Monday, September 2, 2013

Soundbites about Advent & Christmas

The liturgical calendar, in which the Church festivals are set out, has come to us after centuries of evolution.  You can be sure in those centuries of evolution, it has accumulated a lot of stories.  In this blog, I will pass share some of these stories in soundbites chucks for you to pass onto your children.

Again, you may not need to memorise them to be regurgitated to the children but much of what you see here would be fascinating. It should be part of your armoury to be pulled out whenever the question arises.  It is also useful to touch of some of these stories on the First Sunday of Advent and the First Sunday of Lent.

Structure of the calendar
We had a little booklet for very simple Responsorial Psalms and Gospel Acclamations throughout the year, with very simple music mostly in consecutive notes by Christopher Walker.  It doesn't have a fancy title, just "Music for Children's Liturgy of the Word" but it does have the initials of the liturgical seasons.  Interesting, it got nicknamed the 'LACE Book", because the initials of the four liturgical seasons (Lent, Advent, Christmas and Easter) spells LACE.


Now, isn't that an easy way to remember what the liturgical seasons are.  Basically, there are two series:
  1. The Lent-Easter seasons organised around the date of Easter.
  2. The Advent-Christmas seasons organised around December 25th.
Both these seasons each comprises a preparation season (Lent and Advent) when the liturgical colour is purple (with exceptions) and a celebratory season (Easter and Christmas) when the liturgical colour is white.

Outside of these two series, in the Ordinary Time, are sprinkled the occasional Feast-days and Solemnities.  Now, wasn't that easy to remember?

I will deal with Lent-Easter and the Ordinary Time in a separate post.

This is the period of preparation for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas.  The word Advent comes from the Latin for coming.  Preparation here does not mean making up lists and shopping for Christmas presents.  It means a period of prayer and penitence before we are allowed to celebrate the birth of Christ.  The Eastern Churches (including Catholic ones) call Advent the Nativity Fast that lasts for 40 days - things are not so severe in the Western Church.

New Year
Advent is the new year for the church calendar and the First Sunday in Advent is our New Year's Day.  If the children gets confused over the idea of a new year's day that isn't on Jan 1, here are a few more new year's day that are also not on Jan 1:
  • Chinese New Year is on the day of the new moon between Jan 21 and Feb 20.
  • School year in many countries in the Northern Hemisphere starts in the end of summer.
  • Tax year in UK starts on Apr 6 (interesting story, that one) and other dates elsewhere.
In fact, New Year's Day differs in different countries until the Pope standardised it in 1582 with the Gregorian calendar (guess the name of the Pope).  In England, as in ancient Rome, New Year's Day was on 25 March, being the spring solstice.  So, it was 24 March (say) year 200AD and the next day will be 25 March 201AD.  March was the first month of the year, and that is why October, now the 10th month, used to be the 8th month (Octo meaning eight).

Being a preparation season, the liturgical colour is purple, meaning the priest wears purple vestments at mass - only the stole (piece of cloth around his neck and down his chest), chasuble (the robe on the outside) or any other decor; the basic vestments underneath remain white.  The church may also be decorated with purple flowers, purple buntings and the like.  Purple is deemed the colour of penitence (It is also the colour of mourning - which is why the priest wears purple at funerals).  Some Catholic churches and some Protestant denominations may use blue, a colour that symbolised hope.

There is an exception, though: the colour for the third Sunday of Advent is pink (or rose).  That Sunday is called Gaudate Sunday (Latin for Rejoice): the Church is very nice to give us a little break after we pass the mid-point of a penitential season.

Often, Advent is stated to be four weeks but that is not exactly correct.  It runs for the four Sundays before Christmas day and so the last day is always Christmas eve.  It can be as long as a full four weeks starting from Nov 27 (if Christmas Day is a Sunday) or as short as three weeks and one day starting from Dec 3 (if Christmas Day is a Monday).

If Christmas Day is a Monday, then it can get rather hectic as we go to church on Sunday morning Dec 24 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent and then back again for midnight mass that same night.

The Advent Wreath, with its four candles fixed on a circle of evergreens, has its roots in pagan northern Europe, which the Lutherans first adopted as a Christian symbol.  The circle represents the never-ending cycle of seasons while the evergreens symbolise the persistence of life even during winter.  Christian symbolism differ slightly: the circle represents the the eternity of God while the evergreens tells of Jesus, who death could not conquer.  The four candles are lit one every Sunday, causing all candles to be of different heights by the end of the season.  There are three purple candles and a pink/rose one for the Third Sunday of Advent.  Sometimes, there is a fifth white candle in the middle to symbolise Christ, and is lit on Christmas Day or Christmas eve.


The Advent Calendar that we have today seems to be a combination of two separate customs.  The original advent calendar notes the goals for personal prayer and penitence for the different days in this period of penitence.  This calendar is now merged with the Jesse Tree, named after King David's father and unfortunately a dying custom.  Symbols of saints and Old Testament prophets & patriarchs are hung on the Jesse Tree, one on each day of Advent.

Santa Claus as we know it today is largely a commercial creation from a religious figure.  Santa Claus comes from the name St Nicholas, who was a bishop of Myra, a town in today's Turkey.  He once anonymously threw three bags of gold coins, one bag each night, through a window of a man who was too poor to afford marriage dowries for his three daughters.  In one version of the story, he dropped the last bag down the chimney (because the father was on watch to find out who his benefactor was after the first two nights) and the bag fell down a stocking that the girl was hanging out to dry at the fireplace - origins of our Christmas stocking.

