Q: Each year, I find it harder to keep my family focused on the real meaning of Christmas. It seems like Advent becomes more and more just about shopping, decorating, partying, etc. Do you have any suggestions? — A reader via email
A: While our Advent wreath and prayers help keep our focus on preparing for Christmas (as noted in the last installment of “Straight Answers"), we ought to look to the example of the saints.
Of course, we will exchange gifts this Christmas. Consider the Magi (who are recognized as saints): Caspar, who gave the gift of gold for a king; Melchior, the gift of frankincense for a priest; and Balthasar, the gift of myrrh (a burial ointment) for the victim of sacrifice. Each gift had significance.
Also, the example of St. Nicholas (i.e. Santa Claus) (d. 352) comes to mind. One story tells of a widower who had three daughters. He was going to sell them into prostitution since he could not afford the necessary dowries for their marriages. St. Nicholas heard of the daughters’ plight and decided to help. During the night, he went to their home and tossed a bag of gold coins through an open window, thereby supplying the money for a proper dowry for the oldest daughter. For the next two nights, he did the same. The gift was needed and had benefit.
So, when thinking of gift giving, limit the number of gifts, maybe to three, like the Magi. Some children receive so much they are overwhelmed. They neither appreciate all that they have received nor remember who even gave the gift. Give a gift that has significance: For example, consider the lasting value and memory of a crucifix or a children’s Bible. Give a gift that is needed: Who really needs a Chia Pet? Give a gift that has benefit. Also, parents need to teach children about giving to others; for example, buying a toy for the poor or sending a donation.
Then at some point, the family will decorate the tree. Recall the story of St. Boniface (d. 754), a Benedictine from England who was a missionary to the German people. He had heard about the people of Geismar: They would gather on what would be for Christians Christmas Eve at the sacred oak tree of their god, Thor. They believed the blood of a sacrificed child would nourish the tree, and Thor would bless them with an abundant harvest and fertile livestock. So, St. Boniface made his way to the village of Geismar and the sacred oak. He arrived as the sacrifice was about to take place. As the pagan priest was offering his incantations and was about to bring the hammer of Thor on the poor child’s head, St. Boniface stepped forward and with his bishop’s crozier whacked the priest. He then said, “Tonight there will be no shedding of blood. Instead, tonight Jesus, the true God, was born, who shed His blood so that we might live." St. Boniface then took an ax and struck the sacred oak, splitting it in two. Behind it, was a fir tree. St. Boniface said, “Here is our sacred tree — its leaves are evergreen to remind us of the everlasting life Christ has promised us; the branches point toward heaven, reminding us that our hearts should also be pointed toward heaven." They then cut down the fir tree, took it to the village, and decorated it with lit candles to remind them of the stars that shone so brightly that first Christmas Eve. Recount this story, and look upon the Christmas tree at home as a symbol of the everlasting life we hope to share through our faith in Jesus Christ.
Then, a creche will be placed under the Christmas tree. Here one can recall the beautiful story of St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1225). In 1223, St. Francis, a deacon, was visiting the town of Grecio to celebrate Christmas. To make midnight Mass special, St. Francis borrowed an ox, an ass, and sheep from a farmer and set up a manger; he also included statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother along with a borrowed baby doll to serve as Jesus.
Later, after reading the Gospel at midnight Mass, St. Francis knelt at the Nativity scene. He picked up the baby doll, as the choir sang “Puer Natus," (The Child is Born). Everyone said a miracle occurred — the baby doll came alive, and St. Francis actually held Baby Jesus. The miracle lasted only a few moments; when St. Francis placed Baby Jesus back in the crib, only the baby doll remained.
Would it not be wonderful to hold Baby Jesus at Christmas? Here is a suggestion: Set up the creche (except waiting to place Baby Jesus there until Christmas). After dinner, gather around the creche. Each member of the family can then recall a good deed or sacrifice done that day, and then place a piece of straw in the creche; or write the good deed on a piece of paper and place it in the creche. Then, on Christmas Day, Baby Jesus will have a home filled with the love of our good works and sacrifices, and we in turn will have hearts filled with His love. Remember, too, one of the best “good deeds" would be to make a good confession and to receive absolution.
Lastly, decorate a window with one or three candles (electric ones for safety). This practice arose during the British persecution in Ireland, especially during the Tudor and Stuart periods. The British conquerors were Protestant, and the Irish people were Catholic; therefore, to subjugate the Irish people, the British had to crush their religion and their church. Mass was outlawed. Catholic children were forbidden to receive an education. Priests were exiled and, if caught ministering in Ireland, were executed.
Nevertheless, the faithful persevered. The Catholic faith kept the Irish strong. Priests secretly ministered to the people, traveling circuits and offering Mass on “Mass rocks" in open fields. Hiding behind hedges, which provided easy lookout and escape, schoolmasters educated the children. And so, the Irish people held true to their faith and culture. Many died as martyrs.
During Christmas, every faithful Irish Catholic family hoped to have a priest visit their home so that they could receive the sacraments and, in return, offer him hospitality. So, they would leave their doors unlocked and place candles in the windows to signal a priest that he was welcome and would be safe. Sometimes, a single candle would appear, for the Holy Family, or three candles in one window, one each for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. If the British soldiers asked about the candles, the faithful responded, “Our doors are unlocked and candles burn in our windows at Christmas, so that our Blessed Mother Mary, St. Joseph, and Baby Jesus, looking for a place to lodge, will find their way to our homes and be welcomed with open hearts." The British would just scoff, considering this display just another sign of superstitious popery.
Here is a great opportunity to evangelize. Place a single candle or three candles in one window. Someone will ask, “Why?" Tell that person the story. Keep in mind our persecution comes not only from the commercialization of Christmas, but also from the anti-Christian “political correctness" that surrounds us. We need to be the light that penetrates the darkness. Pray also for our brothers and sisters who are terribly persecuted in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries; they need our support.
So, a few ways to prepare this Advent looking to the example of the saints. May the presence of the newborn Savior be in all our hearts and homes this Christmas.