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When is Christmas?

Seems a strange question to ask in the middle of November, but I have already seen signs on social media that, back in the States at least, the encroachment of Christmas on other holidays is already in full swing.

Keep Christmas in Christmas.

One of the great things I have loved about living in Italy is that they still know when Christmas is, and neither start celebrating/decorating/commercializing too early, nor do they quit before it is finished.

However, in the last few days, I have heard people playing Christmas music, I have seen stores start displaying gingerbread houses (!), and one colleague has already put up a Christmas tree.

Personally, I have only just gone shopping at Castroni to get pureed pumpkin so I can bake a pie, since I am somewhere between Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving (which is a big Italian holiday, you know, with turkey cacciatore, sweet potato parmesan, and cranberry cannoli.)

To be honest, I am not sure which end is worse – seeing signs of Christmas before Thanksgiving (or Veteran’s Day, or Hallowe’en) or seeing them disappear just as Christmas really gets started because people are tired of having heard Jingle Bells since August.

Christmas Day – 25 December – marks the beginning of Christmas season. The traditional 12 Days of Christmas run from Christmas Day to Epiphany (6 January). In part, this ties together the differences between Christmas on the Gregorian calendar and Christmas on the Julian calendar. (for more on that)

In Italy, the decorating begins, customarily, no earlier than around 6 December (St. Nicholas Day) or 8 December (the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary). The Christmas tree at St. Peter’s arrives around then, but is only lit on or about 17 December – which happily coincides both with the beginning of the intensification of Advent with the O Antiphons and with the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. In fact is only by that point in mid-December that Christmas season really feels to be upon us.

Who would think of stopping the Christmas music or tearing down the lights or throwing out the tree just as the holiday begins? Nobody takes anything down until after 6 January (feast of the Epiphany) at the earliest. At the Vatican, the Nativity scene (usually unveiled only on Christmas Eve) remains on display until 2 February (Candlemas), the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord as a child in the temple. (This is the source of the Nunc Dimittis, the Canticle of Simeon, who sings praise for being allowed to live long enough to see the messiah). A fitting end to the Christmas periphery.

A practical guide?

Presentation1

  • Remember Advent
    • The traditional season of preparation and hopeful anticipation preceding Christmas starts with the Sunday nearest November 30.
    • Celebrate Advent. Let Advent be Advent, and save Christmas until Christmas. Create or buy an advent calendar, and advent wreath
    • Sing advent songs before you sing Christmas songs. Abstain from Christmas music if you have to, early in December, so you are not sick of it by the time Christmas actually starts.
    • At the earliest, start with St. Nicholas Day – the original Santa Claus – on 6 December. A hint of “Christmas is coming”. Get some clogs and some chocolate coins and discover the traditions of this patron saint of children.
  • Celebrate Christmas from 24 December to 6 January.
    • Keep your tree, your decorations, your lights, and your holiday goodies throughout
    • Petition your local radio stations – at least the Christian ones – to keep the Christmas music going during this period, even if it means not starting it until later in December than they used to
    • Tell the malls, the shops, the community – No Santa appearances until, say, St Nicholas Day. Certainly not before Thanksgiving!
    • Keep up your “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” this entire period.
  • Celebrate Epiphany
    • whether as the visit of the magi or as theophany, mark the day as the end of the Christmas holiday
    • Save some of the goodies, presents, and parties for Epiphany – everybody seems to try to cram their “Christmas” parties in before Christmas even begins. Throw a Christmas party in early January. Throw an epiphany party.
    • At the latest, close it up by 2 February.
  • Even if you do not keep Christ in Christmas* at least honor the integrity of the holiday
    and keep Christmas in Christmas
    – and not in Advent, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July.

    • *that is, if you are not a Christian
    • I am not Jewish, but I would not presume to start wishing people a Happy Hanukkah during Sukkot or Yom Kippur;
    • I am not Muslim, but I would not throw an Eid al-Fitr banquet in the middle of Ramadan.
    • I am not a secularist, but I would not throw a Super Bowl party during the World Series (or the World Cup, as it may be). Or start talking about the campaign 18 months before the election. Or apply for preschools while my kid was still in the womb. Or, well, you get the idea…

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3.1-8

Christmas Day at the Lay Centre

We slept. Instead of venturing back to Piazza San Pietro, we decided to sleep in and watch the Urbi et Orbi on TV – a better view, and with no public transit running, we would have spent half a day just getting there and back.

Christmas dinner

In the afternoon, the seven of us staying at the Lay Centre were joined by twice as many guests for a Christmas dinner prepared by Donna with a little help from Nancy and me. As with Thanksgiving, it was nice to offer hospitality to friends and colleagues here in Rome, separated from home and family. We entertained guests from the U.S. and U.K., Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and a few countries that do not start with the letter “U”.

Colosseum "crown of light"

David had spent a day or two preparing a piñata, a custom which only three or four of us were familiar with, and he and I got to torment the blindfolded volunteers with our maneuverings. The measures of success for a piñata: several people tried (and failed), lots of laughter, and lots of candy!

