Christmas

O God, whose Son was born
in Bethlehem, on that
wonderous night, lead us to
that same place, where Mary
laid her tiny child.
As we look on in wonder and
praise, make us welcome Him
and all new life, and care for
His handiwork; the earth,
the sky and the sea.
O God, bless us again in Your
great love. We pray for this
through Christ our Lord,
Amen.

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Nativity scene with Three Wise Men and animals

As one of the most powerful and popular symbols of Christmas in the Christian world, the nativity scene is familiar to everyone. Nativities can be carvings, art, ceramics, or even living depictions of the night of Jesus’ birth.

The scenes contain the same five basic elements: Baby Jesus in a manager, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and barn animals. Often the Three Wise Men are added to the scene.

This iconic symbol of Christian hope and redemption celebrates one of the most important events in the history of mankind: the birth of Jesus.

The Story Behind the Nativity Scene

Saint Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene, or crèche (these terms are used interchangeably), to promote the true significance of Christmas. He wanted to remind everyone that Baby Jesus was born into a humble, poor, but loving environment. He felt Catholics were missing the message of the Gospel because they were ensnared in materialism.

On Christmas Eve in 1223, Saint Francis started what would later become one of the most widespread and familiar Christmas traditions of all time. Outside Greccio, in a cave, he re-created Jesus’ birth and its modest conditions to remind people of how Christianity has never been (and never will be) about material richness. Rather, Christianity revolves around spirituality and worship. Catholicism has nothing to do with earthly wealth, and everything to do with God’s love and the forgiveness of sin through His sacrifice of His only Son.

A few decades later, in 1260, Saint Bonaventure described the beauty and awe in the scene created by Saint Francis. His description and praise resulted in St. Francis’ nativity scene becoming a permanent part of Christian tradition.

Christ Child in manger scene

The Common Symbolism of the Nativity Scene

Saint Francis created the original nativity scene using live animals and hay in a cave. Today, live nativity scenes are still very popular, but other methods of reenacting the birth of Jesus are more common, whether it is an olive wood carving or an elaborate icon.

The presence of animals is an important element of any nativity scene. Saint Francis used an ox and an ass in the original because he wanted to portray the extremely humble conditions under which our Lord and Savior Jesus was born.

Most believe the ox represents patience and the people of Israel. The donkey represents Gentiles, humility, and readiness to serve. Brought together, these animals tell the story of Christianity—and, ultimately, the story of a world united under the name of God and his Son, Jesus.

The central character in the nativity is Baby Jesus in his manger. Most scenes depict him with open arms inviting us to accept salvation.

The Virgin Mary is sometimes larger than other characters and usually wears a red gown representing blood. Her cloak is blue, symbolizing the sky and heaven, conveying she is the link between heaven and earth.

The Three Wise Men represent different continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—and sometimes they are portrayed in different age groups, representing the various life stages. Their gifts are also significant. Gold represents Baby Jesus’ kingship, incense symbolizes His divinity, and myrrh foreshadows His death.

The shepherds represent the common man.

Nativity scene with Three Wise Men and animals

Some Not-So-Common Symbolism Expressed in the Nativity Scene

Sometimes there are some subtle differences in various versions of the nativity scene that have important symbolic meaning. For example, the Virgin Mary is often depicted with her hand clutched over her heart. This refers to the verse in St. Luke that states “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Final Thoughts

The most important thing about the nativity scene is its message. Our Heavenly Father sent His own son to earth to be sacrificed for our sins. Those who believe in Him may receive forgiveness and eternity in heaven.

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In today’s world where cultural emphasis tends toward the secular, the Christmas season is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the meanings of some of our holiday traditions. The giving of gifts, for example, is a reminder of the gifts the Wise Men gave to the Christ child. The gifts given were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Frankincense was a specific type of perfume used by the Jewish in their worship ceremonies. When given as a gift, it signified that people would worship Jesus as the Christ.

Gold was a precious material associated with kings in the societal culture at the time of Christ’s birth. Giving gold as a gift illustrated the Christian belief that Jesus was above all Kings—that He was essentially the King of Kings.

Myrrh was used in burial practices. Dead bodies were anointed with myrrh, a type of perfume, to give them a nice smell. Giving myrrh as a gift signified that Jesus would suffer and die.

Inspirational Gifts for the Modern Catholic

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The world has changed dramatically since the time in which Jesus walked the Earth. When Christmas is celebrated today, the giving of gifts has become more of a commercial exercise than an expression of spiritual inspiration. This trend does not have to be reinforced by members of the Catholic faith.

If you are a practicing Catholic and want to give gifts in the holiday season that have inspirational and virtuous significance, we have a few suggestions for your consideration.

Advent Wreath

Advent wreath with candles

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the promised Messiah—a time of hope, waiting, and conversion. One expression of piety designed to help us prepare for this season is the Advent Wreath.

