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Christmas (Christ-Mass) Customs for the Home

December 25, 2009

Christmas isn’t just a day, or even two days (if you count Christmas Eve).
Christmas itself begins with the vigil Mass December 24th,
and lasts for eight days (the octave of Christmas).
Then the Christmas season continues until the feast of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.
We even get another little taste of Christmas February 2nd,
when we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, 40 days after His birth,
(as commanded in Exodus 13:2 & 12-17 and Leviticus 12, and recorded in Luke 2:22-40);
and again on March 25th, when we celebrate the Annunciation, Jesus’ conception.

Here are some ways of celebrating these two weeks or so.
(There are variations of all of these)

Go to Mass: Every Mass is a “little Christmas”
where Christ becomes Present to us for our salvation. Meet Him there.

Nativity scene: St. Francis of Assisi, having visited the Holy Land,
wanted to help people appreciate more fully the beauty and simplicity of Jesus’ birth,
so he staged a “live nativity” in a cave in Italy.
Ever since, representations of the first Christmas
have drawn believers to ponder the humility of a King
who chose to be born in a barn and to invite outcasts
(shepherds weren’t “respectable society”) to His birthday party.

Christmas candle: Since Jesus is the Light of the World,
we can symbolize His coming with a candle, usually white to represent His purity,
and decorated if you wish.
This can be placed in the middle of the Advent wreath or in another prominent place.

Window lights: When Catholicism was outlawed in England and Ireland,
one way Catholics had of inviting “underground” priests to come to their homes
to celebrate Mass
was to place lighted candles in their windows.
In order to explain this custom to neighbors, Catholics said the candles were beacons
to light the way for Mary and Joseph (as indeed they did,
by lighting the way for priests to bring Jesus in the Eucharist to these homes).

La Posada & Luminaries: These are Hispanic customs.
La Posadas are a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph trying to find a place to stay in Bethlehem.
On each of the nine days before Christmas
(or, if that’s too much to handle, just on Christmas Eve),
Hispanic families gather & go knocking on doors throughout the neighborhood
(where everyone gets involved–not likely to happen here!).
At one door after another, they’re told there is no room.
Finally, they come to a house where they’re welcomed and everyone has a party.
This can be done in a single home too, knocking on as many doors within the house as possible
(while an adult slips from one room to the next to answer from inside “there’s no room here”)
until the family gets to the nativity scene.
Posadas ended Christmas Eve with Mass, and bonfires were lit along the road to the church
to help people (symbolizing the Holy Family) find their way.
Paper bags stabilized with sand, each with a candle burning inside have replaced the bonfires
(at least in the U.S.).
They’re one way of saying that the Holy Family is welcome in this home,
that we’ve made room for them.

Caroling: Whether carols (about Jesus) are sung as a family at home
or in the neighborhood or in nursing homes,
this is a good way of sharing the good news of the real meaning of the season.

Symbols that represent Christ: These can be used in any form of decorating
(tree ornaments, napkins, cards, stationery, etc.). Here are a few (of many):
crown (Christ the King);
manger (Jesus’ birthplace);
sun or star (Numbers 24:17, Revelation 22:16);
cross (Jesus died on a cross);
shepherd’s staff (John 10:11);
Chi rho (P & X superimposed, the first two Greek letters of “Christ”);
Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Revelation 1:8);
lamb (John 1:29);
bread (John 6:35);
stump with shoot (Isaiah 11:1);
lion (Revelation 5:5);
vine (John 15:1);
fish (The Greek word for fish, “icthus”, is spelled from the first letters of the phrase
“Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” in Greek);
fountain (Zechariah 13:1);
rock (I Corinthians 10:4, Psalm 18:2, Matthew 7:24 or 16:18);
daisy (innocence of the Child Jesus);
anchor (Hebrews 6:19);
door (John 10:9);
branch (Zechariah 3:8, Jeremiah 23:5);
rose (Isaiah 35:1);
burning bush (God, the “consuming fire”, grew in Mary’s womb without consuming her);
Jacob’s ladder (it united heaven & earth);
butterfly, bee, peacock, phoenix or Jonah & the whale (symbols of resurrection);
chalice &
Host; hen & chicks (Luke 13:34)

Birthday cake for Jesus: After all, it’s His birthday we’re celebrating.

