years before his death, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed
Quintet in A for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola and Cello.
It was his
contribution to the annual Christmas concert for widows
of Viennese musicians, and it was destined to become so
well loved that it would still be performed in the
world’s great concert halls at Christmastime centuries
later. At its premier, Mozart surprised Vienna by taking
to the stage unannounced beforehand and playing the
viola part himself. The date was December 22, 1789.
Yes, 1789—the year the French Revolution sent waves of
horror across Europe, including in Imperial
Vienna. Yet the maestro managed to insulate himself from
the din of bloody revolution and compose a piece of
music so sublime it would capture the sweet essence of
the old world and stand in stark contrast to a new one
in violent making.
Then as now the holy Feast made it possible for weary
men to make believe the world hadn’t gone mad after all.
Like that Quintet of 1789, Christmas still has the power
to put revolutions on hold.
For this reason it is difficult for many of us to go
along with those fundamentalist Protestants and even
some traditional Catholics who in an effort to counter
the commercialization of Christmas, are doing to the
Feast what the French Revolution did to Europe—stripping
it of its noblest traditions.
As Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Target and the rest attempt to
transform Christmas into Capitalism’s high holy day,
many good folks are doing to their children what the
Grinch tried to do to Whoville. But I wonder if this
isn’t an example of good intentions gone awry. To
Calvanize Christmas, to secularize it, to commercialize
it—what’s the difference? Christmas is undermined just
the same and the Devil is the victor!
Don’t get me wrong, global capitalism’s highway robbery
of our sacred Holy Day surely presents a problem that
demands our attention. When even countries such as
Germany and Austria ban Santa Claus altogether (as they
did a few years ago), calling it a secular caricature invented
by Coca-Cola that robs Christmas of its meaning, it’s
evident that the world is growing tired of the inanity
of the “holiday season”.
Bettina Schade, of the Frankfurter Nicholas Initiative
in Germany (the group attempting to restore St. Nicholas
to the heart of the German Christmas tradition), put it
We object to the material things, the hectic rush to buy
gifts, and the ubiquity of the bearded man in the red
suit that are taking away from the core meaning of
Christmas. The Christian origins of Christmas, like the
birth of Jesus, have receded into the background. It’s
becoming more and more a festival that is reduced to
simply worldly gifts and commerce.
Exactly!, why not replace the fraud and gimmickry of
Happy Holidays with authentic Christian tradition? In
many traditional Catholic households the old German
Christkind (pronounced kris-kint and meaning Christ
Child) custom is being revived, whereby the Baby Jesus
Himself comes on Christmas, providing, of course, that
Advent has been kept well.
Incredibly, even such venerable traditions as this are
under fire by fundamentalist Protestants and semi-Jansenist
traditionalists who regard all such customs as part of
the same commercialized perversion of Christmas. A child
needs Midnight Mass on Christmas, the “super trads”
argue—not candy, toys, gifts and feasts.
Bah, humbug! We’re talking about children, not
theologians! And children do indeed need Christmas!
Midnight Mass is THE heart of Christmas, to be sure, but
Holy Mother Church in her maternal wisdom long ago
surrounded the Holy Day with the trappings of
celebratory tradition and grand custom that made the
celebration of the birth of Christ otherworldly from
every perspective. The Christmas traditions—liturgical
and otherwise—took on a mystical quality,
capable of solidifying the Faith in the heart of a child
and seamlessly uniting the doctrine of the Incarnation
with the most joyous human celebration of the year.
That was the great secret of the “Catholic thing”:
Ah! No eve is like this Christmas eve!
Fears and hopes, and hopes and fears,
Tears and smiles, and smiles and tears
Cheers and sighs, and sighs and cheers,
Sweet and bitter, bitter, sweet,
Bright and dark, and dark and bright
All these mingle, all these meet,
In this great and solemn night
Children are not imbeciles. They can be taught to
distinguish between Christmas and the “Holiday Season,”
and they can certainly celebrate Christmas without
turning it into Jingle Bell Rock and plastic-banana
Santa Claus Day.
I touched on the old Christkind custom in this
column last year, but perhaps an additional word will
serve the interests of those preferring to
re-Catholicize Christmas customs rather than throwing
them out the window.
If the idea resonates with you as it has with my family
and so many traditional Catholic families over the
years, don’t be surprised. That’s the way it is with
the rich cultural heritage handed down to us from the
old Catholic world that, if we can learn to think
outside the Americanist box, makes so much sense—much
more than banishing Christmas celebrations as did the
puritanical pilgrims of Plymouth.
