Happy Advent! Happy Liturgical New Year! Happy December!
Every year, when we make it to this season, I am blown away by the richness of this month, of these weeks leading up to Christmas. The calendar is full of church events, school programs, neighborhood gatherings, and festivities with friends, and my heart is full of desire to prepare room for Jesus within me through prayer and ritual. I listen to my Advent playlist around the clock, refresh the greenery on our 4-candled wreath regularly, and make our house ready for expected and unexpected guests who arrive on our doorstep throughout the season.
Amidst all of this, I also want to ensure that our home is filled with liturgical living and meaningful traditions during these precious weeks. I want my children — once they are grown and no longer living under our roof — to look back on the Decembers of their childhoods and have memories of keeping Christ at the center of the season, of looking forward to family traditions, and of feeling loved and happy during what could otherwise be a cold and dark month.
Here are some of the traditions that we’ve adopted over the years, ways we make the season fun, festive, and decidedly Catholic throughout the month of December.
We prepare a manger for Jesus
It will probably come as no surprise that I absolutely love nativities of all varieties, from this single plaque that can be hung on a door or wall, to this collection of ornaments that can adorn a wreath or tree, to this figurine depicting the holy family in a stable beneath evergreen branches. Nativities are scattered throughout our house throughout December in the way that pacifiers, scrunchies, library books and school papers are scattered throughout every other season (and, who am I kidding, this one, too).
While I decorate liberally with nativity scenes, we do have one special family nativity that we collectively assemble, taking turns unwrapping each figure from tissue paper, placing it carefully in the wooden stable, and pausing throughout to sing carols like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Away in the Manger.” Unpacking this nativity is a special tradition, and so is the practice of preparing the manger for the Christ child (who doesn’t join the rest of the tableau until Christmas eve) throughout the season of advent. While most of the figurines go in at once, we slowly add hay to the manger — one piece at a time — each time my husband or I notice one of our children doing a good deed. We thank them for making room in their hearts for Jesus by doing whatever we’ve noticed them doing (be it a personal prayer practice, like journaling or praying the rosary on their own, or an act of service like helping a younger sibling with their homework or visiting the elderly neighbor) and instruct them to add a piece of straw to Jesus’s bed. Without fail, the manger is always full by Christmas.
We eat cinnamon rolls on St. Lucia’s feast day
Saint Lucia’s feast day is one of my favorite saint days to celebrate, in part because I have a special admiration for St. Lucia. Little is known for certain about her other than that she was a brave young woman who lost her life for her faith during the early centuries of Christianity. Maybe that’s why I have a fondness for her — the fact that much of her story isn’t remembered. I want to remember her — to remember her faith, if nothing else — and to honor the person who she was, even if I know little about that person. For this reason, my family makes a point of celebrating her feast day, and I make a habit of telling myself that if I am remembered for nothing but my faith, that will be enough.
We honor Saint Lucia on Monday, December 13th (her feast day) with our own variation of the way that many families across Scandinavia celebrate: breakfast in bed! The Swedish tradition is for the oldest daughter in a house to dress in white, wear a wreath with candles on her head, and serve coffee and baked goods to the rest of the family. Our oldest daughter happily obliges in wearing a white nightgown and wreath on head (no lit candles here!) and the rest of the family gladly partakes in eating cinnamon rolls. We all go to bed eagerly on December 12th and feel full of festive gladness on the morning of the 13th. It’s one of our favorite December traditions.
We bless our Christmas tree
While the Christmas tree isn’t a Catholic tradition, it also isn’t one that my family is going to give up lightly. Nor do I want them to…I love the smell of evergreen, the glowing lights, and our family’s collection of heirloom, gifted, and handmade ornaments. Happily understanding that the tree is here to stay, we try infuse faith into our practice of cutting and outfitting the tree by concluding our family time spent decorating with a Blessing of the Christmas Tree. The whole blessing (it’s from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops) is beautiful, but I especially love this line: "May all who delight in this tree, come to the knowledge and joy of salvation.” It’s a prayer that I repeat throughout the season, anytime I catch a whiff of balsamic fir or am delighted by the twinkling lights.
We have a day dedicated to baking…and sharing our bounty
Tasty treats seem to be as integral an aspect of Christmas festivity as the tree and the presents, and my children join those of the rest of the world in their love of cookies and candy. I used to save the majority of our holiday cooking and baking for the hours after our children had gone to bed, but as they have gotten older, I’ve begun to involve them more and more in the preparation for Christmas process. For the past few years, we’ve devoted one Saturday in December to baking Christmas goodies, after which we freeze the cookies that my family will consume throughout the Christmas season, and box up the rest to share with neighbors, our parish pastor, and the soup kitchen in our town.
I love this time of year, and there is something so special to me about being able to share our faith with my children through the traditions that we have cultivated and that they look forward to, year after year. Perhaps, as they get older, I’ll think about adding some more annual events, but these four, at least, are here to stay.