The December Carolina Catholic show is on Christmas and Advent Traditions in the Catholic Home.  In this show we discuss the true Christmas and Advent traditions of the Catholic Church. We also want to separate fact from fiction so that we can truly understand this wonderful time of year.

Christmas really doesn’t begin until Christmas Eve and then ends on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, 1-10-10.

There were three tendencies among early Christians as these traditions developed:

  1. 1. They had a high respect for symbolism (light over darkness);
    2. They had a natural tendency to borrow from their real world experience; and
    3. They were attempting to offset the influence of pagan festivities. Now, it may be said that the pagans of consumerism and commercialism are trying to snatch these beautiful traditions back from Christianity.


  1. What does the word “Advent” mean?

    The word Advent derives from the Latin word “adventus” meaning coming. The Lord is coming. Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season and the liturgical year for most Western churches. This “arrival" or "coming" in Latin represents the approach of Christ's birth (and fulfillment of the prophecies about that event) and the awaiting of Christ's second coming.
    According to present usage, Advent is a period beginning with the Sunday nearest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (30 November) and embracing four Sundays. The first Sunday may be as early as 27 November, and then Advent has twenty-eight days, or as late as 3 December, giving the season only twenty-one days.
    With Advent the ecclesiastical year begins in the Western churches. During this time, the faithful are admonished to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord's coming into the world as the incarnate God of love, thus to make their souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer coming in Holy Communion and through grace, and Thereby to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world. 
  2. What is the historical origin of Advent?
    It cannot be determined with any degree of certainty when the celebration of Advent was first introduced into the Church. Christmas (or the Nativity of Our Lord) was first celebrated around the fourth century, when, it was celebrated throughout the whole Church, by some on 25 December, by others on 6 January. In the 4th and 5th centuries, Advent was the preparation for the "Epiphany" rather than Christmas.
    Sometime in 6th century Rome, the focus of Advent shifted to the second coming of Christ. In the 9th century, Pope St. Nicholas reduced the duration of Advent from six weeks to the four weeks we currently observe. And finally, sometime in the middle ages--approximately the 1500's--an additional focus on the anticipation before Christ's birth was added to that of His second coming.
  3.  What are we celebrating during Advent?
    Advent is a time of reflection about the amazing gift that God gave to us in the person of Jesus. It is also an opportunity to restore Jesus to His rightful place as the center of our holiday celebrations! Advent is, appropriately, both somber and joyful! The prevailing themes of the Advent season and the symbolism behind the activities which churches and families share are expectation and hope, preparation and peace, joy and sharing, and most of all, love. These themes are represented in the 5 candles of the Advent wreath.
    In the CCC 524, it states, that “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for His second coming.
    No Gloria is prayed or sung during Advent, but the Alleluia remains. Both joyous and penitent.
  4. What is the history of the Advent wreath?
    The practice of lighting Advent candles began in Germany by non-Christians. They lit candles surrounded by evergreen branches in their windows on cold winter nights to signify their hope for the coming warmth and light of spring! Later, German Lutherans kept the practice alive and gradually the symbolism of the Advent wreath was added: evergreens represent everlasting life (because they do not die during winter) and Christian growth; the wreath is a symbol of God's unending love and of victory; candles represent Christ, the light of the world, and their purple or blue color signify the royalty of Jesus our King! Another tradition saying is that the four candles signify the 4000 years of waiting from Adam and Eve until, at long last, Jesus' birth.
  5. What is the meaning of the wreath and the three purple and one pink candle?
    The Advent wreath has no liturgical connection, and it is not a sacramental of the Catholic Church. There is no special blessing for it, but we can have our wreaths blessed. The wreath is an ancient symbol of victory and glory. Evergreen is used as a symbol of eternity representing our eternal Lord, Jesus Christ.
    And there are four themes for the four weeks of Advent that help us prepare for Christmas:
    1st week: expectation: We are waiting for Christ to come at Christmas/ Isaiah foretold of His coming.
    2nd week: hope: We hope to make Jesus a part of lives at Advent and all year long/ The Bible
    3rd week: joy: When we light the pink candle, we rejoice in the love of Jesus./ Mary
    4th week: acceptance: This is our week to say “yes” to what is asked of us, like Mary said yes to be the mother of God. /John the Baptist
    Purple candles: symbolize a time of preparation & penance
    Pink candle/Gaudete Sunday: a time to rejoice for what is to come. Listen for the word “rejoice” in the readings at mass.
    Wreath: the evergreen is a sign of eternity like our eternal Father in Heaven.
  6. What else can we do during Advent to prepare for Christmas?
    The Christmas Novena: (Traditionally, this is prayed 15 times a day, beginning on St. Andrew the Apostle's feast day, November 30th, until Christmas.) 
    Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. 
