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Part 2: The Vigil of Christmas
"In the Morning You Shall See His Glory"
Be ye lifted up, O Eternal Gates, and King of Glory shall enter in.
--Theme Song for the Vigil of Christmas from the Offertory of the Vigil Mass
With the vigil Mass Advent seems to draw to a close. Our weeks of longing and waiting are replaced by an assured confidence that "This Day you shall know that the Lord will come and save us; and in the morning you shall see His glory" (Introit of the vigil Mass). A hushed tone of cheerfulness pervades this day of vigil, subdued only by the holy fast which the Church gives us to prepare for the "day of rejoicing." The spirit of the Mass induces a spirit of silence--the family responds to the joyful restraint of the Church with a great hush of expectancy. Even the children will sense the peace which surrounds the awaited festivities if an air of serenity and stillness fills the house.
The natural excitement which overtakes the children as the Great Event draws near can often be calmed by giving each child a special task for the day, explaining that this is his way to prepare for the Christ-Child: helping with the final dusting and sweeping, shining shoes for the family, getting the clothes ready. This is the day, too, for decorating and distributing the boxes for the poor. Where there are older children, they can undertake this delightful task with only a final check by the mother.
If most of the material preparations are completed before the vigil--the shopping, cooking, gift-wrapping, etc.--we can more easily give our attention to celebrating some of the many Christmas Eve customs through which we can enter more fully into the spirit of this holy night. The observances and practices for this vigil are so numerous that it would be an exceptional family which could manage to carry out even all of those given here. But a careful choice of two or three will be a powerful aid towards drawing the children's interest and enthusiasm to the real heart of the Christmas celebration: the Child in the manger. All the customs given below are intended not as ends in themselves, but to prepare the family for a fuller participation in the mysteries of this most holy night, at the altar of the Midnight Mass where Christ is truly born again.
DECORATING THE TREE
The children love to help decorate the tree, and this is a fine occupation for the vigil afternoon. Or if the family prefers to wait until the evening, the tree-decorating becomes a festive family project. Families living close to the spirit of the liturgical season do not, on any account, set up the tree and the other decorations ahead of time. They do not want to spoil the last lovely days of Advent longing and expectation by starting Christmas too early. Instead, they attune their family life to the rhythm of Mother Church and heed her wise psychology: "Prepare well," she says, "and then you will doubly enjoy the twelve full days of feasting which your Mother gives you."
The decorating of the tree is an opportunity for the mother to explain its symbolism. In medieval times the evergreen tree was used in one of the Mystery plays about the Garden of Paradise--a fir tree was hung with apples, and represented the tree of Eden by which Adam and Eve fell. When the Mystery plays were banned from Church, the tree began to appear in homes at Christmastide, and gradually became the symbol of Christ, the true tree of Life. In some places it was even hung with wafers, representing the holy Eucharist. Thus, says Father Weiser in "The Christmas Book," the tree which had borne the fruit of sin for Adam and Eve, now bore the saving fruit of the Sacrament, symbolized by the wafers. But the original symbolism of the tree decorations is obscured today--the wafers gave way to all kinds of pastries cut in appropriate shapes...stars, angels, bells; other fruits were hung side by side with the meaningful apples, and gradually since real fruits spoiled on the tree, they were replaced by the shiny glass Christmas balls, decorations which bear only a slight resemblance to fruits. The candles signifying Christ, the Light of the world, are almost universally set aside in favor of the safer electric lights--still in the shape of flames, but perhaps not often connected with their original meaning.
But rich as is its symbolism, the tree is still only the "background" for the Bethlehem scene, which should be given the most prominent place. An overly-elaborate tree set in the place of honor and a cheap plaster crib set relegated to the second best spot, inevitably educate children in a wrong sense of values.
In other homes the children do not see the tree until it is decorated. A special "Christmas room" is set aside which no one is allowed to enter all day. Behind closed doors, mother and father "help the Christ-Child" decorate the tree and prepare the crib under it. It is not until evening that the children are called to the room. Then they view for the first time the beautiful tree, resplendent in all its colors and ornaments.
