Christmas Highlights

December 05 2022 | by

“ENSURE that Holy Christmas is never a celebration of commercial consumerism, of appearances or of useless gifts, or of excessive waste, but that it is a celebration of joyfully welcoming the Lord into the crib and into the heart,” says Pope Francis.

“Christmas is a ray of light for all, because it reveals to us God’s love and makes us feel the presence of Jesus with everyone, especially with those who are suffering. Just for this reason Jesus willed to be born in poverty and in the abandonment of a cave, and to be laid in a manger,” said Saint Pope John Paul II.

These two statements from Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II are strong reminders that Christmas is much more than shopping, gifts, partying, and entertaining. Though the days in the month of December are often called ‘holidays’ they are actually ‘holy days’ when the birth of Jesus is honored and God’s love is celebrated. Here are some uniquely Catholic days that shape the season and heighten Christmas joy.


Saint Nicholas


Observed in most countries on December 6, this feast day is meant to celebrate the man who is the precursor to Santa Claus. The day takes on different manifestations depending on the country, but often is an excuse for exchanging presents. The notion of Santa Claus comes from this story. Indeed, the tradition is an homage to this early Christian bishop from the fourth century who had a reputation for secret gift-giving. Born in modern-day Turkey, the remains of Saint Nicholas, a man revered by Catholics as well as the Orthodox, are now enshrined in Bari, Italy.


Immaculate Conception Day


At the Council of Ephesus (431 AD), Mary was solemnly declared to be the “mother of God” in giving birth to Jesus, and then in 1854 Pope Pius IX solemnly declared Mary to be preserved free from the effects of the sin of Adam (referred to as ‘original sin’) from the moment she was conceived. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8, and honors the conception of the Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. For Catholics it is regarded as one of the most important festivals of the Liturgical Year, and is celebrated with family meals, processions and parades dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Several countries are under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception by papal decree, including the United States.


Feast of St. Lucy


December 13 is the day Saint Lucy is remembered for her courage and compassion. Traditionally called ‘St. Lucy’s Day’ it commemorates Lucia of Syracuse, Sicily, a 4th century martyr who died under the persecutions initiated by Emperor Diocletian. When Christians hid in the Roman catacombs seeking to evade arrest, torture and death for their faith, Lucia brought food and other aid to them. In order to free her arms and hands to carry as much food as possible, Lucia wore a candle lit wreath on her head to light the way. As a result, her day is also viewed as a precursor of Christmastide, pointing to the arrival of the Light of Christ on Christmas Day. St. Lucy is revered as a saint by the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Orthodox Churches.


Christmas Eve & Day


The day before Christmas is widely observed as a full or partial holiday in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Celebrations throughout Christendom have a tradition of starting on the evening of December 24, due in large part to the liturgical day starting at sunset the previous day, a practice inherited from the Jewish tradition of marking the sabbath. Catholics, as well as some Protestant denominations, celebrate Mass at midnight. The ceremony, held in churches throughout the world, celebrates the birth of Christ, widely believed to have occurred at night.

The annual day commemorating the birth of Jesus is celebrated by all Christians who adhere to the Gregorian calendar. It is commonly celebrated by exchanging gifts and spending time with family. Although the date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, several factors contributed to the choice of December 25. Most notably, it was the day of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. Saint Augustine, in his writings, said the date chosen to remember the birth of Jesus was “on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning, and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”


St. Stephen’s Day


In the Bible Stephen is described as a “man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). He served as a deacon in the early Church with responsibilities of providing for poor widows. Acts 7 contains his speech in defense of Christianity before a Jewish council, a talk which so enraged officials that they “covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 7:57). His death in 36 (AD) made Stephen the first Christian martyr. In his honor, St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated on December 26th by Western Christians and on December 27th by Eastern Orthodox Churches. In addition, St. Stephen’s Day is an official public holiday in dozens of countries including the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, the Republic of Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden, Ukraine and Switzerland. Because St. Stephen was known for his ministry to the poor, many Christians today honor him by making donations to charities or by personally volunteering a few hours at an organization which helps people who are struggling.


Mary Mother of God


There are two dates when the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, is celebrated. Among Eastern Christians her feast day is December 26th while in the West, Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans observe her day on January 1st. The historical development and importance of this feast day is described this way by writers on the website of Loyola Press, an American Catholic publisher headquartered in Chicago, Illinois: “In 431 AD there was a bitter controversy among theologians over the role of Mary in the Catholic Church. They debated the question: Who is Mary in God’s plan? In the end, the bishops declared that Mary is really the mother of Jesus and Jesus is really God. So it must be said that Mary is the Mother of God. The oldest Christian greeting of Mary was proclaimed when Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, called her ‘Mother of my Lord.’ When Elizabeth welcomed Mary, she recognized both the great privilege God had given Mary and Mary’s great faith in accepting it. For centuries, Mary has been praised because she believed. She is Mother of God because of her faith in God. The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, celebrates Mary’s faith and trust in God alone. The Church wants us to imitate her faith.”


Feast of the Epiphany


Celebrated on January 6th, Epiphany marks the official end of the Advent and Christmas season. In many homes, indoor holiday trees are taken down and holiday decorations removed and stored. ‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘to reveal’ referencing the ‘revealing’ of the baby Jesus to the world, especially to his first visitors, the ‘Magi’, who are traditionally called “The Three Wise Men” and who were given the names of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. In Matthew 2:11, they presented Jesus with “gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

Those gifts are steeped in symbolism. The gold represents Jesus’ standing as ‘King of the Jews’, while frankincense manifests the divine nature of His existence. Myrrh, often used to embalm corpses in ancient times, is a symbol of Jesus’ mortality, a prelude to his death on Good Friday.


For Catholics, however, every day is, in the most basic sense, Christmas. That’s because every day the Word becomes flesh in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist; and through the sacraments the people of God become the Body of Christ in the world. Just as Mary’s ‘yes’ made her an instrument of God’s incarnation in the world, by our ‘yes’, we too give birth to the Son of God in the world.


Updated on December 06 2022