the pre-Christian period, and it’s no secret that many of them were simply Christianized after a given nation was baptized.

King Arthur and his knights, for example, would have held magnificent “Christ Masse” feasts, to include the Yule Log which each year was lit from a spark preserved from the previous year’s log according to the pre-Christian tradition.

The Christmas Tree hearkens back to the old Norse belief, which included worship of the Fir Tree. But with the arrival of Christianity, that belief was transformed into the Weihnachten or Christmas tree, used in the celebration of the Birth of Christ Who conquered paganism.

They would have cut Mistletoe, as well, just as the Druids did, only this time for the purpose of celebrating the Birth of Christ with everything from Mistletoe to Wassail to Christmas pudding and the spicy concoctions of fruit and ceremony that went back a thousand years into Norman, Saxon, Viking and ancient British origin.

So, no, Luther did not “invent” the Christmas Tree. In fact, the story of St. Boniface famously cutting down Thor’s Oak Tree, worshipped by Germanic pagans, more or less proves this. But Boniface took the wood of that tree and used it to build a church on the same spot, dedicated to Saint Peter.

In other words, he Christianized the pagan tree.

The Christmas Tree hearkens back to the old Norse belief, which included worship of the Fir Tree. But with the arrival of Christianity, that belief was transformed into the Weihnachten or Christmas tree, used in the celebration of the Birth of Christ Who conquered paganism. In Germany it was the “Tannenbaum”, and it became a Catholic custom long before a constipated Martin Luther was pondering the meaning of life from the seat of his famous toilet.

Germany certainly did “invent” the Christmas Tree tradition, which quickly came to include the “Lowly Stable” placed beneath the green branches of the Tannenbaum in each and every home, yet another reminder of Christ’s victory over paganism.

In the old German Christmas tradition, Santa Claus (or Saint Nicholas) was not the gift giver. Known as Christkind or Christkindl (pronounced Kris Kint), it was the “Christ Child” Himself Who came on Christmas Eve. And this custom eventually spread to Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the eastern part of Belgium, Portugal, Slovakia, Hungary, parts of northeastern France, Poland, parts of South America, certain areas of southern Brazil, and in the Acadiana region of Louisiana.

Given the ongoing globalist war on all things Christian today, perhaps it’s time to “reset” and reclaim the Christmas Holy Day in accordance with our rich Catholic heritage. It’s a great way to solidify the faith of Children in the reality of the Incarnation.

Italy’s version of Christkind is Gesù Bambino, of course, and in Portuguese it was Menino Jesus (“Jesus Boy”), in Hungarian Jézuska (“Little Jesus”), in Slovak Ježiško (“Little Jesus”), in Czech Ježíšek (“Little Jesus”), in Latin America Niño Dios (“God Child”) or Niño Jesús (“Jesus Child”) and in Croatian Isusić or Isusek (“Little Jesus”), in Upper Silesia in Poland Dzieciątko (“little baby”).

This Christkind tradition was handed down to my father from his father, and it centered on two principal elements: The Christkind and Midnight Mass.

Given the ongoing globalist war on all things Christian today, perhaps it’s time to “reset” and reclaim the Christmas Holy Day in accordance with our rich Catholic heritage. It’s a great way to solidify the faith of Children in the reality of the Incarnation.

I first started writing about the Christkind tradition 25 years ago when my own children were babies. Today four of my seven children are grown, and I can honestly say that they appreciate the old tradition as much now as adults and college graduates as they did as children. Why? Because the beautiful old custom helped them keep the old Faith. It’s as simple as that! They are all traditional Catholics to this day, and I truly believe that Christmas with the Christkind helped make that happen.

They spent their first Advents preparing for Him to come into their home. He was as real to them then as He is today. His midnight visit on Christmas Eve was the highpoint of their year. And most importantly, as they look back on Christmases past, they can see how profoundly Catholic it was.

There is nothing artificial about it. In fact, their faith in Christkind naturally transformed itself into belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, which is the true meaning of Christmas. As adults, it all becomes one.

The Christkind Tradition 

It starts on the first Sunday of Advent, when the youngest children dust off the little “straw box” (a cigar box, on which was pasted images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph many years before), and set it on the mantle next to the Advent Calendar.

In our tradition, He even brought the Christmas tree. So, when we went to sleep on December 23, there was no tree in the living room, no lights, no decorations. The Baby Jesus transformed the room while we slept.

Then out the door they go in search of straw or something equivalent to be cut into 4-inch lengths and piled next to the ‘straw box’, the idea being to spend Advent doing acts of kindness and abstaining from treats in exchange for pieces of straw to be laid in the family Nativity scene on Christmas night. This way the Baby Jesus would be sure to have a softer bed in His manger.

Under the rules of the old custom, the practice of virtue was an essential part of a child’s preparation for Christmas. Before each evening meal, the lights in the dining room would be turned off while Advent Wreath candles were lit. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is sung in the darkness of flickering candlelight.

Gradually, the four weeks of Advent would pass, as the empty manger filled with straw. Preparing the soul was as important as preparing the house for when Baby Jesus would come.

