Despite coronavirus, family traditions will remain untouched for many families; and, if necessary, families are creatively modifying plans to keep alive favorite Christmas customs for celebrating Christ’s birth.
“This year, with many changes and challenges going on in the world outside, we want to maintain the celebratory nature of Christmas more than ever in the home, for our own sake as a family and for the sake of witnessing to others that Christ’s birth really does bring hope to a hurting world,” said Katie Warner, wife and mother and Catholic children’s book author.
Kelly Guest is of similar mind. “We’ll try to keep Christmas as normal as we can and make it as memorable as we can,” she said. Kelly, husband Paul and their 10 children, ages 10-25, hope to go to midnight Mass as usual, although she “can’t imagine not singing Christmas carols at midnight Mass.”
The Maryland family will also continue their custom of climbing aboard the family’s large van to see all the Christmas lights while sipping hot chocolate and singing Christmas carols. However, some gift-giving will change. “Christmas morning after we give our gifts, we go to my mom’s house. I know my mom will really want to watch the kids open their gifts,” Kelly explained. In the works is a plan to visit the grandparents “from the outside — during Easter we sat on their patio and they in the screened-in porch — unless it’s really nasty weather.”
Despite these necessary changes, Guest is committed to focusing with her family on the meaning of Christmas.
She mentioned a recent poem by a Spanish priest reminding the faithful to transport themselves to the original, quiet Christmas night and enter into it more fully.
In Indiana, Sean and Stacy Martin and their six children, ages 3 to 18, will have to work around their traditional travels to visit family. “We may not be able to be physically present with our loved ones, which will prove to be very difficult, since we just lost Dad this year,” Stacy said.
But there are lots of planned phone and video calls. Otherwise, the Martin family will celebrate their other traditions as usual, such as on Christmas morning.
“The kids have to solve riddles to find Baby Jesus hidden somewhere. I hide Baby Jesus and write a series of clues, usually in rhymes,” Stacy explained. “All the kids do it together. Once he is found and placed in the Nativity set, we pray Morning Prayer as a family. The Liturgy of the Hours is an integral part of our family since the beginning of our marriage. What’s nice is the younger ones, before they can read, can always do the Glory Bes and the Our Father. We want the focus to be on Christ. Without Jesus, there would be no holiday.”
Then comes opening gifts and eating a breakfast of cinnamon and pecan rolls. For the Christmas season, Stacy sees their traditional “inordinate amount of baking will continue, especially since we cannot be out and about as in previous years.” Their tradition of caroling with the children at nursing homes will not be able to take place this year, however. While “that is very disheartening” because the children enjoy caroling “to spread the joy of the Lord” and Stacy “always enjoyed being able to visit with the residents for a bit after caroling,” all isn’t lost: She and some friends came up with a Plan B.
“A friend of ours has lined up people from the parish who are shut-ins,” she said. During Christmas week, she explained, “A couple of families will get together, drive separately in our cars to homes of the shut-ins, stand socially-distant on the sidewalk, and sing.”
In California, James and Kendra Tierney and their 10 children, ages 14 months to 18 years old, see little or no disruption in their traditional celebration of Christmas.
“There is a resurgence of liturgical living in the home in the last few years,” Kendra said. “That to me seems providential for these times. These traditions we do in our home aren’t impacted by whatever limitations are put on us by the COVID mandates. So that has been heartening for us. The domestic church doesn’t have to be impacted by the response to the virus.”
As author of the new book O Come, Emmanuel (Emmaus Road Publishing), she said as the family first focuses on observing Advent as a time of preparation and waiting, they put different pieces of the Nativity set out each Sunday. First comes the stable; the next Sunday the animals arrive, followed by the shepherds, then Mary and Joseph, and then Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. The Wise Men “travel” through the house overnight, and the children love finding them in different places until they arrive on Epiphany.
“I really love on Christmas Eve when we put Baby Jesus in the manger and we sing Silent Night and Away in a Manger,” Kendra said. On Christmas Day after dinner, the Tierney’s little family Nativity play will go on as usual. “It has been so fun for so many years,” she said. Costumes are created from things around the house, with paper crowns for the Wise Men and stuffed animals decorating the stable. “We use the actual words from Scripture and Christmas carols appropriate to the different sections,” Kendra said. (The script is available online at her website, CatholicAllYear.com).
“I feed the lines to the little kids so that they don’t have to memorize them. We have really fond family memories of doing the Nativity play.”
