Christmas is a beloved holiday for many people of different religions, but it's a sacred one for Catholics and other Christians. Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ is about much more than exchanging gifts around the Christmas tree for observant Catholics.
Not all Catholic families celebrate Christmas in the same way, however. More than 1.3 billion people (nearly 18 percent of the world's population) identify as Catholics. There are many common Christmas traditions that Catholics tend to follow, but naturally, there's a lot of variation from culture to culture and family to family. Plus, many of the Christmas traditions that American Catholics celebrate are also shared by non-Catholic Christians.
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So, there's no one way to observe this holiday that's shared by Catholics alone. Every family has a unique mix of religious and nonreligious traditions that celebrate the Christmas season.
Observing the Advent season
The Advent season encompasses the period of time starting four Sundays before Christmas. Catholics use Advent to reflect and prepare for the second coming of Christ. Catholic churches are typically decorated with purple during Advent, and masses are slightly altered during the four Sundays of Advent.
Both families and churches display Advent wreaths adorned with purple candles. One candle is lit for each Sunday of Advent, and a fifth candle may be included and lit on Christmas Day.
Christmas traditions around the world!
Catholics celebrate special Christmas traditions all around the world. Here's a quick look at just a few.
- Catholics in Mexico observe the nine-day period leading up to December 25th with "las posadas." This Mexican Christmas tradition is an ongoing celebration that includes parties and parades of children singing Christmas carols to symbolize the journey that Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem.
- In Vatican City, thousands of people flood into St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve to hear the Pope celebrate midnight mass (which is actually held a few hours before midnight these days).
- In Ireland, the last day of the Christmas season is a special day for women to kick back and relax after a tiring holiday season. Women celebrate "little Christmas" by visiting with one another while men take care of the children and housework for the day.
Creating nativity scenes
It's standard for Catholic churches to display nativity scenes starting at the beginning of Advent and throughout the Christmas season up until the feast of the Epiphany. A church's nativity scene might be displayed outdoors or in front of the altar. At home, some Catholics might also set up outdoor nativity scenes or have smaller scenes set up on a table or mantelpiece indoors.
There are a lot of ways to build a nativity scene (also called a crèche), but typically, they include a simple stable or other structure. The figures set up in a nativity scene include three wise men, a shepherd, an angel and several animals plus Joseph, the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in his manger. Many families arrange all the figures inside the crèche at the beginning of the Christmas season but hold back baby Jesus until Christmas morning.
Celebrating St. Nicholas Day
Some Catholics celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6. He was a saint known for his generosity and was the inspiration behind the character of Santa Claus, so his feast day is celebrated with gift-giving. Children leave shoes or stockings outside their door on the night of December 5th and wake up to find them filled with small treats and trinkets.
Attending Christmas mass
Catholic churches typically hold multiple masses throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Some families like to attend mass on Christmas Eve afternoon or evening; these services often include a children's program where children act out the story of Jesus' birth. Other families love midnight mass or prefer going to a service early on Christmas morning. It's really a matter of preference and juggling family members' Christmas schedules that dictates when Catholics go to mass at Christmas.
Observing the feast of the Epiphany
The Epiphany is the official end of the Christmas season for Roman Catholics. It's observed on January 6 and also marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas.
In the Christmas story, the Epiphany occurred when the Magi (aka three wise men or three kings) were led by a star to visit the newborn baby Jesus. Today, observant Catholics might mark the occasion by taking down their Christmas decorations and eating king cake, which may or may not have a plastic baby Jesus inside.
These are just some of the Catholic Christmas traditions that are a beloved part of Christmastime for millions and millions of believers. While Catholic traditions might vary from family to family, the celebration of Christmas is always a special time for anyone of Christian faith!