Take a look through the selection of Christmas cards in your local shop and you will find it hard to find a Nativity scene. In our secular world Christmas has almost become a pagan celebration of everything Christ rejected. Commercialism has hijacked Christmas. Christ seems to have been airbrushed out of most Christmas celebrations and replaced by the all-consuming materialistic nature of society. For the young Christmas tends to be a time for alcohol and parties in the pursuit of selfish pleasure. Mr. Scrooge in the Dickens novel, a Christmas Carol, responded to the paraphernalia that surrounds Christmas with one word, “humbug”. The enforced jollity and the excess that surrounds Christmas should force us to think again about the cause of this celebration. It is interesting to study the celebration of Christmas at a Victorian Catholic Church and school. There is much that we could learn from our Victorian spiritual ancestors concerning Advent and Christmas. The season of Advent was recognised as a time of repentance, when the faithful renew their desire for the coming of Christ. “Listen to the words of John the Baptist,” the congregations would have been told. “Do penance for the Kingdom of God is at hand“.
If only we could turn the clock back we would find that CHRIST was very much at the centre of CHRISTMAS for the Victorians. Bishop John Baptist Cahill (second Bishop of Portsmouth. 1900-10) reminded the faithful that “the ethos of our Christian customs and moral attitudes are formed by our religious doctrines and practices, of which Christmas and Easter are duly celebrated with the emphasis on the Christian message of Our Lord’s redeeming love for mankind. It is essential that we prepare our hearts and minds for these two great feasts“. G. K. Chesterton once wrote an essay on “The dangers of celebrating Christmas before it comes“. What would he have thought of Christmas celebrations today? He would certainly have warmed to most Victorian Catholic schools. There were no Advent calendars, wreath or candles, no Christmas dinner or parties, no Fr. Christmas or fairy lights etc. Only minimal decorations would have been evident. Despite the fact that Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree into England and it soon found its way into the family sitting room, there is no evidence of a tree being decorated in our schools and certainly not in the church. Nevertheless there was a spiritual preparation in encouraging the children to look forward to Christmas Day, when we remember that Christ came into the world to save mankind.
In the season of Advent we are encouraged to prepare ourselves for a worthy and fruitful celebration of the Nativity by adopting a spirit of humble penance and contrition. Penitential exercises should assist us to “make ready the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3: 3) Darkness is a prominent feature of Advent. In the Old Testament we learn that the faithful were aware of humanity “sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 2: 79), when the prophets, illuminated by Almighty God, announced the Redeemer; and when the hearts of men glowed with the desire for the Messiah. This darkness was illuminated on the first Christmas Day by what St John the Evangelist calls “the Light of the World“. To appreciate Christmas we have to understand Advent and recognise the necessity for penance and contrition. In our busy lives it becomes all too easy to neglect this. When the Confessionals are almost empty and sorrow and reparation are rarely heard from the pulpits; sadly, this vital Sacrament does not seem to have a place in our life-styles today. The word Advent means coming, and it is the coming of Christ to which we look forward. This requires a period of waiting and expectation; features, which are almost alien to today’s society, when we have to have everything that we need immediately.
Hilaire Belloc once wrote a dictatorial account of an ideal Christmas, which began on Christmas Eve with midnight Mass as the focal point and ended on the 12th Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. All Christmas celebrations would be strictly within this period. Our schools would close around 23rd December. The children returned usually after the Epiphany. The priest would spend much of Christmas Eve in the Confessional. No Christmas carol would be sung before the great feast. The Nativity of Christ would be celebrated therefore with Mass and the traditional Christmas family dinner at home. A number of Catholic churches gave Benediction in the afternoon on Christmas Day followed by carols. With no television or radio you can be sure that there would be a good attendance. As Bishop Cahill once remarked, “what better way to thank Christ for coming into the world, than to adore Him in the Blessed Sacrament upon the altar.”
What can we do to put CHRIST back into Christmas? Can we swim against the tide? Cast aside or at least limit those things, which have no bearing on the Christmas message. Patronize our church repositories for Christmas cards. They will surely have a variety of Christmas cards with Nativity scenes. Give the Christmas crib priority over the tree, tinsel, decorations and other paraphernalia. The beautiful simplicity of the crib portrays the true meaning of Christmas, – the coming of the Child Jesus and the expression of adoration of the babe by the shepherds and the three kings. Let us take CHRIST back and put Him to the forefront of our celebrations.