Here’s the general idea.
It all starts four weeks before Christmas when the
Advent wreath is placed in the middle of the kitchen
table. A family council is convened to determine who is
going to give up what for Advent. For the little ones
it’s usually sweets; for the slightly older ones it
might involve swearing off eating between meals
altogether. But everyone gives up something.
It's not as severe as Lent, of course, as Advent is a
joyous season, but it's a time to wait, pray and offer
That settled, it’s time to sing O Come Emmanuel. With
the lights dimmed and the candles lit, the words of the
antiphon are sung with all the gusto a tone-deaf
five-year-old can muster. This ritual is repeated
without fail before every evening meal throughout
Advent. Children wouldn’t have it any other way.
Next up—the Advent Prayer. Beginning on St. Andrew the
Apostle’s feast day, the Advent prayer is added to grace
before meals. It keeps children mindful of the necessity
of preparing for Christ’s coming.
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,
through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ,
and of His blessed Mother. Amen.
Then there’s the Straw Box. It’s just an old cigar box
covered in tacky gold paper with a picture of Baby Jesus
rather inartistically taped to its lid, but no one would
even think of replacing it. Every detail of keeping
Advent becomes as much a part of the tradition as the
wreath itself, and tradition can’t change.
Children are natural born traditionalists, of course.
For them, the Straw Box is like the Ark of the
Covenant—tangible proof that something wonderful
happened and that something wonderful will happen again
if the traditions are properly observed. Around here,
then, a semi-liturgical hunt for straw or dry swamp
grass in the woods behind the house kicks off each
Throughout Advent, every good deed done (upon
verification from mom or dad) merits the placement of
one piece of straw in the Straw Box—the idea being to
collect enough to make up the Baby Jesus’ bed by
Christmastime. Rather than cookies and milk left out
for Santa, good deeds made of straw are meant to fill
the manger of the Christ Child--a rather Catholic
notion, wouldn’t you say?
All of this makes perfect sense to a child, as does the
ominous warning that if Advent is not kept well and the
pursuit of straw not vigorously maintained, Baby Jesus
will certainly have no reason to call on Christmas Eve.
Nothing is presumed. December 24th is
D-day, and the time of waiting presents countless
opportunities to teach virtue and life’s vital lessons
to the little ones.
Just the other day, for example, I took my children to
town to run a few errands. We were right in the middle
of Advent when I rolled into the drive-thru at the bank
and made a deposit. After I’d concluded my business, the
kindly-looking lady behind the glass asked: “How many
kids do you have in there today?”
“Looks to be about five,” I guessed. She smiled, and
when the little tube came back through the shoot, five
lollypops were wrapped in the deposit slip inside.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, thinking to myself: Great,
a sugar high times five!
The lollypops were passed out and I was just becoming
aware of crinkling wrappers being peeled back when
suddenly the five-year-old’s panic-stricken face
appeared in the rearview mirror: “Daddy, what about
“Good Lord,” said I, “it’s Advent! Daddy forgot!”
“I didn’t forget, Daddy”— it was the ten-year-old in the
back seat, speaking rather smugly from behind her
ever-present open book. “I’m saving mine for Sunday.”
In years past, some practical soul introduced the idea
that Sundays in Advent are so important that brief
reprieve from sacrificial rigors are in order on those
four days of Advent. I’ve never researched it, but it
works for me! Strikes me as one more reason we refer to
the Church as Holy MOTHER.
In any event, this was Tuesday and the expression on the
four-year-old’s face suggested that Sunday might as well
have been 2015, since her unwrapped lollypop was at that
moment suspended just millimeters from her watering
tongue. “What should I do, Daddy? I’m only this
many,” she held up four little fingers.
Recalling some admonition against stealing candy from
babies, I equivocated à la Alan Alda and dully asked:
“Well, what do you guys think we should do?”
The four-year-old’s face lit up as it tends to do on
those rare occasions when someone leaves something—anything—up
to her: “Well, Daddy, the wrapper is off. Mommy says
Jesus doesn’t want us to waste food.”
Never missing an opportunity to rain on a sister’s
parade, however, the eight-year-old retrieved a crinkled
wrapper from the floor of the car and gallantly
suggested a solution to the dilemma: “I think it’ll
keep as long as you wrap this around it.”
An ominous silence from the front seat meant Daddy
Defeated and wounded, the little one looked at the
wrapper as she’d looked at a salamander he’d tried to
give her last summer. Slowly, she twisted the wrapper
around her lollypop, her bottom lip quivering and fully
Half a mile down the road there was another errand,
another drive-thru, another nice lady behind glass, and,
wouldn’t you know it, another supply of freebies for
Before I could say a word, bags of animal crackers and
candy canes were being passed through the car window.
