Each year Remnant readers express a little frustration with your old editor for not making known sooner some of the old-world Advent and Christmas traditions that were brought over from Europe by my grandfather and that our family still follow religiously every year. So, this year I'll try to be more timely, so that those who wish to introduce some of the more Catholic Christmas customs can do so.
The heart of the old-world Christmas celebration is not Santa Claus but rather the Christkind (pronounced kris-kint) tradition, or the Baby Jesus. You can read about that here. St. Nicholas, by the way, was a Catholic bishop. His feast day is celebrated on December 6. In our tradition, he comes to the house after dark on the 6th, pounds on the front door and then disappears, but not before leaving nuts and candies outside the door. He then lets the Baby Jesus dominate Christmas.
In preparation for His coming on Christmas Eve, the little children of the family set out the Advent calendar on the First Sunday of Advent, of course, but also the 'straw box', which is just a simple box covered in gold paper in which pieces of straw can be laid each time a child does some special act of kindness or makes a sacrifice during Advent.
The idea is to make a bed of straw for the Baby Jesus when He comes on Christmas, each good deed or virtuous act padding His manger.
The other crucial part of Advent happens at the dinner table each evening just before the family meal. The lights are lowered, the Advent wreath candle (s) is lit, grace is prayed, and then the St. Andrew Christmas Novena is prayed (five times at breakfast, five times at lunch, and five times at the evening meal). After it is prayed at the evening meal, the family sings O Come O Come Emmanuel.
This sacred ritual cannot be altered, tweaked or abridged in any way as far as children are concerned since it becomes too important to them and means Christmas is really coming. I can think of no better way of keeping Christ in Christmas than to begin observing these ancient Advent traditions starting today and then every day until Christmas Eve.
And don't forget that, while Advent isn't a penitential season, it is nevertheless often called the 'little Lent', and so children should be encouraged to offer up small sacrifices--no candy, no eating between meals, whatever, as yet another way of keeping in mind what Christmas is all about and how vital to the celebration of the Great Feast is the time of preparation.
And, finally, no Christmas tree comes into the house until the day before Christmas. Advent is Advent, and Christmas is Christmas, and they must be kept distinct and separate if they are to retain the truly Christocentric character. Christmas explodes with excitement and joy for the children ON CHRISTMAS--when Christ was actually born--and not three weeks before. The Catholic home is not lit with Christmas lights and trees during the dark time of waiting for the Messiah that Advent represents.
Here, then, is the Novena, which is prayed from November 30th (St. Andrew’s Feast Day) to December 24th, and which should include personal and private intentions for each child, as well as one main intention the entire family decides upon, perhaps for the country, or the Church, the pope, the poor--whatever.
St. Andrew Christmas Novena
Hail, and blessed be the hour and moment at which the Son of God was born of a most pure Virgin at a stable at midnight in Bethlehem in the piercing cold. At that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, to hear my prayers and grant my desires.
(Mention your intentions here)
Through Jesus Christ and His most Blessed Mother.
Traditionally, this prayer is prayed 15 times each day for the duration of the Novena.