There was a time when Christmas didn’t envelop half of October, all of November and the entire month of December. 

Yolanda Sosa sewed costumes for her grandchildren who re-enact the Christmas story each year as part of their family Christmas celebration. The Sosa family tradition began several years ago after Sosa became concerned that her grandchildren were becoming too materialistic and losing sight of the true meaning of Christmas. (Submitted photo courtesy Yolanda Sosa)It was a day, Dec. 25. 

Of course, technically speaking, there are 12 days of Christmas, but they begin Dec. 25 and go through the feast of the Epiphany.  

No part of the tradition blared “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” over store speakers before Halloween or in a small “Christmas Shop” tucked discreetly into a department store corner after Labor Day. 

Before Christmas, celebrate Advent

Catholics recognize the four-week period called Advent in which the faithful await the birth of Christ on Dec. 25.

Purple is the key color of the season, the anticipation of Christmas and the color of reflection, renewal and penance, and the evergreens represent eternity, explained Kathie Amidei, pastoral associate for life-long faith formation, St. Anthony on the Lake Parish, Pewaukee. 

“Light one new candle for every week of Advent,” she said. “There are many prayers available that you can find to read each week as you light the candles.”

Keeping Christ and the true meaning of Christmas at the forefront of Advent and Christmas celebrations help children understand the greatest gift of all is not under fancy wrappings, but began in the humblest surroundings in a drafty stable in Bethlehem, she said.

“If you look up the concept of the Jesse Tree, it will consist of ornaments you can create that designate the people in the family tree of Jesus, starting with Jesse, the father of David, who is looked upon as the first person in the genealogy of Jesus,” said Amidei. “Parents can also give their child, or set aside themselves, a small donation each week of Advent and decide who the group or agency with whom to share the donation.”

Give to needy this season

Jesuit Fr. Doug Leonhardt, associate vice president of mission and ministry at Marquette University, recalled a family he knew who encouraged their children to see the need in others. 

“During the Advent season, they asked their children when they were growing up what was one of their favorite toys from last Christmas or they received during the year,” he said. “Then the parents explained that there will be children who will not receive Christmas gifts this year. Would they be willing to give this toy to a child who will not receive a Christmas gift? After the first year, it became a family practice.”

Advent is not Christmas

As the DRE at St. Anne Parish, Pleasant Prairie, LeAnn Rogan communicates to catechists and families that Advent is not Christmas and that Christmas does not end when the department stores strip the shelves of decorations. 

“Advent begins on Thanksgiving weekend and is a season of preparations,” she said. “Advent, like the song from ‘High School Musical,’ is the “start of something new” and can give us the freedom to creatively begin new traditions within our own families that will help us remember what this time of year is really about — preparing the Christ Child to enter our hearts anew.”

Rogan encourages catechists and students to wear purple during Advent, and white during the Christmas season as the color of celebration for the church. 

“Evangelization can come in the form of this kind of advertising,” she explained. “Perchance we’ll get asked, ‘How come you’re wearing purple again?’ and have an opportunity to answer for Jesus. What will you do to prepare for his coming?”

Home Advent liturgy is tradition

When Rogan and her husband were engaged 23 years ago, they wanted a way for their families to get to know one another before the wedding, so they hosted an Advent liturgy in a tiny flat in Racine near the church in which they would be married during Lent, St. Edward Church.  

“Mark comes from a very large Irish Catholic family with 11 adult children, most married with kids, and I have three younger sisters. Together, we, our parents and siblings and their families crowded into the living room; and most sat on the floor,” she said. “Fr. Charlie Wester celebrated Mass from Mark’s hand-me-down coffee table by candlelight and we shared in a dialogue homily, most reverent Eucharist and sang along with Catholic music on records. Afterwards, we shared a meal on paper plates.”

The following year, Fr. Webster returned to their home and they hosted what would become their annual Advent liturgy. On Friday, Dec. 19, Fr. Oriol Regales will celebrate Mass in the family room of their home for their 24th annual Advent liturgy. 

“This is my favorite Advent tradition,” Rogan said. “I hope my grown children now feel the same about all those memories we created.”

Christmas Eve Mass is tradition

For Nanette Southey and her husband Daniel Rees, prayer and attending Christmas Eve Mass at St. Thomas Parish, Waterford, is their most important Christmas tradition, one they share with nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews. 

“We also reminisce about those who have gone on before us, and for the past 45-plus years we have gone as a family to Lake Lawn Lodge for Christmas brunch as my late parents were married on Christmas Eve,” she said. “We tease our nephew, Dave; he left teeth marks on the window sills one year when he was teething, and he is now 48!”

Return of ‘Christmas story’

Richard Sosa remembers the year his mother, Yolanda Sosa, member of St. John Nepomuk, Racine, felt her grandchildren were becoming too materialistic and explained the Christmas story to her grandchildren in a way they would understand. She sewed about a dozen costumes and had the children act out the story as a play, something that became tradition. 

“My parents have 14 grandchildren so it fluctuated between 10 and 14 kids in the play,” he said. “The youngest ones seem to always be baby Jesus. I have been a cradle Catholic my whole life and my Christmas memories as a child seemed to always revolve around presents or a favorite toy I received, going to midnight Mass and falling asleep in the pews, just wishing I could be in my pajamas.”