A traditional Advent Wreath is a circle formed of evergreens, wood, metal or other material and includes four candles. A traditional Catholic Advent Wreath will include three purple candles and one rose-colored candle. These are representative of the four Sundays in the Advent Season that come before Christmas. An optional fifth candle, a white one, can be placed in the center of the wreath. This candle is reserved for lighting on Christmas Day.

Sunday after Sunday, these candles are lit as the days flow up to Christmas. The traditional sequence is to start on the first Sunday by lighting a purple candle. Two purple candles are lit on the following Sunday. The rose candle, along with two purple ones, is lit on the third Sunday. The last purple candle is lit on the fourth Sunday, along with the other three candles. Scriptural passages are typically read as the candles are lit, as an inspiration toward reflection.

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Chapel Veils

Mantilla lace

In the early days when Christianity was young, faithful women wore chapel veils as a common practice. A chapel veil, also known as a mantilla, is traditionally a circular or triangular shaped piece of lace. They could be black or white and were worn draped over a woman’s head when she attended Mass or if she was in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Traditionally, young girls or unmarried women wore white veils, while black veils were worn by women who were married or widowed. Wearing a mantilla was a tradition that signified a woman’s willingness to hide her own physical beauty so that the beauty of God could be glorified among men instead.

The wearing of a chapel veil was also a way of honoring and emulating Mary, the Holy Mother, who is the epitome of humility and purity. The mantilla was a way of honoring a woman’s role as a life-bearing vessel. Although the wearing of a chapel veil is no longer a requirement for women to attend Mass, it continues to be seen as a symbol of a woman’s modesty and her humility before God.

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Christmas Novena

Praying woman with sunset

As we prepare for the celebration of the birth of our Savior, a deepening devotion to our prayers is a natural response. Many choose to practice this renewed devotion through praying a Christmas Novena during the days of Advent. A variety of Christmas Novenas are available, so you can surely find one to please those to whom you’re giving this year.

Saint Andrew Christmas Novena: The Feast of St. Andrew is Nov. 30. The Christmas Novena of St. Andrew begins on Andrew’s Feast Day and continues until Christmas Day.

Standard Christmas Novena: The Novena is traditionally a nine-day prayer; thus, this prayer is prayed from Dec. 15 to the 24th of December.

‘O’ Antiphons in a Christmas Novena: The Liturgy of the Hours is the form this Christmas Novena most often takes. It includes the ‘O’ Antiphons that are also used with a Jesse Tree. This novena is rich in liturgical language and scripture.

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The Christmas Crèche

Other popular terms for a Christmas Crèche are a crib, manger, or Nativity scene. A Christmas Nativity is an enduringly popular Christmas tradition everywhere.

It is believed that St. Francis of Assisi developed the first Christmas crèche as a live Nativity scene in Greccio in 1223 or 1224. He created this first crèche after returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He fostered the idea that this crèche could inspire us to a greater devotion to Christ, and it has proven to be a lasting inspiration to the faithful around the world. The Christmas Nativity is a tradition that has thrived for more than 800 years.

Three wise men nativity scene figures


The crèche is inspired by the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and it depicts the moment that Christ was born in a humble place, surrounded by Mary and Joseph. Most nativities include the Three Wise Men and various stable animals. Recreations of the crèche are an excellent gift for the home, for display in a church, or to be presented as a living nativity in the fashion of St. Francis from long ago.

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Statuaries

Catholic churches have traditionally been adorned with some of the world’s most incredible artwork, both paintings and sculptures. This statuary art is a method of expression used to bring out our inner feelings. The artistic sculptures of saints and religious figures are vehicles used to the honor and glory of God. Catholics don’t worship statues; Catholics worship Jesus through this beautiful art as an inspiration to faith.

Religious statuaries for inside the home or an outdoor garden are welcome additions to any practicing Catholic’s living spaces. Not only are these beautiful works of art, but they also serve to remind us of the goodness of Christ and encourage us to live a life devoted to faith and love. Statues can be found in a wide variety of figures, from patron saints to guardian angels. Statues depicting the Virgin Mary or Christ Himself are intimate gifts that can be given in the true spirit of giving.

Whatever décor or style you have in your home or garden, a statue of St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima, of St. Michael or St. Gabriel, or any other statue that inspires you makes a welcome gift during the holiday season.

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The Blessed Mother

Statuary depicting the Holy Mother and the Holy Family are timeless gifts for individuals, households, and churches. The sinlessness of the Blessed Mother is celebrated on Dec. 8 in the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because she was free from sin, Mary was perfect as the chosen vessel through which the birth of Jesus could take place. This Feast Day is considered one of the most important of the Holy Days of Obligation.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe Bust Marco Sevelli Plaque

Our Lady of Guadalupe

On Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated. Our Lady left an image of herself imprinted on the cloak of Saint Juan Diego in 1531—an image that still exists today. Because the image includes a black tie and girdle, the common thought is that the image shows her in pregnancy. Thus, she is considered the Patroness of the Unborn. The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe parallels the seasonal celebration of Advent and the nativity of Christ.

