As the calendar flips to December, the excitement Catholics feel awaiting the Savior’s Birth can be muted by society’s insistence that they strive for a storybook perfection of happy home, happy hearth, happy life. But the Church gives us the blessed season of Advent to allow us to pause, breathe deeply and dive into prayerful anticipation of the arrival of the most precious child the world has ever known.

The Monitor offers its readers a few suggestions to experience the Advent and Christmas seasons with a minimum of distractions and a maximum of spiritual depth: 

Turn the music up on faithful tunes this season

With radio stations changing their formats to Christmas music early, listeners may well have heard hundreds of songs about Santa, his reindeer and presents under the tree by the time the calendar turns to December.

But with so few of these seasonal selections focused on Jesus, parents may be hard-pressed to find ways to teach children about their Catholic musical heritage.

The Tyne family of East Windsor is doing their best via hymn songs with their extended family. Joanne and John Tyne, parishioners in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, host their four grown children, three spouses and six grandchildren to an old-fashioned sing-a-long each year.

“I have made a loose-leaf booklet with all the songs they have chosen,” Joanne said. “Sometimes we play the piano, but often we just sing them without it, very simply, very informally. It is a strong tradition in our family.”

The family joins in singing tradition hymns such as “Little Drummer Boy,” “The Friendly Beasts,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night,” one song selected for the booklet by each member of the family.

She continued, “I am a church musician and youth minister. We need to remind the children what Christmas is really all about.”

Another avenue: the Trenton Federation of the Knights of Columbus, which focuses on faith in the public arena during their annual crèche blessing outside the Trenton Statehouse. A children’s choir adds their joyful tones to the prayer service, which is slated this year for 10 a.m. Dec. 14.

And then there are parish lessons and carols services, which feature Scripture Readings interspersed with music rejoicing in the coming Lord. Check your parish’s bulletin and website for locations, or give one a try during the first week of December, when St. John Parish, Allentown, offers the public this spoken and sung worship event at 7 p.m. Dec. 7.

Editor’s Note: The Tynes, under their JMT Productions company, offer family Christmas celebrations for local churches. The Christ-focused shows for children feature puppets, music and crafts. Local upcoming shows include Dec. 8 in St. Anthony of Padua Parish; Dec. 14 in Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown, and Jan. 5 in the auditorium of Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly.  More information: JMTProductions.tyne.us.

Daily faith-based readings lead to spirit-filled Christmas

No matter how many times you make the same journey, a little spiritual guidance can serve as a valuable road map. Catholics looking for deeper reverence and joy this Advent season should consider reading the Bible and spiritual texts daily.

Reading a chapter of the Gospel of Luke each day is especially appropriate. Luke’s Gospel is a well-considered examination of what was known of Jesus’ life and travels. This orderly sequence takes readers on a methodical walk through Jesus’ infancy, public ministry, Passion and Resurrection. Faithful who read and pray over each chapter can better prepare to welcome the newborn King, and just as his Blessed Mother did upon hearing the words of the angels, reflect on them in their hearts.

Many find daily reflections and prayers by Scripture scholars a helpful way to prepare their hearts. In the introduction to his new book “Advent Reflections,” Bishop Robert Barron, founder of the “Word on Fire” ministry, calls Advent “the liturgical season of vigilance … waiting seems to belong to the heart of the spiritual life.” 

“Maybe we’re forced to wait because God wants us seriously to reconsider the course we’ve charted,” Bishop Barron said, “or perhaps we are made to wait because we are not yet adequately prepared to receive what God wants to give us.”

To receive Bishop Barron’s reflections via daily email, sign up at adventreflections.com.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website (usccb.org) also can be a valuable resource. A calendar links to the daily readings at Mass, while a drop-down menu links to each book of the Bible.

Environmental décor: Christ is our Light

When you decorate your home this Christmas, take a lesson from the Vatican.