    In that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires, (State your intention here) 
    Through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His blessed Mother. Amen.
    Straw for the crib: This custom, which originated in France, helps children see that their good deeds have benefit; for every good deed they do, they get to place a piece of hay or straw into the crèche to make a soft bed for the Baby Jesus.
    Advent Calendar: some of these have Scripture, some have daily activities for the family to do (like pray for someone, write a letter to Jesus, etc.)
    The Jesse Tree: This seasonal tradition recalls the family tree of Jesus; “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom (Is. 11:1.) This chapter of Isaiah is about the rule of Emanuel, or God be with us, to come. Using any type of tree, we make symbols to represent the genealogy of Christ including: David (crown); Adam (apple); Noah (ark); Jacob (ladder); Moses (Ten Commandments); Joseph of Egypt (coat of many colors); Mary and Joseph; Ruth (wheat or corn); Holy Spirit (dove); and Christ (the Chi Rho symbol).
    Celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th: On the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, we should tell our children the story of this wonderful saint and Bishop of Myra who suffered a dreadful imprisonment under Emperor Diocletian. Nicholas, an orphan himself, spent his life making the poor of our world feel welcomed and cared for. 
    Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th: Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. What a gift she was to us all.
    Reconciliation services: 
    Wed., Dec. 9 7 p.m. St. Jude Hampstead
    Thurs. Dec. 10 7 p.m. St. Stanislaus Castle Hayne 
    Mon., Dec. 14 10:30 a.m. St. Mary Wilmington
    Tues. Dec. 15 7 p.m. Sacred Heart Southport
    Wed., Dec. 16 7 p.m. Our Lady of the Snows Elizabethtown
    Mon., Dec. 21 7 p.m. St. Brendan the Navigator Shallotte
    The Christmas Pageant: If your Church doesn’t do one, start it. Call me if you need a script. This tradition really brings home that the meaning of Christmas is Christ centered.
    O Antiphons: Beginning on December 17th, we sing the Antiphons. An antiphon is a brief, scripturally based song or prayer based on the titles for Christ as revealed in Isaiah, and they are chanted in a responsorial fashion. They have proclaimed the seven nights before the vigil of Christmas for many centuries. They are normally said while praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The seven O Antiphons of Advent summarize the hopes of the chosen ones in the Old Testament waiting for the Messiah: O Wisdom; O Lord of Might; O Flower of Jesse’s Stem; O Key of David; O Dayspring; O Desire of Nations; and O Emmanuel. So we sing, O Come, O Wisdom…(the song, O come, o come Emmanuel is based on the Antiphons.)
    The Latin names are O Sapientia (wisdom), O Adonai (Lord), O Radix Jesse (root of Jesse), O Clavis David (key of David), O Oriens (rising sun), O Rex Gentium (king of the people), and O Emmanuel (God with us.) In acrostic if read backwards, it reads, ERO CRAS (tomorrow, I will be there.)
    Each antiphon has three parts: an invocation to the Messiah under an OT title; an attribute of the Messiah; and a petition from His people.
    O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with Your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation 
    Las Posadas: One of the most colorful traditions is the posada party, celebrated every evening from December 16 to 24. These celebrations commemorate Mary and Joseph's cold and difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter. "Posada" in Spanish, simply means lodging or shelter. Nowadays, the posada has evolved into a religious and social celebration, paying a festive homage to the journey. Each one of these nights before Christmas, a party is held in a home in the neighborhood. There is plenty of food and drink, with candies and fruit for the children. At dusk, all the guests gather outside the house. A small child dressed as an angel leads, followed by children carrying figures of Mary and Joseph. Boys and girls dressed in silver and gold robes constitute the procession, followed by the adults and musicians. Everyone sings melodious songs as they walk slowly along, carrying their lit candles. When they reach the house, the group divides in two. One half remains outside and begs for shelter from the other half, which is inside the house. The doors are then opened, the religious part of the celebration ends, and the fun begins.
    The happy end to each posada has always been the piñata. A piñata is a fragile earthenware jar covered with paper mache, traditionally made in the shape of a star, to recall the one that so mysteriously guided the Three Kings to the newborn Jesus. Now piñatas come in all shapes and sizes and are filled with candy, toys, and sometimes money.
    In the old days, the last posada held on December 24 was most popular, because it was followed by midnight Mass. In the provinces of Mexico, this tradition lives on.
    The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe: 4:40 am Procession with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe;5:00 am Mañanitas with singers & mariachi; 5:30 am Mass; 7:00 pm "Las Nochecitas".
  7. Our Bishop has some suggestions: slow down, pray more, offer a daily rosary while meditating on its mysteries, go to Confession, reconcile with a person with whom you are at odds.
    A Christmas countdown candle:  Such a candle has 25 lines.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day

  1. Where did the word “Christmas” originate?

    The word “Christmas” comes from the English “Cristes maesse” which means “Christ’s mass.” The use of “X” in “Xmas” represents the first letter of the name of Christ in Greek, and it was frequently used as a holy symbol by the early Christian church.
  2. What are some Catholic traditions regarding Christmas Eve?