St Nicholas is the patron saint of children and in Old Holland, St Nicholas (Sinter Klass in Old Dutch, from where we get Santa Claus) would bring presents to children on St Nicholas feast-day on Dec 6, a serious man dressed in a bishop's cape and a red mitre.  Also, in Old England, Father Christmas was celebrated as a jolly man who brought merriment and goodwill on Dec 6, dressed in green or red robes lined with fur.  Those costumes merged (with the mitre becoming the floppy red hat) and were finally made definitive in Coca-Cola's Christmas advertisement from the 1930s.  Yes, our image of Santa Claus today was an advertisement - how much more commercialised can you get than that?

We all know what Christmas means (Christmas = Christ's mass) but we often take that knowledge for granted.  In London, stores like Selfridges and Harrods (the equivalent of New York's Macy) dresses up their windows with Christmas scenes during Advent.  I remember a little boy about four pressing his nose against the Selfridges window trying to understand the Nativity scenes and his mother asking his big sister to read him the story on the board.  So sad for a people to lose their stories and heritage.


The Christmas story we hand down should be strictly the Bible story as so much of the Christmas today are really non-Christian and many of the myths are made-up stories to boot.

In pagan Rome, December 25 marks the Birthday of the Sun (from that day of the winter equinox, the days get longer), which caps the week-long Saturnalia revelry.  The Church then Christianised the very popular Saturnalia into Christ's birthday and incorporated it into the Church calendar.  Nowadays, those Advent windows at Selfridges no longer depict scenes from Christ's birth but a gaudy commercialised Santa Claus intended to get you to buy more.  A priest I know said that the pagans have reclaimed Christmas and he could indeed be right.

In all honesty, we do not really know the date of Jesus' birth.  It is unlikely that Jesus was born in December as the very practical Romans are unlikely to have organised a census in winter.  The celebration of Christmas on Dec 25 likely started in the second century and started to become popular in some places from the fourth century. 

Sometimes, you may hear in the media about an Eastern Christmas in January.  This gets very confusing as originally the Eastern Church celebrated Christmas on Epiphany Day (Epiphany is actually an older festival than Christmas), Jan 6, which the Armenian Church still do today.  The other Eastern Churches moved Christmas to Dec 25 but they are still using the old Julian calendar (the one replaced by the Gregorian calendar that we use today), which is 13 days behind ours.  So, their Christmas Day (Dec 25 in their Julian calendar) falls on Jan 7 in our calendar.  Still following me?

Everyone knows that Christmas lasts for twelve days.  The last day of Christmas is always the Solemnity of Epiphany on Jan 6.  However, many countries celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday between Jan 2 to 8.  The Sunday after Epiphany is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (unless Epiphany is on Jan 7 or 8, then the following Monday), which liturgically is the end of the Christmas season.


Christmas season is littered with feast-days.  Other than Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord, we have St Stephen's Day (Dec 26), Feastday of  St John the Evangelist (Dev 27), Feast of the Holy Innocents, when Herod killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem (Dec 28), Feast of the Holy Family (Sunday between Dec 25 and Jan 1) and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (Jan 1).  Jan 1 used to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, one week after he was born.


(I will limit myself to only customs of religious significance here as we are discussing Christmas as the Birth of Christ and not the commercial season)

We celebrate Christmas in church with two masses.  The Christmas midnight mass is a vigil mass, similar in structure to a normal Sunday mass (unlike Easter, the other midnight mass), followed by Christmas Day mass, which is a different mass the next morning.


The traditional colours of Christmas are gold (for the gift of the Magi), red (the blood of Jesus on the cross) and green (eternal life of Jesus that the cross cannot conquer).

The first Christmas crib was credited to St Francis of Assisi in an attempt to emphasise the focus of Christ rather than the secular merry-making and gifts-giving (Even in his days!!).  He first used real people & animals and the whole scene was blessed by the Pope but now, of course, we use little statues.  The Christmas crib in church is blessed at Christmas midnight mass.  Oh, by the way, there is no three kings, or even three wise men.  The Bible mentioned some men, and the number and their crowns got added later on.  They were likely astrologers who were watching the stars when they saw the new star over Bethlehem.

Christmas hymns in Latin have been around ever since Christmas started but Christmas carols in local language, was popularised by St Francis of Assisi (again).  Carol comes from the old French word, carole, which is a dance: Carols were originally performed as a dance-song.

We use holly as a Christmas decoration.  Its prickly points symbolises Jesus' crown of thorns and the red berries the blood from that crown.  Both the holly and mistletoe are of pagan origins but I can't think of any Christian significance for the mistletoe.


OK, I will make this one exception to the only-religious significance rule in this post.  Christmas trees were popularised by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who tried to recreate the twinkling of stars through the branches of evergreen trees with Christmas tree lights (with candles!!).  The evergreens symbolise life that winter cannot kill off.

And Boxing Day, celebrated on Dec 26 in UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, do not have anything to do with boxing or fighting.  Boxes probably refer to gifts in boxes given to employees and slaves, effectively the Christmas bonus.

Feast-days and Solemnities
In the Church, there are several ranks of feastdays to honour saints or special, mostly Biblical, events.  These ranks will determine which one takes priority over Sundays, for instance.  The ranking is rather complicated but I will summarise them (and include only the relevant ones) below.
  1. Solemnities and Feast-days of the Lord - these takes priority over any Sunday (except Sundays in Lent, Advent, Christmas, Easter Sunday and the following Sunday).  In addition to the Holy Days of Obligation below and those already mentioned elsewhere, they include St John the Baptist (June 24), Ss Peter and Paul (June 29), Transfiguration (Aug 6), the patron saint of the church plus any others determined by the local bishops.
  2. Feast-days, other than those of our Lord
  3. Memorial
Feast-days and memorials only affect readings and prayers at daily mass and so, for the purposes of organising your Liturgy of the Word on Sundays, you need to focus only on the first rank feast-days above.  Check the liturgical calendar for your diocese, which will be found in your annual diocesan directory.