As we were getting ready to head back in for dessert, the Colosseum lit up the sky with a “crown of light” in honor of the coming of the Christ-light into the world. Not as busy as yesterday, but a welcome celebration!

Nativity of the Lord: Christmas Mass at Midnight

Preparing for Jill's Feast: AJ, Greg, Karina, Jill, Natalie

Nancy and I, and a small group from the Lay Centre started Christmas Eve with a traditional Italian dinner hosted by Jill, another Domer I discovered at the Angelicum. It was incredible! Antipasti and prosecco to start the night off, followed by soup, pasta, fish… and each prepared and served in proper order, it was almost a pity we had to leave for the mass! Seriously, aside from theology, ministry, and guiding tours of Rome she could open her own trattoria. Not only was it all delicious, it was presented so beautifully, it really made a special evening even more delightful.

Standing on the confessionals at St. Peter's, Midnight Mass 1944

It is from Jill that I learned that Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Until 1944, the last time the bishop of Rome had celebrated Christmas midnight mass at St. Peter’s is believed to be for the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Otherwise, the traditional location in Rome had been Santa Maria Maggiore – which makes a lot more sense given the indispensible role Mary played in the Nativity, and the location there of the relics of the Nativity including what was believed to be the manger in which the Christ child was laid. Since Pius XII’s celebration just after the liberation of Italy during WWII, the popes have celebrated midnight mass at St. Peter’s; but the Romans still go to Mary Major while the Americans and other pilgrims go pray with the pope – though we were not standing on the confessionals this time.

The line begins outside the Basilica of St. Peter

Jill’s place being mere minutes from Piazza San Pietro, we took some liberty with our arrival time. For the first time, what has traditionally been a Midnight Mass was moved up to 10:00pm so we were advised to arrive three hours early – we got there at 7:30 and got into a line that already wrapped around the entire Piazza and had started doubling up on itself. Waiting just ahead of us in line was an American, a theatre professor from Miami, who was hoping against hope to find a ticket to get into the papal mass. (His name is James Brown. No, really – you can look him up.) As it happens, I had had a friend arrange to get four tickets for us before we knew we would be getting enough through the Lay Centre, so Natalie had borrowed three for friends, and there was just one left over – the Spirit works in small ways too! Unfortunately, we lost Jim in the mass crush when our part of the line finally got inside the Basilica, but in a couple hours of waiting in line at least got to make a new friend.

View from our seats, taken after the liturgy

Once inside, we found the massive line had filled the seats in the nave and it looked as if we might have to stand – until they opened the transepts. We got the leftover seats from the “reserved” section in the south transept, directly to the side of the altar. We couldn’t see the pope as he sat in the presiders chair, but had a great view of the liturgy of the Eucharist.

We were placed directly between two of the massive pillars supporting Michelangelo’s Dome, looked over by Sts. John of God and Mary Euphrasia Pellettier on one side and Sts. Juliana Falconieri and Angela Merici on the other. Because of this we could not see very far down the nave toward the main doors. About the time we thought the music was changing from prelude to procession, we heard something like screams, a pause long enough to ask each other what that was about, then cheering. “Ah, they were cheering for the pope like a rock star!” We did not realize that Benedict had been knocked down until after the liturgy and we met up with some students who had been in that part of the Basilica. We did see Cardinal Etchegaray being wheeled out on a gurney behind us, and thought perhaps he had fallen or something. His Holiness did not mention it, and did not even seem fazed by the time we saw him.

Presepe at Piazza San Pietro

The liturgy was beautiful. Last time I was in Rome, for the close of the Jubilee, midnight mass had been held outside, in the Piazza. This was my second papal Eucharist inside St. Peter’s this year, and both times there has really been a sense of reverence and participation in the liturgy, even despite the size of the church and the numbers of people celebrating. The mass parts were in Latin, the readings in Spanish and English, the gospel sung in Latin and the pope’s homily delivered in Italian, the prayers of the faithful in Russian, French, Tagalog, Portugese, and German. The music is increadible, of course: the only places outside Rome I have seen compare for quality liturgy and liturgical music is the Basilica of Sacred Heart at Notre Dame and St. James Cathedral in Seattle. (The National Shrine in D.C. sometimes makes the cut, too…) Nancy was tempted to record the entire liturgy, but we settled for trying to get some of the music.

Afterwards we stood in front of the presepe (crèche, Nativity scene) at the foot of the obelisk in the middle of Bernini’s piazza, listening to a group of sisters singing carols. After an hour of trying to hail a taxi, we got a couple to take us back to the Lay Centre without trying to rip us off (Thank you, Karina!!)

On returning to the Lay Centre, Donna had prepared for us an “American breakfast” – pancakes with Canadian maple syrup, eggs, bacon, and orange juice – the most proper way to celebrate the birth of Jesus at 2:00am! And, to be honest, I do not think I have ever appreciated American fare so much!

Advent greetings from Rome from SOLT

I seem to have trouble embedding videos, but you can click on the link and see a video prepared by the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) Rome House of Formation, some friends from the Angelicum: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POeEvxf-5PI

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