When his mother began the tradition, she picked out a character of the nativity for each grandchild and made perfectly fitted outfits for each person, he explained, adding, with so many granddaughters, Mary was the coveted role.

“This tradition really helped our whole family put the focus on Christ during Christmas, especially for my wife and me as we had some lean years where gifting wasn’t much of an option,” said Sosa. “It really took the emphasis off the presents and more (on) the true gift of Our Savior and cherishing ‘being’ with the family.”

According to Yolanda, who also celebrates another annual tradition of making Christmas Eve tamales with the family, the grandchildren enjoyed the play, which later evolved into a Christmas pageant where her husband, Jesse, would read the Christmas story and the children would dress up, act out the roles, and sing traditional Christmas songs.

“The oldest is now 26 and was still participating when she was 18 or 19, and I would have the older ones act as narrator so they would not have to dress up,” she said. “This was a great way to bring back the true meaning of Christmas to them. We used to videotape each of the plays and the pageants, and watch them afterwards.” 

For Richard, the annual practice of celebrating the true meaning of Christmas has kept his children from focusing on the material. 

“It has really helped everyone, young and old, to be thankful for what we already have and to try to really give our hearts to Jesus during the Christmas season,” he said.

Family photo represents love

As the youngest of 10 children, Philip Van Erman, member of SS. Peter and Paul Parish, Milwaukee, remembers coming down the stairs of his Escanaba, Michigan, home on Christmas morning with his siblings to take a family picture. 

“Dad would have already gone downstairs and lit a fire in the fireplace so it was roaring when we went down,” he said  “Those few moments of anxiousness to go downstairs, of unity in taking that family picture, to wonder at the bottom of the stairs when seeing the tree in all its glory with the lights, the presents, but most importantly, the angel at the top, which was actually St. Lucy – it had it all.”

According to Van Erman, the Christmas morning routine, reminded him the most important thing about Christmas “is not the presents, the glitz, the glamour, but all about whom you spend it with and the intrinsic gifts we have been given – health, a home, the warmth of a fire and loved ones around you. It is a tradition I hope to pass on someday if God blesses me with such a gift.”

Cutting down a Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving is a family tradition Kathy Hoff, member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Burlington, enjoys doing with her three children, and now her two grandchildren.

“We go to a place that is religious based in the sense that their brochure even talks about the true meaning of Christmas,” she said. “When we decorate the house, our nativity scene is prominently displayed in the living room and it is always missing the baby Jesus until Christmas Day. The nativity is our most treasured tradition as it was my job to place all the statues in the crèche when I was younger and that was passed on to my children.”

Advent Angels caught doing good

As a child, Michelle Metallo, member of St. Anne Parish, Pleasant Prairie, remembers her parents starting a tradition of Advent Angels, where she and a her six siblings and parents exchanged names at the beginning of Advent. 

“All through the season we were supposed to do acts of kindness for our angel, such as make their bed, do a chore, buy them something sweet and leave it on their pillow,” she explained. “It was supposed to be kept a secret so all through Advent we would sneak around trying not to get caught doing good things. Shortly before Christmas we would take one day to go shopping for our angel. My parents would give each of us a few dollars to pick whatever we thought our angel would like.”

While the secret of the angel’s identity was long figured out, the children and family kept up the game, wrapping gifts, and later opening them and trying to guess who was the angel. 

“Some of the older kids would purposely guess wrong to make the younger siblings giggle and feel like they tricked them,” said Metallo. “We would act surprised when our angel was finally revealed. The easiest person to guess was always my dad because he always got his angel the same gift … a $5 bill and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup stapled between two paper plates. We have carried this tradition on in my family with our seven kids and it is more fun now than when I was little. I love the idea that they learn about the joy of giving to others.”

‘Oddball family’ puts tree up Christmas Eve

Christina Novak was a member of Our Risen Savior Catholic Church, Woodhull, and looked forward to every Advent when they pulled out the Advent wreath, decorated it with fresh, scented pine branches from their yard, and lit a candle for each week as Christmas came closer. 

“We’d turn down the lights, light the wreath and my mom and sister and I would sing a verse from ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ followed by a meal prayer and a short Advent prayer that my mom had cut out of the bulletin one year and saved.”

Her uncle made Christina’s family a Jesse Tree, which they hung on a closet door. Every day in December, one of them would draw a felt character from its pockets and pin it on the tree. The characters or symbols took the family through salvation history, all the way to the birth of Jesus. 

“We were one of the oddball families who waited to put up the Christmas tree until Christmas Eve day and then decorate it. After a day of decorating and baking, we’d dress up to attend the late Christmas Eve Mass, where I sometimes would altar serve,” she said. “When we came back home, we’d break into the cheese and crackers and cookies and enjoy the Christmas tree lights. We’d keep the tree up past New Year’s.”

It is important to honor family traditions, said Kathie Amidei, adding that Jesus was born into a family and observed religious and family tradition. 

“What are the traditions of your family that you can repeat every year, such as baking cookies and sharing them with a neighbor, visiting relatives and friends or rituals around your family meals or customs?” she said. “Rituals teach children that we came from somewhere and there are things that hold us together that are bigger than ourselves. Being faithful to them is the way we pass on our customs.”