Mrs. Therese Mueller, commenting on her own family's Christmas traditions, points up the importance of preserving this element of surprise, particularly in the case of small children. "It is poor psychology to anticipate Christmas," she writes, "to break up the great climax into all kinds of little climaxes, until on the feast itself we are bored and tired of it all...even of the tree, lighted prematurely for small occasions instead of being a sudden symbolic revelation of the fullness of light in the Holy Night."
BLESSING OF A CHRISTMAS TREE
Sometime in the evening the tree is blessed by the father of the family, and afterwards the festive lights are lit for the first time. The following form may be used for the blessing.
FATHER: O God, come to my assistance.
ALL: O Lord, make haste to help me. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
FATHER: Then shall all the trees of the forest exult before the Lord, for He comes.
ALL: Sing to the Lord a new song; * sing to the Lord, all you lands.
FATHER: Sing to the Lord; bless his name; * announce his salvation day after day.
ALL: Tell his glory among the nations; * among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
FATHER: For great is the Lord and highly to be praised; * awesome is he, beyond all gods.
ALL: Splendor and majesty go before him; * praise and grandeur are in his sanctuary.
FATHER: Give to the Lord, you families of nations, give to the Lord glory and praise; * give to the Lord the glory due his name!
ALL: Bring gifts, and enter His courts; * worship the Lord in holy attire.
FATHER: Tremble before him, all the earth; * say among the nations: the Lord is king.
ALL: Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; * let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
FATHER: Then shall all the trees of the forest exult before the Lord, for he comes; * for he comes to rule the earth.
ALL: He shall rule the world with justice * and the peoples with his constancy.
FATHER: Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
ALL: As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, * world without end. Amen.
FATHER: Then shall all the trees of the forest exult before the Lord, for He comes.
MOTHER: Lesson from Isaias the Prophet. Thus saith the Lord: The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice and shall flourish like the lily. It shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise: the glory of Libanus is given to it: the beauty of Carmel, and Saron, they shall see the glory of the Lord and the beauty of our God.
ALL: Thanks be to God.
FATHER: And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse
ALL: And a flower shall rise up out of his root.
FATHER: O Lord, hear my prayer.
ALL: And let my cry come to You.
FATHER: Let us pray. O God, who hast made this most holy night to shine forth with the brightness of the True Light, deign to bless this tree (sprinkles it with holy water) which we adorn with lights in honor of Him who has come to enlighten us who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. And grant that we upon whom is poured the new light of Thy Word made flesh may show forth in our actions that which by faith shines in our minds. Through Christ our Lord.
Besides the historical explanation given above, there are of course many beautiful legends and much symbolism behind the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is a sign of the great Tree of the Cross; it is noble because it is by a tree that the whole world has been redeemed. The splendor of the Christmas tree reminds us of the redemption of even the material creation by Christ--and recalls the lovely legend that all the trees on earth blossomed forth on Christmas night. And the evergreen is traditional for the Christmas tree, for it reminds us of the everlasting life that Christ won through His Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection.
THE CHRISTMAS WREATH
If there is an Advent wreath in the home, it now takes on a new character. The purple streamers are replaced by Christmas red--a symbol that our preparation is now over and the time to rejoice is at hand. The candles on the wreath no longer remain purple or white, but take on the festive color, and above the evergreen boughs are seen the long red tapers that will be lighted at breakfast on Christmas morning.
CHRISTMAS EVE SUPPER
After a day of fast and abstinence--the spirit of which is kept by the children through simple one-dish meals and no nibbling on the Christmas goodies in-between--the Christmas Eve supper often assumes a festive air, especially in families where Christmas Eve is the traditional time to lay the Child in the manger and open the gifts. The supper table is beautifully set, but includes a handful of straw in the center, covered by a white cloth--a symbol of the manger. On this is placed a plate containing a large round piece of unleavened bread, a sign of Christ the living Bread come down from heaven to be born in Bethlehem, "The house of bread." The father of the family tells the meaning of the wafer--how the One Bread of Life makes us one in Him and in love of each other, and then he might read the Church's blessing for bread before he breaks and shares the wafer with each member of the family: "O Lord Jesus Christ, bread of angels, living bread unto eternal life, bless this bread as You blessed the five loaves in the wilderness, that all who eat it with reverence may through it attain the corporal and spiritual health they desire." After this, a special meal follows. If the family desires, the unleavened bread may be substituted by any of the Christmas breads made in the home.
