For Catholics all over the world, Christmas is first and foremost a religious celebration and commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. This is the reason why the Nativity scene is commonly seen in churches and homes of Catholics. The Catholic observance of Christmas starts with Advent. Advent is the period of preparation that begins four Sundays before Christmas Day.
Advent is sometimes compared to Lent since it is a period where the faithful are expected to fast, increase prayers, and do more good works. The actual Christmas celebration starts on Christmas Day itself and ends on the Feast of the Epiphany. Many Catholics prefer not to put up their Christmas trees before Christmas Day itself since the actual reason for the feast has not yet arrived.The period of Advent therefore is intended to prepare Catholics spiritually for Christmas, where the idea of “fasting before feasting” has been derived.
There are certain variations in the practices of Catholics in different countries. This has more to do with cultural influences rather than any serious deviation from the instituted doctrines of the Church in relation to the Christmas celebration. Some of the more popular are:
1. Midnight Masses for the Nine-Day Novena before Christmas
Catholics are encouraged to attend anticipated masses in the evening or the usual dawn masses as a means of emphasizing the spiritual side of Christmas.
2. Advent Wreath Ceremony
Every week during the Advent season, one candle is lit until all the four (3 purple and 1 pink) are lighted. Lighting of a white candle at the middle of the wreath on Christmas Day itself is practiced in some places.
3. The Empty Manger
Families are encouraged to put their own empty manger depicting the Nativity scene at home. The idea is to fill it with straw before placing the image of the infant Jesus on Christmas Day. Any member of the family can “earn” straws by doing good deeds with the idea that Jesus is more comfortable with more straw and thus more good deeds.
4. The Tree of Jesse
This is a depiction of Christ’s genealogy or ancestry.
5. St. Nicholas Day
Catholics in some countries observe St. Nicholas Day on December 6 who many believe is the “model” of Santa Claus.
Catholics celebrate Christmas with joy and jubilation and are often reminded to retain its spiritual meaning amidst the highly commercialized Christmas shopping and practices.