    Many cultures refrain from eating meat today as a type of penance; Italians, for example, eat the 7 fishes (La vigilian or la festa dei sette pesci) for the seven sacraments: bacalà (salted cod fish), whitefish, eels, shellfish, calamari (squid), octopus, squid (scungili), and flounder.

    Many families decorate their Christmas tree this night.

    Irish families do a deep cleaning to prepare their homes for the Lord.

    Farolitos and luminarias: line your foot paths and homes with farolitos (little lanterns) and/or luminarias (New Mexican adobe homes line the top of their flat roofs with them.)
  3. What about the Christmas tree? Does it have liturgical significance?

    The Christmas tree is completely religious in origin. The whole idea and symbolism of the tree in entirely religious and based on the radiation of liturgical thought into Christian homes.

    Christmas tree: combination of 2 religious symbols:
    The Paradise Tree: This originated in the “mystery play” which was a play that used to be performed in churches (e.g. Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Garden of Eden.) Garden of Eden represented by fir tree hung w/apples (Paradise Tree); Eden play held on 12-24; plays were eventually discontinued but the children loved the fir tree hung with apples which was moved to the home.
    The Christmas Light: A candle inspired by the liturgical usage of a burning candle to represent Christ. Originally, it was placed on top of a wooden structure (pyramid) and adorned with balls and tinsel and called a Christmas Pyramid.

    The Christmas tree is born!

    In 16th century W. Germany, the two customs were combined. The candles and decorations and the lights, glass balls and tinsel were put on the Paradise Tree which already bore apples. The “Star of Bethlehem” that had adorned the top of the Christmas Pyramid was kept and fastened to the top of the tree. Sweets and cookies were added to represent the sweet fruit of Our Lord’s redemption (remember, it used to be a “tree of sin”.)

    Today’s Christmas tree: Our Christmas tree stands in our homes as a symbol and reminder that Our Lord is the “Tree of Life” and the “Light of the World,” “Lumen Christi.”
    Lights: symbols of His divine/human traits/virtues
    Decorations: His great glory
    Evergreen: ancient symbol of eternity
    Sweets: sweetness of Redemption
    Star of Bethlehem: light that leads us to Christ

    Prayer to bless your tree before you turn on the lights:
    Lord, bless this tree in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
    May it serve to remind us that Jesus is our tree of life and the light of the world.
  4. What is the history of the Christmas Crib/crèche? (French)

    This tradition originated with St. Francis of Assisi through his famous celebration at Greccio, Italy on Christmas Eve, 1223.

    St. Francis wanted to relive the Nativity, so he created a real life reenactment of the original Bethlehem scene with real people and animals. St. Francis wanted, “For once…to see all this with my own eyes.” Mass was said right in front of Nativity scene.

    Our manger scenes: honored position in our homes
    Central theme of this holy feast.
    Character of a religious shrine in our homes. 
    Unveil the crib on Christmas Eve only.
  5. What about candy canes & gift giving?

    Candy Canes: symbol of the crook of the shepherds who were the first to witness the birth of Jesus. The white stripe represents His purity, and the red represents His sacrifice.

    Gift giving: originated with both St. Nicholas and Saturnalia and the gifts of the Magi.
  6. Where did the traditions of Christmas Lights in the window originate? 

    Brought to America by 19th Century Irish immigrants.
    Originated during religious persecution in Ireland (17th C.)
    Churches closed, priests in hiding, Mass in secret.
    Yearlong prayer and desire for home to be chosen for Christmas mass in one’s home.
    Irish Catholics left doors unlocked and candle in window as a signal that priest was welcome.
  7. When did we start attending Midnight Mass on Christmas?

    Tradition has roots in early monasteries where the faithful would gather to seek forgiveness first then pay homage to the Newborn King and then to receive Eucharist. After mass, they would celebrate to daybreak.
  8. Why do we burn a Christmas candle?