NO ROOM IN THE INN
The nine days before the feast of Christmas have a very special character in many Latin and Latin-American countries. Each evening the parish or neighborhood group meets together and, bearing statues of Mary and Joseph, the people proceed through the streets with their pastor at the head. Stopping at all the "inns" (homes and even shops), they ask for admittance. Each night they are refused until, on Christmas Eve, they are allowed to enter the last inn (the Church, in some sections) where the crib has been prepared. With great rejoicing the Child is laid in the manger.
The Las Posadas, as it is called, is a custom easily adapted to the family. On Christmas Eve the family gathers--perhaps before dinner if the family wants to enthrone the Christ-Child in the crib later on in the evening--and two of the children carry the crib statues of Mary and Joseph. As the family follows, the children walk from room to room, knocking at each door, and at each they are told by some member of the family stationed within the closed room that there is "no room in the inn." At last the procession reaches the living room, where it is allowed to enter and the children place Mary and Joseph in the stable.
Where two or three families who are trying to live with the Church are close by, this beautiful custom is worked out in a more dramatic way. As soon as it is dusk, one couple or a boy and girl of high school age dress as Mary and Joseph. Carrying lanterns, they lead the procession from house to house, knocking on each door and inquiring for room. The same answer is heard, "No room in the inn." At the last "inn" the innkeeper offers his stable (the garage) to the holy couple, and the procession follows Mary and Joseph to the door. Joseph enters, sees that there is straw and a manger, and beckons Mary to come. Before the "live" Bethlehem scene, all stand while one person reads the Gospel from the Midnight Mass. Children especially enjoy this "journey to Bethlehem"--and as they are rejected from the many inns, they sense the hardships Mary and Joseph underwent in that first journey--and in the stable they feel the nearness of the Child who is born poor to make us rich.
When we carry out "No Room in the Inn" at Grailville, the families and children from nearby join in our procession, and we make it a real journey by setting off down the road to the neighboring houses.
ENTHRONING THE CHILD
Our Advent expectation is drawing quickly to a close! During the stillness of this holy night, the long-awaited Savior shall appear. In families where the children have experienced the longing of the past four weeks, the birth of Christ is a vivid reality. Many of these families have adopted the custom of laying the Christ-Child in the crib with a special procession and ceremony on Christmas Eve.
The family gathers together in one room of the house, and the youngest child is given the statue of the Christ-Child to carry to the crib. Earlier his mother has told him what a privilege it is to bear the Child, and often during the day he has been reminded of his responsibility to be good in order to live up to this honor. He leads the procession through the house, flanked by an older brother and sister bearing lighted candles. Appropriate Christmas carols are sung as the procession makes its way towards the living room.
When the family reaches the living room, all stand around the crib while the father reads the solemn proclamation of the birth of Christ from the Roman Martyrology. The proclamation and a suggested form of Christmas Eve prayers are given on the following pages. The blessing of the crib, becoming popular in many families, is included.
CHRISTMAS EVE PRAYERS
"While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Your almighty Word, O Lord, came down from heaven from Your Royal Throne" (Introit for Sunday within the Octave of Christmas).
FATHER: From the Roman Martyrology:
In the twenty-fourth day of the month of December; In the year five-thousand one-hundred and ninety-nine from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; In the year two-thousand nine-hundred and fifty-seven from the flood; In the year two-thousand and fifty-one from the birth of Abraham; In the year one-thousand five-hundred and ten from the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses; In the year one-thousand and thirty-two from the anointing of David as king; In the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel; In the one-hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; In the year seven-hundred and fifty-two from the foundation of the city of Rome; In the forty-second year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus; In the sixth age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace--
eternal God and the Son of the eternal Father, willing to consecrate the world by His gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and the nine months of His conception being now accomplished, (all kneel) was born in Bethlehem of Judah of the Virgin Mary, made man. The birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the flesh.
ALL: Thanks be to God.
(The Child is now placed in the crib by the youngest child, while all sing the following antiphon.)
ALL SING: This day Christ is born; this day the Savior hath appeared; this day angels are singing on earth, archangels are rejoicing. This day the just are glad and say, Glory to God in high heaven, alleluia.
