Column by Andre McCarville
We often get upset about people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” We want the world to recognize what it is that has made this holiday season so important in our society in the first place, and are frustrated that Christ seems to be getting more and more removed from the celebration of Christmas. What is happening is that the world is becoming more secular. Fewer people are going to church on a regular basis, and more and more often people are claiming no religious affiliation at all. As the culture changes in a secular direction, people are responding. For many, there is no religious connection to this time of year, and for those who do have one, they often don’t want to force their religious beliefs on others. I would suggest, given the current situation, if we want to have a world that celebrates Christmas again, instead of cursing the darkness, we need to light a candle. Let’s show the world what it means to live Christmas so that they will once again want to celebrate it!
What really happened at the first Christmas? Let’s go back to that first Christmas to remember. A young woman, who was engaged, but not yet married, was found to be pregnant. Her fiancé was not the biological father of the child. Fortunately, he chose to take her and the child as his own, because of God’s intervention. But then they had to go on a difficult trip because of a government census. When they arrived at their location, there was nowhere for them to stay. They had to stay out in a stable. That was where she gave birth to her child. There were moments of glory, as shepherds and magi came to see this new special child, who was to reign as king forevermore. But there was another king, who did not want this child to be king. While the true king came to serve, and not to be served, this king cared only about himself and tried to kill the child. The family ended up as refugees in Egypt for several years.
What does it mean to live Christmas as a family? The first Christmas was not about extravagance, it was about hardship. But it was hardship with hope. The message of Christmas is that the God of the universe comes down to enter into our messy and sometimes dangerous lives to bring us back to Himself. But as God draws close to us, do we let Him come in? We then have to ask, is there room for Jesus at our own inn, or will we turn Him and His family away? Additionally, God first manifested Himself to the shepherds. These were people who lived out in the fields, away from the rest of the community. They often had no real homes, and many considered them of no account at their time. Are there people in our society and community that we have not cared about because we are too focused on our own needs and wants? And as the Holy Family were strangers in the land of Egypt, who is it that we are not concerned about even though they are a stranger to our land and need help?
This Christmas, how can we help our families to remember God’s amazing sacrifice of love, and be a sign of that love for others?
We need to start with reclaiming the spirituality of the season. Far and away the most important thing you can do to reclaim the spirituality of the season is to regularly and devoutly attend Mass, This is where Jesus comes to us in the most tangible and powerful of ways. Also, avail yourself to the Sacrament of Penance. We need to come face to face with our sins and have them forgiven, to have the humility necessary to move forward in faith. Then, read the Nativity stories together. Consider having your family dress up in costumes that you make yourselves from blankets and bedsheets, as well as stuffed animals, and act the story out as a living Nativity. You could even have your dog be the donkey.
Pray together as a family. Praying the rosary, in particular, the Joyful Mysteries, during this Advent and Christmas Season is very powerful. But there are other ways of praying. You could sing Christmas hymns together while decorating the tree. You can share what you are grateful to God for as a family, and who you might be concerned for and pray for them.
Watching religious shows and movies during this season also can help to capture its essence. You could watch Christmas with The Chosen in theaters, or the Nativity Story at home. Formed.org also has a number of great movies and shows about the meanings of Advent and Christmas, as well as about the Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph and Saint Nicholas. And it never hurts to bake or buy a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. Whether you have a cake or not, kids need to know that all the parties, decorating, food, presents, are all for Jesus, He’s the reason we are celebrating.
We should also look to live our Christmas faith outside the home. Not in a way that is pushy, but in a way that invites. The true Christmas spirit involves much more than giving “presents.” Who do you know that will be alone this Christmas? Maybe they are older and their family moved away, or they may have just moved to town and don’t know a lot of people. There are many who are alone, but we shouldn’t leave them that way. Consider inviting them over for Christmas dinner. If you don’t have room in your house, could there be a dinner for those who are alone at your parish? Maybe they aren’t completely alone, but are caring for a disabled or sick relative. Could you bring some food to them and spend time with them on Christmas? Who do you know who has lost someone they cared about this year? Make a particular effort to go talk with them because this Christmas will be especially hard on them. Feel free to bring pictures of the loved one, and share stories about the person if you can. If you didn’t know the person who passed away very well, just listen and ask questions about the loved one. People are usually willing to talk, and oftentimes just waiting for someone to give them the opportunity.
We also want to help people. Think especially of those who may be in poor health. What might their needs be? Maybe you can rake their leaves or shovel their snow if you know it will be difficult for them. They may need help hanging Christmas lights and taking them back down.
In giving gifts, get the whole family involved. Have them brainstorm what gifts might be good for friends and family members. Try not to go overboard in expensive gifts. If you can make them, that is the best. If you can buy them from small local stores, that would also be excellent. Also, let kids pick a food or two to donate to the soup kitchen or food pantry for Christmas. If they are up for it, have them buy it with their own money (but don’t force this, as it defeats the purpose of giving).
Finally, a lot of parishes are doing amazing things already in the community. See how you can be involved. Many have done Angel Trees and food drives, living Nativities, Christmas plays and concerts. Some organize Christmas caroling, and others will host community meals. It was recently brought to my attention that refugees from Haiti have been allowed to live in our area, but not to work. Because of this, a local parish is working with them to get food, housing and clothing. If there is not much going on in your parish, don’t wait. Start something to help others! This is the way we will help the world see what Christmas is all about, and encourage them to celebrate as well.
And don’t forget, Christmas doesn’t end December 26. It is an 8 day holiday, with another two weeks of Christmas season after that. Some even celebrate until February 2, the Feast of the Presentation. So there is plenty of time to live the Christmas spirit!
Have a merry and blessed Christmas everyone!
Andre McCarville is the Director of Missions and Family Life for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown