It’s the gift, not the wrapping

‘‘Puer natus est nobis!” “Vesele Bozicne!” “Frohe Weihnachten!” “Buon Natale!” “Linksmu sv kaledu!” Merry Christmas!

However we Catholics give greetings, the time is nigh. Maybe your family sang carols going to midnight Mass or gathered for large family suppers. This is the way we celebrate. Most of our traditions honor our ancestors and their practices. Whether we are Irish or Hispanic or Italian, we like the old ways in this season.

Make time to tell your young what your family’s Christmas practices were and why you did them. For some, the easy way to take care of Christmas is with the credit card. But the gift of time is what is most desirable. And while that gift of time is scarce, we can’t underestimate its importance. We need to give time to making wreaths, cookies, and some ornaments. Cutting out cookies with the kids gives them the sensual side of Christmas. They can make ornaments with colorful paper, popcorn and cranberries.

Most of us remember the jolly times together more than any gifts received (OK, the fairy queen doll and the chemistry set were the best gifts ever). Trimming the tree as a family creates strong memories. Plan so that everyone has a part in the Christmas preparations. Incorporate ornaments collected from travel and vacations or third grade art class. (No yearly theme trees, please.) The smallest child gets to place the angel atop the tree on Christmas Eve.

Read the Christmas stories every year. The Annunciation, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the other family favorites: “The Littlest Angel,” “The Visit of St. Nicholas,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Gift of the Magi,” all instill the true meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is time for family practices and rituals. Keeping our traditions holds us together. Many practices have common elements despite different ethnic roots and languages. The practices honor our parents and ancestors and the oldest living man, father or grandfather.

For Lithuanians, Christmas Eve is the most important time. All family members make the effort to come home for Christmas Eve supper. They come for the ritual which draws family closer, strengthening warm family ties. The table is laid with hay, a pure white cloth, candles and fir boughs. The hay spread on the table is reminder of Jesus’ birth in a manger. A small plate with as many wafers as people is set in the center. The wafers, called God’s cakes, obtained from the parish have biblical scenes of Jesus’ birth. Twelve dishes are served representing the Twelve Apostles. All dishes are strictly meatless: fish, herring, potatoes, sauerkraut and so on. The food consists of ones grown nearby and preserved, dried or pickled.

The meal begins, if possible, when the first star appears in the sky and when father or grandfather announces it is time to eat. Prayers are said. The father offers the wafer to the mother and she offers it in return to him. The father offers it to each member at the table. If apples are placed on the table, the mother takes one and cuts it into as many pieces as people present. The apple symbolizes the fall the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

This Lithuanian celebration has characteristic devotion to country ways. Nothing is flown in from distant cities. The fare is what would be available in winter. The animals are fed signaling their importance to the survival of the family. It is believed that on this magical night even the animals talk. In the old days a horse-drawn sleigh took the families to Mass over snowy roads. Bells attached to the harnesses sounded, piercing the midnight air.

Our more common Christmas symbols come from the garden. Historians note that Christianity ingeniously attached religious significance to earlier pagan practices. Thus the ivy, holly wreaths and rosemary made their way into our homes. Christianity made ivy a popular symbol having plucked it from earlier pagan excesses. The manner in which ivy clings to rocks, suggests an allegory for human dependence on divine power. The wreaths we display come from the Roman practice of using victory laurel at ancient athletic games as signs of celebration and victory.

Holly, readily available in gardens, is steeped in Christian symbol. Its prickly edges point both back and forward. The holly leaves point backward to the burning bush Moses saw on Mount Sinai and forward to the bloody crown of thorns that the newborn King would one day wear. The use of holly is particularly appropriate and emblematic of the burning bush in that it was not God but God the Son who appeared to Moses in the bush. The burning bush itself was seen as a sign of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her virginity was preserved despite childbirth as the bush was preserved despite being engulfed in fire.

Rosemary is worthy of inclusion in our preparations. Legend has it that as the Holy Family fled to Egypt, Mary stopped along the way to wash baby Jesus’ clothes and spread them to dry on a rosemary bush.

Music carries the day. Many old carols are precious to us. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has added Christian significance. Although it has innocent-enough words, some hold it was a secret catechism during the time of Catholic persecution. When the Catholic Church was outlawed in England, transmission of Catholic teaching was to risk torture or even life. The lyrics are a veiled reference to lines of catechism. If one were caught singing the Twelve Days, a Catholic could claim it was a harmless ditty or even a Protestant catechism since most of the song’s teachings were shared by Protestants.

Whatever the language, the family traditions, keep yours alive as we rejoice in the birth of Christ among us.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.