ALL: (All pray Psalm 109, one of the great Messianic psalms.)
The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand * till I make your enemies your footstool."
The scepter of your power the Lord will stretch forth from Sion: * "Rule in the midst of your enemies.
Yours is princely power in the day of your birth, in holy splendor; * before the day-star, like the dew, I have begotten you."
The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent: * "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech."
The Lord is at your right hand; * he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.
He will do judgment on the nations, heaping up corpses; * he will crush heads over the wide earth.
>From the brook by the wayside he will drink; * therefore will he lift up his head.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son * and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, * world without end. Amen.
ALL SING: This day Christ is born; this day the Savior hath appeared; this day angels are singing on earth, archangels are rejoicing: This day the just are glad and say, Glory to God in high heaven, alleluia.
MOTHER or ELDEST CHILD reads the Gospel from the Christmas Massat Midnight.
ALL: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will. We praise Thee. We bless Thee. We adore Thee. We glorify Thee. We give Thee thanks for Thy great glory, O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.
O Lord, the Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father. Thou who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Thou who sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us. For Thou only are holy. Thou only art the Lord. Thou only Jesus Christ, art most high.
With the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
FATHER: O Lord, hear my prayer.
ALL: And let my cry come to You.
FATHER: Let us pray. O God, who made this most holy night to shine forth with the brightness of the true Light, grant we beseech Thee, that we who have known the mystery of His light on earth, may attain the enjoyment of His happiness in heaven. Who lives and reigns with Thee forever and ever.
(The last window of the Advent Tower, masking the Christmas scene could be opened here.)
FATHER: Bless, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, this crib (he sprinkles it with holy water) which we have prepared in honor of the new birth in the flesh of Thine only begotten Son, that all who devoutly contemplate in this image the mystery of His Incarnation, may be filled with the light of His glory. Who lives and reigns with Thee forever and ever.
FATHER intones a familiar Christmas carol to end--appropriately "Silent Night" or "O Come, All Ye Faithful."
THE EXCHANGE OF GIFTS
Almost every family has unconsciously or consciously established a traditional time for opening the gifts. The gift exchange is always a "family event"--no one ever thinks of opening his gifts alone. This is an occasion when all are united, and there is community rejoicing over every present.
Christmas Eve is an appropriate time for the exchange of gifts, after the Christ-Child has been placed in the manger, and the special prayers before the crib--and a round of Christmas carols- -are over. If the gifts are given out before the Midnight Mass, the children can concentrate more easily on the great mystery which is celebrated, when the Greatest Gift is given to all alike, even those who have received no material expression of Christmas love. And then, too, Christmas Day with its two additional Masses can be devoted more to the contemplation of the Christmas mystery and the demands of Christmas hospitality.
But other families like to wait until the return from Midnight Mass, when gifts are opened before the family retires for the rest of the night. Christmas morning remains the rule in still other homes as the time for the gift exchange.
In some homes, parents suggest that the children immediately choose one of their favorite gifts to be given to the poor, as a special sacrifice of gratitude to the Christ-Child--but a sacrifice done with a radiant face and a joyous spirit. Christmas gifts of clothing also provide opportunity for parents to introduce or encourage the lovely family custom of first wearing the new clothes to Church--as a sign of our gratitude for God's goodness and overflowing generosity towards us.
There has been great interest lately in the question of just who should bring the gifts at Christmas. Many families feel that the over-emphasis on Santa Claus greatly detracts from the central mystery of the feast, and they either make known the fact that the parents themselves are the givers, or in many families, the children are told that the Christ-Child Himself has bestowed the presents. Others restore the stately bishop's mitre and crosier to Santa Claus, and good St. Nicholas is the one who brings the children's toys and gifts--perhaps after a preliminary visit to see how the children are behaving on the eve of his feastday, December 5.
Now if religious customs like the above are carried out, the family gift-giving falls naturally into a subordinate place and is more easily given a spiritual significance. If the family decides to do away with Santa Claus, the richness of the religious home celebrations will more than satisfy the children. And if Santa Claus stays, he will play a lesser role in the celebration, a role more in keeping with the real meaning of the feast.
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