Five pairs of eyes moved from the goodies, to Daddy, and
then back again to the goodies. The tension wasn’t
broken until the ten-year-old, enjoying every minute of
her father’s predicament, blurted out: “Maybe you could
start a candy store, Daddy.”
The troop erupted. Even the baby squealed, having no
idea what was funny, of course, but enjoying the moment
anyway. The candy and crackers were bagged up and put in
the glove compartment until Sunday. After all, it was
A certain little lip was back in its proper place,
smiling, and no tears were shed.
My children are no angels! But they, like their young
counterparts for a thousand years before them, are quite
capable of grasping the simple, Catholic teachings and
customs of Advent and Christmas. It’s not rocket
science and it hardly demands heroic virtue. All we
parents have to do is teach them as we were taught and
as our fathers were taught and as their fathers taught
them. The wheel need not be reinvented!
Children can easily recognize the injustice of a world
such as ours daring to take Christ out of Christmas.
Like Cardinal Newman in his “Christmas Without Christ”,
they are revolted by the very idea:
How can I keep my Christmas feast
In its due festive show,
Reft of the sight of the High Priest
From Whom its glories flow?
In our desire to keep Christ in Christmas, we need not
throw the Baby out with the bath water. The old
Christmas customs served families, Catholic society and
the Feast brilliantly down through the centuries. There
is nothing secular or commercial about Christmas as it
is observed in the old mode by those who keep the
The Christkind, for example, comes in the middle
of the night before Christmas Eve. A curtain is hung
over the entrance to the living room, meaning that all
day on Christmas Eve no one is allowed near the place
which, if Advent has been kept well, will have been
transformed into the Christmas room by the Baby Jesus
After sundown, children are dressed in their Sunday
best, Christmas hymns are sung, candles are lit and a
little procession winds its way from the back of the
house to the Christmas room. Presents are under the
tree, yes, but that’s for later. For the moment, a half
hour will pass before anyone goes near the tree or
hazards a glance at whatever might lie beneath.
Kneeling quietly before the crèche with mother and
father, who use that holy moment to plant the seeds of
the old Faith deep in the souls of their little ones,
the children are quite ceremoniously transported back in
time to the City of David, to midnight and to piercing
cold. All eyes are on Baby Jesus. It’s His birthday,
and nobody—not even the two-year-old—is allowed to lose
sight of that sublime reality. After the souls of the
deceased are remembered, a decade of the Rosary is
prayed for various intentions, and the Christmas hymns
are sung, the vigil at the crèche ends with a rousing
rendition of Happy Birthday. After all, it is!
The ritual continues on then, deep into the night, until
climaxing at the very apex of the Catholic
The Christkind custom faithfully connects its
modern-day observers to the past—to the days before
television, rock music, video games, the noise of
revolution and commercialism— when Holy Mother Church
reigned supreme in every aspect of Catholic family life.
Today, we have become a society of extremists—wayward
men forget God’s Divinity, and, in reaction, good men
tend to downplay His humanity. But the old customs and
traditions of Christendom—those of sacred liturgy and
family life—taught men to live and love the Faith whole
and complete, day in and day out, without losing sight
either of the spiritual needs of the soul or the
temporal needs of mind and body. Jesus is both God and
Man; His Church is both divine and human; and Christmas
is a time to celebrate with body and soul the
magnificence of Incarnation and Redemption. It’s more
than the Mass and it always was.
Puritans and Calvinists our Catholic fathers most
definitely were not! It was not just rigorist rules and
ominous obligations that led them to cling to the old
Faith and hand it down lovingly to their children. It
was centuries’ worth of family and cultural tradition
borne out of Faith, sustained by Hope and nurtured
through Charity. This is the great “Catholic thing” that
taught men for a thousand years how to live, love,
worship, and die in God’s good grace and in the loving
arms of the human family in which He, in His great
mercy, has placed every one of us.
Let us raise a glass of good wine to Christmas, then!
Let us celebrate the Feast as our fathers did. Let us
keep Christmas sacred and merry as it should be and as
it always was. After all, it is a Catholic Feast and
this is the Catholic thing to do!
Come we shepherds whose blest sight
Hath met lov’es noon in nature’s night;
Come, lift we up our loftier song,
And wake the Sun that lies too long.
To all our world of well-stol’n joy
He slept; and dreamt of no such thing.
While we found out heav’n’s fairer eye
And kist the cradle of our King.