    The Christmas Candle: Ancient symbol of Christ as light of the world (Lumen Christi). It can be placed in middle of the Advent Wreath or anywhere in a place of honor in our homes.
  9. Do any of the Christmas Plants have religious meaning?

    Holly: believed holly was used in Crown of Thorns. Its points and red berries symbolize His drops of blood.
    Mistletoe: Called “all heal” it is used as a Christian symbol of Christ, the divine healer of all.
    Poinsettias: with its flaming color symbolizes the divine love of our Newborn King, with its red bracts (leaves) resembling the Star of David.
    Ivy: Clinging ivy is a picture of weakness upheld by unseen strength. We “cling” to Jesus to be strong & holy.
  10. When did Christmas pageants originate?

    In early church, custom to “act out” the mysteries of the life of Jesus as educational tool (e.g. the Nativity.) 18th century Germany revived these plays, and German immigrants brought them to America. It retells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
  11. What about Christmas Carols?

    “Carol” comes from Old English “carolen” which means to “sing joyfully” Originally Latin hymns from 5th century; Modern: 13th c. under St. Francis of Assisi ; Caroling: Introduced in colonies by British.
  12. Are St. Nick and Santa Claus one and the same as they are portrayed and sung about every year?

    Let’s start with Kris Kringle. This came from the German word for Christ Child (Christ Kinder) & was popularized by Germans in Pennsylvania.

    St. Nick was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in 3rd C. (Turkey)
    Patron of small children; feast day is December 6.
    Rich family but orphaned.
    Gave possessions to the poor.
    As Bishop, devoted to children and poor.
    Emperor Diocletian put him in prison.
    At his  death, 1000’s of favors granted to those who asked his intercession.
    In Europe, feast celebrated December 5 in which St. Nick visits, admonishes children/rewards with candy.  
    He is dressed as bishop, with mitre & crosier, and comes as a heavenly messenger.

    However, veneration of all saints was banned during the Protestant Reformation. Only the Dutch Protestants kept the visit of St. Nicholas alive (Sinter Klass), and the Dutch immigrants brought this tradition to America. Their first New York City church was named Sinter Klaas. Dutch lost control of New York to the English whose children envied the annual visit from St. Nick.) 

    Santa Claus
    He is not St. Nick.
    Dutch immigrants brought Sinter Klaas with them to New Amsterdam.
    English children wanted to have similar celebration but English could not honor a Catholic saint; the secret gifts of St. Nick was transferred to the eve of Christmas which the English celebrated with Father Christmas.
    Combined two traditions: transferred St. Nick’s visit to Christmas and changed Bishop to Santa Claus, who is a combination of Father Thor, Christmas Man, Father Christmas and St. Nick.

    Christmas Man was a secular version of St. Nick in Protestant cultures. Father Thor (Thursday is Thor’s day) from Germanic mythology; He was god of peasants/common people.
    Elderly, jovial, friendly, heavy set, long white beard, lived in palace of ice, fire element was red and he rode a chariot (sound familiar?)
    Lived in Northland, palace among icebergs, loved fireplaces and came down chimneys.
    Chariot drawn by goats, Cracker and Gnasher.
    Called a Yule god because he fought the ice/snow.
    St. Nick’s red and white vestments were borrowed.
    Christmas Man was the European custom and he had a sleigh, reindeer, and loved chimney visits.
    Father Christmas was England’s Christmas man.

    The fine tuning came from Washington Irving’s article called Knickerbocker’s History of New York (chubby, Dutch, pipe, rooftops, presents), Clement C. Moore’s poem: Twas the night before Christmas, and cartoonists like Thomas Nash painted a picture based on Thor as Santa Claus to lighten hearts during the Civil War.
  13. What does the word Yule mean and what are the twelve days of Christmas?

    Yule is the Anglo Saxon word for feasting/drinking. It comes from the word geol. The Yule Tree reflected the green of spring to come.

    The Twelve Days of Christmas are the days between Christmas until January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany which is also called Christmastide and the Epiphany is the Twelfth Night. A bit of modern folklore claims that the song's lyrics were written as a "catechism song" to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practicing Catholicism was discouraged in England (1558 until 1829).
  14. Why and when did we start sending Christmas cards?

    2 billion sent each year.

    19th Century, began as seasonal greeting.

    English artist probably designed first card in 1842.

    Boston lithographer Louis Prang began printing cards which depicted Christ’s birth.

Listen to the show


Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J.
Religious Customs in the Family by Francis X. Weiser, S.J.
Catholic Customs and Traditions by Greg Dues
The Catholic Home by Meredith Gould
The Essential Advent & Christmas Handbook AND Advent Begins at Home by Liquori Press. 

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