How Catholics in the United States Celebrate Christmas
Christmas in the United States is celebrated on December 25. For many Americans, the holiday has taken on a different spirit from its original and true meaning, which is when Catholics commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. This commemoration is centered around Advent. Advent is the preparation of the birth of Jesus. The word Advent is the Latin word for “coming” or “arrival”. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. The celebration of Christmas (and the birth of Jesus) begins on Christmas Eve and continues to approximately two weeks after Christmas with The Solemnity of the Epiphany, also known as “Little Christmas”. The Epiphany refers to when the Maji (Three Wisemen), visited Jesus and brought him the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It was this act that proclaimed their acceptance of Jesus as their King and Savior. This bearing of gifts is what is believed to have begun the tradition of gift-giving in the United States, however, the history of this tradition may also have been derived from St. Nicholas, whose feast day is December 6. St. Nicholas had a reputation of giving gifts, therefore, children would put out one shoe the night before St. Nicholas Day, with the hope that he would visit their home and leave a gift inside their shoe. Over the years, the shoe changed to a stocking and today, it is customary to fill the Christmas Stocking with small gifts and candy and St. Nicholas became known as St. Nick, who eventually became known as Santa Clause to non-Christians.
Besides exchanging gifts, there are many other Christmas traditions that Catholics practice. One of these is attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Attending midnight mass, is a testament to a Catholic’s dedication to their Catholic faith as this mass is normally longer than a regular mass and some find it difficult to stay awake after the day’s or evening’s festivities. Some Catholic masses even incorporate a visit from Santa Clause at the conclusion of the service!
Another popular Catholic tradition is purchasing an Advent Calendar, wherein lies a small token in each window to countdown the days until Jesus is born. During this time, some Catholics practice fasting, or not eating certain types of foods on certain days. This practice is much more stringent in the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church than in the Western Roman Catholic Church. For those Catholics that do practice fasting at Christmas time, this includes abstinence from meat on all of the Fridays of Advent. This is done to give penance, or remorse, for any sins committed.
In many U.S. homes, there are Nativity Sets placed under the tree, or on a mantle, with an empty place inside to signify that Jesus has not yet been born. On Christmas Eve, at midnight, the baby Jesus is placed in the manger, usually in a very simple wooden cradle or, reflective of the actual birth, directly upon the hay.
If you are among those that celebrate Christmas in America, Catholic or not, one thing is certain…..it truly is the happiest time of the year!