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The Holy Family

One of the most beautiful traditions of the Catholic faith is the devotion to the Holy Family. Jesus and his Blessed Mother the Virgin Mary, and St. Joseph his earthly protector, guardian, and father, comprise the Holy Family.

Not only are statues, plaques, and paintings of the Holy Family a welcome gift during the Christmas holiday season, but the Holy Family is a fantastic gift year-round, especially for weddings. You can find the Holy Family depicted on such gifts as art, medals, fonts for holy water, and prayer cards.

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Prayer Cards

Saint Aloysius Laminated Prayer Card

The tradition of handing out Catholic prayer cards is a custom of the Catholic Church that dates back to centuries of long ago. These traditional gifts are also called holy cards. The oldest Catholic prayer card that survives today is St. Christopher. This prayer card dates to 1423.

A prayer card presents an image of a religious figure and includes a favored scriptural verse or prayer. These cards are used as a way to commemorate special events, such as First Communion or Confirmation.

One tradition sees prayer cards being distributed at funerals. These cards contain a favorite prayer of comfort, the name of the deceased, and the dates they lived. They serve as a commemoration of the loved one lost and as a reminder to us to pray for the dead.

Prayer cards make great gifts for religious education classes or as greeting card accents and are great as inclusions in more secular Christmas cards. A personalized prayer card makes a thoughtful and special gift on any occasion.

Even occasions like family reunions can be a popular time to give out prayer cards.

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Rosaries

One can never go wrong when giving a rosary as a gift, regardless of the season or occasion. Catholic rosaries are most often found in the form of a string of beads grouped into sets of five decades.

Rosary beads

Rosaries can be found in a variety of types, each with its own historical background and place within the Catholic Church’s teachings.

Rosaries are used when praying, as a way to direct prayers to a specific religious figure, and can be used as part of a larger ceremony. A few of the types of rosaries are detailed below:

Standard rosary: For most Catholics, the standard or common rosary consists of five sets of 10 beads, traditionally known as decades. There are also five beads in a set that lead to a crucifix at the end of the string. Each of the beads linking the crucifix to the beads of the decades signifies a prayer.

The first bead is intended to signify the “Our Father” prayer. The next ten beads are intended to mark the holder’s recitation of the “Hail Mary” prayers. The last bead signifies a “Glory Be” prayer. Each of the beads making up the five decades signifies a single “Hail Mary.” The marker beads that space them apart represent one “Our Father” each.

Servite rosary: These popular rosaries are dedicated to the adulation of the Mother Mary. A servite rosary finds the traditional set of 10 rosary beads divided by marker beads in sets of seven. The seven beads are symbols for the seven founders of the Servite order. These founders lived in 13th century Tuscany and dedicated their lives to the Madonna.

Woman with red rosary beads

These founders symbolize the “Seven Sorrows of Mary.” These sorrows are the struggles the Blessed Mother endured during the life and death of Jesus, her son. While praying this rosary, the purpose is to contemplate the difficulties of Mother Mary’s life through the recitation of these prayers.

Franciscan rosary: This traditional rosary is named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the well-known and beloved saint. St. Francis began the Franciscan order in the 15th century as a way to celebrate God’s nature. The order also embodies a disdain for wealth and materialism that is symbolized in the life of the Blessed Mother Mary.

A Franciscan rosary has seven or 15 sets of 10 beads. The Franciscan rosary focuses on the joys of Mary’s life instead of the sorrows she endured.

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In case you missed the coverage of Pope Francis’s Christmas speech to the Curia, here are just a few of the headlines that it produced:

Pope Francis, At Christmas Gathering, Blasts Vatican’s Bureaucrats : The Two-Way : NPR.

Pope warns Curia against ‘spiritual diseases’ | Crux.

Pope issues scathing critique of Vatican bureaucracy in pre-Christmas meeting | National Catholic Reporter.

Pope Francis

This is what I am really loving about Pope Francis. He doesn’t worry about the bureaucracy or playing nice and leaving things as is; If he see something that needs to get fixed, he tells us. Continue reading Christmas Speech by Pope Francis

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The song Hallelujah is one of my all time favorite songs. I first heard it on Jeff Buckley’s album Grace years ago. Since then, I have heard many variations of it performed by a variety of artists from Lenard Cohen (the original writer) to Justin Timberlake, to A-Capella groups and even in the movie Shrek.

However, I just found this version from the group Cloverton. They change up the lyrics (which always had a very spiritual feel to it) to tell the story of Christ’s birth.

Here is their version:

Here is my favorite version from Jeff Buckley

Have a wonderful Christmas season everyone.

-Travis

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