She said the play is really appropriate for the whole week between Christmas and Epiphany. Smaller families can take on multiple roles.
“The big key for us is to celebrate it not as one day but as a season,” she said, by focusing on ways to carry the celebration through the octave, or the 12 days of Christmas, or even all the way to the Baptism of the Lord or to Candlemas. This includes watching “Christmas movies together as a family,” Kendra pointed out. “We love The Bells of St. Mary’s. We eat Christmas treats, like cookies, all different, every 12 days of Christmas. We sing Christmas carols together and do really try to keep that feeling of celebration going through all the days.”
In Northern California, Sean and Mary Harrell and their five children, who range in age from two months to 10 years old, waited as usual until Gaudete Sunday to put up their tree, “to reinforce with the kids that Advent is waiting in hope, and that’s accomplished in a concrete way by waiting. We keep a two-week lid on decoration,” said Mary, who is a producer and host for Mater Dei Radio.
During this time, their “Nativity figures move around the house,” she explained.
“Joseph and Mary and the donkey start their long walk across our mantle, and then the Wise Men start at the other end of the house from the East. They come across the house and get to the stable by Jan. 6. “Things like this,” she said, “help keep our kids engaged with the liturgical year.”
With ever-changing government policies, the Harrells are sad that some traditions might have to change, but they have readily adapted. “We have always taken the kids to get a picture with Santa, but this year we will not get a Plexiglas shield picture,” Mary insisted. “So we’ve hosted our own St. Nicolas Day party on Dec. 6 to try to keep that tradition to celebrate that day with our friends in our house.”
With the state’s various mandates, there might not be any midnight Masses for Christmas. Sean would always take the oldest children to that particular Mass. “That’s really sad for us,” Mary said. “To not have midnight Mass this year is really discouraging to us. We can’t protect our kids from that one.”
What won’t change is the traditional celebrations continuing after Christmas Day.
Mary shared, “We try to celebrate big for the two weeks after Christmas. Many of the traditions are centered in our home or in friends’ and families’ homes, and we’re grateful for that not being affected.” There will be egg nog, a gingerbread house, and much more.
One of those family traditions is going to see the enormous displays of Christmas lights around the neighborhood on St. Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26. “And,” Mary added, “we have a big New Year’s Eve dinner to celebrate the vigil of Mary, Mother of God.”
The Harrells live liturgically their Christmas celebrations “to help our kids recognize high holy days after Christmas,” Mary emphasized. “When others are packing up their trees, that’s when our party gets going.”
In Georgia, Raymond and Katie Warner and their four children, ages 3 months to 7 years old, love the Christmas season at home, “but part of the joy of our family’s Christmas celebration comes with our waiting until Christmas Day and after to pull out all the stops,” Katie explained. “We save our cookie baking, Christmas music blaring, and tree decorating until Christmas Eve and the following days of the Christmas season, and although it makes Advent truly a season of waiting — often hard waiting — it’s so worth it when the Christmas season comes and it’s full of festivity.”
One of the Warner family’s favorite Christmas traditions is the “12 Books of Christmas.” Starting on Christmas Day, “the kids get to open one wrapped book they find under the tree each day,” Katie said. “It’s such a great way to keep the fun of gift-opening alive throughout the Christmas season, as well as build up our home library with great children’s reads for the year from FirstFaithTreasury.com and other Catholic book publishers, with some classic or new but quality secular titles thrown in, too.”
On Christmas Day, “the Wise Men start traveling toward the crèche,” Katie said, “moving around the room or around the house until they ‘find’ Jesus on the Epiphany. It’s an easy and fun ‘I Spy’ game for the little ones — or for parents if the kids are the ones moving the Wise Men around.”
The celebration and fun continue as they remove and replace Advent’s Jesse Tree ornaments with ones representing the 12 Days of Christmas. “My kids love drawing, so you don’t even need a fancy premade set,” she said.
They draw one of the symbols while learning its significance each day — “and sing the famous 12 Days of Christmas song.”
She finds it “a great activity, especially while stuck indoors for quarantine or weather reasons. We love learning about the Catholic symbolism of each of the 12 Days of Christmas figures using Father William Saunders’ explanations” in his book, Celebrating a Merry Catholic Christmas.
“As many decorations come down on the 26th, we just begin our public witness and private customs that honor the memory of Christ’s birth,” Katie reflected, “which ushers in a renewed assurance that all things on earth are passing save our faith in this Christ Child who conquered something far worse than a virus — sin and death.”