"This Day Christ Is Born"
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.
--Theme Song for Christmas Day the Magnificat antiphon from Vespers
THE CHRISTMAS MASSES
Christmas Day begins in a very special way with the Midnight Mass. Having this first of the Christmas Masses in the middle of the night is an old custom in the Church and is full of significance. In the first place it corresponds with the traditional belief that Christ was born at midnight. Secondly, from the material darkness around us, we are reminded of the spiritual darkness in the world which only Christ the Light can dispel.
The Midnight Mass is surrounded by family traditions which vary according to national heritage or personal preference. There is, for instance, one delightful way of waking the younger children for Mass. Some member of the family dressed as an angel and carrying a lighted candle, goes to each bed and sings a carol.
After Mass many people share a special breakfast with their family. The French are especially fond of this night meal or reveillon, and serve their own traditional dishes. Other families place the Christ-Child in the crib on their return, and often the head of the family reads the Gospel aloud at the crib or at the breakfast table. This time after Mass also lends itself to the singing of carols and the quiet re-explanation of the Christmas story which children never tire of hearing.
The second Mass of Christmas Day is the Mass at dawn, traditionally called the Shepherds' Mass. Just as the shepherds went eagerly to the crib to adore the Lord and to receive His great gift of light, so we also go to the altar where the same Lord comes just as truly to us. The theme of light is prominent in this Mass. Outside, the natural light is increasing. In Bethlehem the Light is manifested to a few more men. Over and over in the Mass texts light is mentioned: The Introit begins, "A Light shall shine upon us this day; for the Lord is born to us." These words can be read again at home, perhaps at the lighting of the Christ-Candle. (See The Christ-Candle for explanation of the candle.)
Because the feast of Christmas is so great, the Church does not stop rejoicing after one or even two special Masses. She continues her worship with a third, the Mass of the Day. In this Mass, our attention is directed towards the divinity of the Child born in Bethlehem. We rejoice in His governing power and wisdom in the Introit. The Epistle refers us back to the Midnight Mass with the passage: "Thou art My Son, today have I begotten Thee." The progressive manifestation of Christ continues. From swaddling clothes and a lowly stable we move to might and majesty, throne and sceptre. From the adoration of Mary and Joseph and a few shepherds, we go to the adoration of all the earth. The great feast of Christ's manifestation, the Epiphany, is foreshadowed in the Gradual and Communion when we say, "All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God."
It is natural that Christian families, in the spirit of the Masses, feel a desire to continue expressing their joy throughout the whole of Christmas Day. This expression takes varied forms.
CHRISTMAS MUSIC AND STORIES
In some homes Christmas carols are never heard until the Eve of the feast--instead, the poignant Advent music which seems to convey the spirit of the season in its melodies is sung until the vigil day. And then the Christmas carols are fresh and new. Even those families not accustomed to sing together find the Christmas music an excellent beginning for family song.
Most carols can be sung by the whole family, but it is a good custom for older children to prepare and present a program of the more difficult or less common ones. This is a wonderful opportunity, too, for those members of the family who play a musical instrument to make a contribution by accompanying the singers, presenting a special solo or joining one another to produce a grand ensemble.
Nearly every family has several favorite Christmas stories which are cherished. Children always enjoy hearing again familiar legends and stories, especially towards the end of an exciting Christmas Day. Some families like to build up their repertoire of Christmas literature by trying out one or two new stories or poems each year. There are an increasing number of excellent Christmas stories available today in libraries and bookstores. Some suggestions are listed below and on the following pages.
"Dulci Donum," from "The Wind In The Willows," by Kenneth Graham. Christmas spirit on the river bank from one of the best animal books for children ever written.
"The Crib of Bo'Bossu," from "The Long Christmas," by Ruth Sawyer. Viking Press, New York, 1941. A French tale of a hunchback whose heart is set on carving a beautiful crib for our Lady's Child. Good to read with the children around the crib.
"The Gold of Bernardino," from "The Long Christmas." An ancient legend telling how the first crib scene came to be placed in a Spanish church. Charming in its simplicity--and perfect for reading aloud the night the Christmas crib is set up, for it explains the significance of offering ourselves to the Child.
"The Voyages of Wee Red Cap," from "The Long Christmas." An Irish fairy tale to be read on the Eve of St. Stephen, when the "wee folk" show an Irish "Scrooge" how to shake loose from his gold.
"The Shepherds," from "The Long Christmas." Across the skies on that holy night rings the sound of combat as Archangel Michael defeats Satan, and a little Spanish boy leads the shepherds to Bethlehem.
"Legend of the Christmas Rose," by Selma Lagerlof, from "The World's Greatest Christmas Stories," ed. Eric Posselt. Prentice-Hall, New York, 1950. The well-known Swedish legend about the forest that is transformed at the miraculous hour of Christ's birth.
"Which of the Nine?" by Maurus Jokai, from "The World's Greatest Christmas Stories." How can a poor shoemaker decide to give away one of his children? Why, even the songs they sing are more precious than all the gold in the world. Could be read to set the mood for an evening of singing together.
"The Oak of Geismar," by Henry van Dyke, from "Christmastide," ed. William J. Roehrenbeck. Stephen Daye Press, New York, 1948. How the Gospel and the green fir tree were brought to the heathens of Germany in the eighth century by a band of English pilgrims.