On the evening of December 23rd, a curtain was hung over the doorway that leads to the living room which, if that straw box were adequately filled, would be transformed into the “Christmas room” by Baby Jesus Himself in the middle of the night.

In our tradition, He even brought the Christmas tree. So, when we went to sleep on December 23, there was no tree in the living room, no lights, no decorations. The Baby Jesus transformed the room while we slept.

And then on Christmas Eve morning, nobody dared go near the curtained doorway to the living room, lest the temptation to “peek” should prove too much. If anyone succumbed to the temptation, they risked the instant disappearance of whatever Christkind may have brought.

Even the 24th of December, then, was an interminable day of penitential waiting, as the last few hours of Advent droned on.

And you know what? There is nothing fake about any of this. It was a prayer and a procession and a ritual commemoration of everything that matters in this life.

After a day of chores and house cleaning, the family gathers in the back room to sing Christmas carols by candlelight and listen as Mother read aloud the familiar narrative: “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…”

This is when Father enters the “Christmas room” to take down the curtain and see to the final arrangements. Once his mysterious tasks are completed, he makes the announcement for which the children have been waiting all Advent long: “Come children, Christkind has come.”

And then there’s the traditional candlelit and solemn procession from the back room to the living room, singing the old German carol: Ihr Kinderlein, kommet, O kommet doch all! Zur Krippe her kommet in Bethlehems Stall.

The house is in total darkness, apart from the light of a single candle which the lead child processes into the living room, to set before the darkened creche.  The light of Christ in the darkness—this is how the Christmas Eve celebration begins.

Now we kneel in front of the nativity scene, each child having carefully placed his crib figure properly into the crèche. It’s always the youngest who gets the honor of laying the Baby in His manger of fresh straw. The stage is set, but the tree is still dark, as is the room, apart from the manger scene whose little shepherds and friendly beasts are illuminated by the flickering flame of the lone candle.

Prayers are said, Christmas carols sung, and deceased family members remembered. Each child is asked if he or she would like to pray for some special intention, as prayers are answered best on Christmas Eve.

We knew that Christkind was real because our father and mother were kneeling on the floor before the miniature manger… praying to Him. They were either insane or they truly believed, and my father and mother were decidedly sane.

The family is quietly uniting itself in love and memories and, yes, belief in the Holy Family and the little Baby lying in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

And when all is said, prayed, and done, “Happy Birthday” is sung by all, with one little edit: “God’s blessings on us.” And then the Christmas lights are turned up, revealing the unwrapped presents under the tree, placed there by Baby Jesus Himself (with the help of his able assistant, of course, the mysterious Knecht Ruprecht, travel companion of both St. Nicholas and the Baby).

And now the celebration of Christmas begins in earnest.

And you know what? There is nothing fake about any of this. It was a prayer and a procession and a ritual commemoration of everything that matters in this life.

I can still remember my own father’s voice in the darkness of Christmas Eve, explaining to us Who the Baby is, what He expects of us, and what it means to be Catholic. That was fifty years ago, but I have never forgotten how much my father believed in Baby Jesus.

We knew that Christkind was real because our father and mother were kneeling on the floor before the miniature manger… praying to Him. They were either insane or they truly believed, and my father and mother were decidedly sane.

There is no deceit in the Christkind custom because there is no deceit in the Christkind. He really does come down to earth on Christmas Eve; His providence provides for everything we need in this life (including electric trains and dolls when we are children); He exists as surely as we do.

We knew Christkind was real because later that night our father would pile all nine of us into the station wagon and brave snow and freezing temperatures to take us to receive Him at Midnight Mass.

There is no deceit in the Christkind custom because there is no deceit in the Christkind. He really does come down to earth on Christmas Eve; His providence provides for everything we need in this life (including electric trains and dolls when we are children); He exists as surely as we do.

He was born, He has a mother whom we know and love, and He still comes to us at Mass—Christ’s Mass. He comes to us at Christmas. He really does!

Let’s reclaim Christmas this year, dear friends. Let’s make it ours again by making it Catholic again.

Let’s leave Macy’s behind and let’s go back to Bethlehem. Let’s make ourselves better Catholics by making our Holy Days more Catholic once again.

Happy Advent to one and all. 

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Michael J. Matt | Editor

Michael J. Matt has been an editor of The Remnant since 1990. Since 1994, he has been the newspaper's editor. A graduate of Christendom College, Michael Matt has written hundreds of articles on the state of the Church and the modern world. He is the host of The Remnant Underground and Remnant TV's The Remnant Forum. He's been U.S. Coordinator for Notre Dame de Chrétienté in Paris--the organization responsible for the Pentecost Pilgrimage to Chartres, France--since 2000.  Mr. Matt has led the U.S. contingent on the Pilgrimage to Chartres for the last 24 years. He is a lecturer for the Roman Forum's Summer Symposium in Gardone Riviera, Italy. He is the author of Christian Fables, Legends of Christmas and Gods of Wasteland (Fifty Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll) and regularly delivers addresses and conferences to Catholic groups about the Mass, home-schooling, and the culture question. Together with his wife, Carol Lynn and their seven children, Mr. Matt currently resides in St. Paul, Minnesota.