The Christmas journey

Easter is central to the Catholic faith, but Christmas is our heart. While Lent is penitential, Advent is only partially so. A mini-Lent. When the world wants parties and pleasure, the Catholic Church calls for fasting and self-sacrifice. But there is a purpose. Advent is a journey, a journey to the feast of Christmas. Advent is a journey of the heart. Like Mary and Joseph's, and that of the Magi, and all traveling to come home, journeys mean stress and sacrifices.

All the while, though, our expectations mount. Little ones with their eyes all aglow shriek with joy as school is out. The wanderers are coming home to family gatherings; Christmas cards (will they be texting this year?) from old friends; a warm hearth and our decorated church. We are reconnecting to memories of a favorite baby doll or a cherished air gun. And memories, too, of Christmas disappointments: the pony that never came or an overly serious book for the second year in a row from an overly serious aunt.

We like our family traditions: Swedish candles that turn brass bells when lit; Trappist monk fruit cakes; Handel's Messiah. In Europe, Christmas is equated with the traditional fasting. In France, as in many countries, seven meatless meals are served before going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The fast is broken in a festive mood with roasted meat and wine. In Denmark, children make small cakes, cookies, biscuits well in advance of Christmas. In Lithuania, food is prepared not only for Kucios, which is Christmas eve supper, but for the first days of Christmas as well. These practices stem from the knowledge that there is no point to a lavish feast if there is no fasting.

Even television promotes some spirit of Christmas as long as no one is offended. But the unwritten law of media agreement is to present a secular uniformity of an American Christmas. In reality regional practices are varied according to food, climate and religious practices. Luminaries and other light celebrations take place in many parts of the country. Farolites, tea lights or candles inside paper bags are set along curbs or drives. Candles at the window ablaze through Advent are a sign of preparation.

Many participate in Las Posadas, where the journey of Mary and Joseph is re-enacted. The scene involves their being turned away from several neighboring doors until they are finally received at the home where the party is taking place. An elaborate nativity scene is set up. Our own parishes present the Nativity of Jesus according to the Gospel of Luke.

If we have difficulty being penitential, it is because the season calls out to us to eat, sing and give and receive gifts. We want to wear our lush velvets and pointy shoes. Even those bulky theme sweaters are allowed. We want to host parties. After all, the decorated tree needs people to gather around and admire it.

Trees have taken on themes. Sometimes it is a beach themed tree, or a multitude of exclusively red ornaments. In medieval times trees were decorated with red apples symbolizing knowledge of good and evil from the Garden of Eden. In recent times we have substituted shiny red ornaments for real apples. Some decorate an outdoor tree for the birds.

Our family has a few ornaments left from the time we had no money. We found California walnuts, painted them gold and glued on a red ribbon for hanging. Like the gifts of the Magi in the O. Henry story, we used what we had.

Now many ornaments are sentimental reminders of foreign travels or children's handmade items or ones which were part of growing up. On top is a shining star, to remind us of the star of Bethlehem which guided the Magi. The last step of decorating is to hold up the smallest child to place the star on top. This year we will await our youngest child's return to place the star atop the tree all on his own.

Under our tree, we place an orange or a potato with a dime or nickel in it. It's a reminder of one of Dad's immigrant childhood Christmases when a good year on the farm meant an orange (and a dime) and a poor year allowed a potato and a nickel. This ambiguous year will probably bring an orange and a nickel.

A friend of ours divides the year into halves -- before and after Christmas. The season begins with the countdown starting on June 25! And anytime after, he can quickly tell you how many days left till Christmas. His large collection of Christmas books and stories is reread each year. Picture his mood after Epiphany when the tree comes down.

It is just as important to celebrate during the Christmas season as it is to prepare for Christ's arrival. Longing, expectation and tightening the belt make us more aware of the spiritual journey of Advent. Despite the frenzy of the season, there is always a point which crystallizes Christmas for us. It is so individual, wrapped as it is in faith, memory and emotion.

It is from the heart that we await the arrival of the infant Jesus, the babe who changed the world. Let the feast begin.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.