"The Noel Candle," by Clement C. Moore, from "Christmastide." The custom of lighting a candle in the window on Christmas Eve may have originated in this way.
"The Holy Night," by Selma Lagerlof, from "Christmastide." Like the shepherd, we too could see the angels that fly down from heaven on Christmas Eve if we only had the right kind of eyes.
"The Ox and the Ass at the Manger," by Jules Supervielle, from "The Greatest Bible Stories," ed. Anne Freemantle. Stephen Daye Press, New York, 1951. A completely charming character study of the two most envied animals in history.
"The Nativity of Our Lord," from "The Golden Legend," by Jacobus de Voragine. Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1948. An example of the freshness and simplicity of medieval devotion.
"Where Love Is, There God Is Also," by Leo Tolstoy, from "What Men Live By." Pantheon Books, New York, 1944. The story of a poor shoemaker who wondered what he would do if the Lord came to be his guest.
"Christmas on the Village Square," by Henri Gheon. A Christmas presentation by a band of gypsies. Delightful for an informal reading.
CHRISTMAS DRAMA FOR THE HOME
In some families, the events of the Christmas story are dramatized. For instance, the message of the Shepherds' Mass lends itself easily to drama. The family gathers around the crib and sings a few carols. Then the father reads the Gospel of this Mass aloud. As he says the words, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see the Word that is come to pass," each child comes forward with a shepherd figure and places it ceremoniously at the crib.
There is another charming custom which by all means should not be forgotten on Christmas Day. This is the beginning of the Wise Men's journey to Bethlehem. The three kings start out separately in far countries, perhaps even in such remote places as the children's bedrooms. From there they continue to advance each day, assisted by the children, on their hazardous journey over bookcases and mantelpieces--not forgetting their dramatic meeting in the hall about halfway to Bethlehem. At last, on Epiphany, they will arrive in all their splendor to pay homage at the crib.
At another time during the day, many families re-emphasize the central fact of Christmas by acting out St. Luke's Gospel. The living room becomes a stage with more imagination than effort-- and with a few odds and ends of material and old draperies the family and guests are transformed into the chosen group surrounding the Redeemer. Even the new Christmas dolls and animals can have parts to play.
The Gospel forms the basis of the play. One person reads the story slowly and with care while the others act what is being read. No one can lay down rules about how the actors should go about doing this. In one family the "cast" may like to mime the Gospel; in another, the narrator may be adept at spontaneous dialogue. Still others may like to work from a simple script, and for these, a short play is given at the end of this book. This play has been worked out with narration, dialogue and music-- chant selections for school production, familiar carol substitutes for the home. When done in the family, it is important to draw all present into the play. In this way, there will be no awkwardness because there will be no "audience" to satisfy. And then, those who join in will be able really to enter into the simple actions and to make an adoration of it.
For more ambitious families or parish and apostolic groups, effective prayer-dramas can be worked out on the whole history of salvation as the Church sets it before us in the Advent-Christmas liturgy. Beginning with the fall in Genesis, a script can be built around the great prophecies of Christ's coming, reaching a first climax in John the Baptist, and culminating in the Christmas and Epiphany texts from Mass and Office.
The candle, a widely recognized symbol of Christ the Light, has a definite place in the celebration of Christmas and is used in different ways. Some families have a large Christ-Candle which they light on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas at a special family function. The Christ-Candle is often placed on the center of the family dining table and lighted during the meals as a reminder that Christ is present as the members share food together. In other homes the Candle is placed near the crib, to be lighted during prayers and when the family gathers for singing.
Candles are very prominent on Christmas Day. This was possibly true even at the first Christmas when, because of the feast of the Dedication, the Jewish people were burning candles in their homes. In medieval times Irish Christians began the custom of placing a lighted candle in the window to show that the stranger was welcome to enter in the name of Christ and share in the Christmas abundance. Parents can make clearer the symbolism of leaving a candle in the window by keeping a plate of Christmas cookies and a hot drink ready for any modern-day wayfarers who may knock at the door, as well as for friends and neighbors.
Christmas dinner in most homes is a joyous occasion, expressive of Christian family love and unity. It affords a special opportunity for sharing this love with our neighbor in the person of a "Christ-guest." This can be a foreign student, an elderly person from the Old Age Home or any acquaintance who is not included in a family dinner of his own. The spirit of receiving all guests as Christ makes Christmas parties and celebrations more meaningful and more in accord with the marvel of God having loved us so much that He sent His Only-begotten Son to dwell with us.
CHRISTMAS MEAL PRAYERS
When the family gathers for meals on Christmas Day and throughout Christmastide, it is a natural time to reecho the great fact: "This day Christ is born!" Many families find that special meal prayers which repeat the beautiful texts from the Christmas Masses and Office are a great help in keeping the Christmas theme in mind and in meditating on its meaning. Meal prayers can be as simple as the reading of one of the Christmas collects from the missal, together with the traditional grace.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas Kit" contains Christmas Meal Prayers printed on sheets of cardboard. Five cards--with prayers for breakfast, dinner and supper--are included so that several members of the family and guests may have a copy.