Firmly employing the principles of the papal document, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home,” the Vatican announced last month that it will be utilizing energy-efficient lights on the main 85-foot-tall spruce tree and another 20 smaller trees. Additionally, about 40 trees will be replanted in an area that was seriously damaged by hurricane-like winds and torrential rains in 2018.

The large Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square will be constructed entirely out of wood; about 20 larger-than-life-size painted wooden figures of the Holy Family, Magi, shepherds and animals will stand side by side broken tree trunks salvaged from those same storms.

How can you reuse, recycle and conserve at home? The U.S. Department of Energy (Energy.gov) recommends using high-efficiency LED lights, setting timers for lighting displays, and using ribbons, garland, wreaths and reflective ornaments.

Simple, handmade ornaments using found or recycled items can brighten every tree and mantle. String popcorn or berries for a festive garland, then share it with birds at the end of the season. Recycle paper toweling tubes to make a simple crèche; pipe cleaners, scraps of yarn, even burnt out lightbulbs can be repurposed with a little ingenuity and a lot of love.

Keep in mind our call as Christians to care for our earthly home. After all, the Light of Christ is all you’ll need for a blessed Christmas!

Seasonal faith traditions: The Most Honored Guest

Catholics have faith heritages of many lands, which was perfectly exemplified when one Monitor Magazine reader shared a tradition common in Russia and other Eastern European nations: setting a place for the Jesus at the Christmas Eve dinner table.

Not too long ago, the symbolism of this quaint custom was detailed on the website Catholic365.com, as writer Amelia Monroe Carlson. She discovered faithful adorn the dinner table with a white tablecloth with strands of hay underneath. The hay reminds dinner guests of the manger where Jesus was born, and the tablecloth symbolizes the swaddling clothes in which he was wrapped.

But what about the extra place setting itself, the one symbolically set aside for the infant Jesus? Carlson writes that its symbolism is two-fold.

“For some homes, it is also for a stranger that may appear at the door of the family on Christmas Day who is hungry or in need because Christmas is a day to include everyone and to show the love of Christ to everyone,” she writes. “More importantly, they make large efforts to ensure Jesus is included in the meal. Imagine people holding a large feast in honor of your birthday and not inviting you.”

So set aside that place setting on your table, in your heart, and remember the true reason for the season.

What is your family’s unique way to celebrate the birth of our Savior? The conversation continues on The Monitor’s Facebook page!

An Epiphany party: The answer to a busy Christmas week 

With today’s experience of blended families and crowded social calendars, one of the more challenging aspects of Christmas is getting everyone together at the same time to celebrate in a relaxed and meaningful way. Families find themselves on the go in the days surrounding Christmas, either getting ready for entertaining or traveling from house to house to make the requisite visits to the grandparents or the in-laws.

One enjoyable and faith-based solution is to host an Epiphany party. Because it is removed from the busier days around Christmas, hosting an Epiphany Sunday or Three Kings party often means that more of your clan are able to join in. It also helps to reinforce the understanding that Christmas is more than one day. While some secular customs find people taking down their tree and decorations as early as Dec. 26, an Epiphany party is an encouragement to keep your home decorated for Christmas well into the actual season, which doesn’t end until the Baptism of the Lord.

To really connect with the traditions of Christmas and the Nativity story, you might consider holding back one small gift for each of the children in the family until the Epiphany celebration – giving them something extra to look forward to. One year, I also gave my guests of all ages foil-wrapped bar chocolates to symbolize the gifts that were brought by the Kings. And, to reinforce for my grandchildren that this was about the Christ Child and all that we do in his name, we sat down after our Epiphany dinner to fill diaper bags with needed items that I later took to the nearby pregnancy center.

Whether hosting an actual party, or simply going out to brunch after Mass, anything that reinforces the joyful nature of Epiphany provides a wonderful capstone to our Christmas celebration and is well worth doing.

Contributed by Rayanne Bennett, Associate Publisher