Oplatek or Oplatki: This is a Slavic custom. Oplatek is a wafer of bread like the Host,
which reminds us that Jesus is the Bread of Life
(the name of the place where he was born, Bethlehem, means “House of Bread”,
and he was laid in a feeding trough).
The father of the family begins by breaking off a piece of the bread and passing the rest.
Each member of the family breaks off a piece.
In some families, each person asks forgiveness of the others before they eat the oplatek.
Often, pieces of oplatek are sent to family members who couldn’t be present.

The twelve days of Christmas: At one time Epiphany (the coming of the magi)
was celebrated on January 6th, twelve days after Christmas day.
Each of these twelve days was (and still is) a time of special celebration.
They’re full of celebrations of saints,
of the Holy Innocents (the babies Herod massacred in his attempt to kill Jesus),
of the Holy Family and of Mary as mother of God.
December 28th, the feast of the Holy Innocents, is a good day for blessing children
(“Children’s Day”, as it were),
and the feast of the Holy Family is a good day to renew marriage vows
and to ask the Holy Family to pray for families.
Some people like to leave anonymous gifts on each of the 12 days of Christmas,
1 the first day, 2 the next, etc.
Although some dispute the claim, there is evidence that the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
was actually a Catechism in code,
from the days when Catholicism was outlawed in England and Ireland.
There are various explanations for what each verse symbolized:

My true Love: God

Partridge in a pear tree: Jesus (pear tree symbolizes salvation
& a partridge will pretend to be hurt to lead predators away from the nest,
as Jesus was hurt to free us from the ultimate predator, Satan)

Two turtledoves: the doves offered when Jesus was presented in the temple,
or His two Natures, human and divine, or the Old and New Testaments of the Bible

Three French hens: the three gifts of the wise men or faith, hope and love, or the Trinity

Four calling birds: the four writers of the Gospels or the four major prophets
(Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & Daniel)

Five golden rings: Jesus’ wounds (hands, feet and side).
The circles of the rings remind us of God’s love, without beginning or end.
They could also represent the first 5 books of the Bible (the Torah)

Six geese a-laying: the six days of creation

Seven swans a-swimming: the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:2),
the seven Sacraments,
or the seven works of mercy (corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive & bury the dead; spiritual works of mercy : instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, console the sorrowful, correct the sinner, forgive injuries, bear wrongs patiently & pray for the living & the dead)

Eight maids a-milking: the eight beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10)

Nine ladies dancing: the nine ranks of angel choirs: seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, angels
(see Isaiah 6:2, Ezekiel 10, Colossians 1:16, I Thessalonians 4:16)

Ten lords a-leaping: the Ten Commandments

Eleven pipers piping: the eleven faithful apostles (minus Judas)

Twelve drummers drumming: the 12 minor prophets,
the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed, the 12 tribes of Israel
or the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit
(Galatians 5:22–the Douay-Rheims translation had 3 more than modern ones do)

Epiphany: Also known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany (literally “revelation” or “manifestation”)
celebrates the coming of the magi, the first Gentiles (non-Jewish people)
to whom Jesus was revealed.
In some cultures, gifts are exchanged on Epiphany, instead of Christmas,
in honor of the gifts given by the wise men.
Some families have a custom of baking a dry bean into a crown cake for Epiphany.
Whoever gets the piece with the bean is king for the night.
A more solemn custom is the blessing of homes on Epiphany,
going through the house and sprinkling it with holy water,
then using blessed chalk to write over the door the year
interspersed with crosses and the initials of the wise men
(thought to be Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior).
The blessing for 2013 would read 20+C+M+B+13.
Another explanation of the letters could be that they’re the first letters of the blessing
“Christus mansionem benedicat” (“May Christ bless this house”).

For more ideas, visit (includes a blessing of the Christmas tree & nativity scene)


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