This year, the Christmas season – whether one charts it from the first decorations going up in the stores before Halloween, and ending on December 26; keeps Advent religiously, beginning Christmas only with Midnight Mass and prolonging through the Twelve Days and in some sense to Candlemas on February 2; or else any combination of the two – comes in a rather difficult period of our history. The War in Ukraine grinds on, joined for the past two months by renewed conflict in Gaza. The witch hunt against Tradition in the Catholic Church becomes shriller and pettier with each shriek against the Faith by one or another elderly nonbinary prelate (“Tradition dies a bloody death” is an effusion typical of the type this writer will long remember). No one knows what either the next conclave or the next U.S. presidential election will bring but getting there is literally none of the fun.
Now, two of the devil’s greatest pleasures are to plunge us into hatred and despair – his own two major emotions. So, it is easy to look at all the above, at the ever-present substitution of “holiday” for the observance’s true name, the commercialization, and all the rest of it as reason to dim the brightness of our celebration. We may well have had personal tragedies and losses of loved ones this past year – or else be in a strange setting, far from friends and family. But this time of year, the best way to resist Satan’s desire is precisely to enjoy this wonderful feast – not just on December 25, but all of its ancillary days with their particular and peculiar observances.
The first thing we need to remember is that – regardless of the vapourings of clergy or laity, the Catholic Faith is literally and really true. The four Creeds are a clear description of the awful reality: Jesus Christ, in His Divine Nature, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in His human, rightful heir to King David and inheritor of the promises made by God to that King, was born of the Virgin Mary in the City of His Fathers. God became Incarnate that the wreck of Adam’s Fall might be repaired, suffering Mankind redeemed, and all who choose to benefit from that Incarnation and the ensuing Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection via the Church and Sacraments He established to apply the resulting graces to themselves may do so. He comes down upon every altar across the planet whereon a priest in valid orders summons Him and makes Himself available for the faithful – received by them, but in return, receiving them into Himself. Let us be sure to make ourselves part of that exchange – not just on Christmas, New Year’s, and the Epiphany, but every day of the season that we are able to.
But just as Christ has a Human as well as a Divine nature, so too, does Christmas – and that, although we must ever be on guard to prevent it from overshadowing the Divine aspect of the holiday, also requires due respect, as did Christ’s Davidic heirship. It is no mistake that while bringing Him the frankincense due a God, and the myrrh that express His coming sacrifice, the Three Kings brought also Gold, to signify His human Kingship. So it is that, during this time of year, and no matter how those in charge may try to obscure it, a veritable Kingdom of Christmas emerges across the globe. Whether it be St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Befana, the Three Kings, or the Christ Child Himself who prowls about delivering gifts this holy tide, the boundaries of this Kingdom are endless. Wherever there are Nativity Scenes, holly, mistletoe, Christmas trees, and the endless number of Christmas customs that mankind has swathed this blessed time with, wherever they are practised and whatever they are, there extends the borders of this happy realm, wherein all seek – with greater or lesser amounts of success – to banish hatred and despair and replace them with love and hope.
Christmas is, to be sure, a Royal season. In days gone by, whenever a Holy Roman Emperor visited Rome, he was invited to chant a lesson from the Matins of Christmas Eve – being a canon of St. Peter’s since his coronation there. Dom Guéranger describes it thusly:
Then are read the beginnings of the three Gospels, which are said in the three Masses of Christmas Day. To each portion of these Gospels is appended a passage from a Homily by one of the Holy Fathers.
The first of the three is that of St. Luke, and the Homily given is that of St. Gregory the Great. It relates the publishing of the Emperor Augustus’ edict, commanding a census of the whole world. This seventh Lesson, according to the Ceremonial of the Roman Church, is to be sung by the Emperor, if he happen to be in Rome at the time; and this is done, in order to honour the Imperial power, whose decrees were the occasion of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, and so fulfilling the designs of God, which he had revealed to the ancient Prophets. The Emperor is led to the Pope, in the same manner as the Knight who had to sing the fifth Lesson; he puts on the Cope; two Cardinal-Deacons gird him with the sword, and go with him to the Ambo. The Lesson being concluded, the Emperor again goes before the Pope, and kisses his foot, as being the Vicar of the Christ whom he has just announced. This ceremony was observed in 1468, by the Emperor Frederic III, before the then Pope, Paul II.
Indeed, at all the Royal Courts of Christendom the feast was kept. Lovers of Arthurian legend will remember the Christmas scenes in Morte d’Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; medieval celebrations remain the stuff of song and story. It even became a favoured day for Coronations, starting with that of Charlemagne, as Dom Guéranger informs us:
It was on this divine Anniversary, in the year 800, and at Rome, in the Basilica of St Peter, that the Holy Roman Empire was created, to which God assigned the grand mission of propagating the Kingdom of Christ among the barbarian nations of the North, and of upholding, under the direction of the Sovereign Pontiffs, the confederation and unity of Europe. St Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor. Here, then, was a new Caesar, a new Augustus, on the earth; not, indeed, a successor of those ancient Lords of Pagan Rome, but one who was invested with the title and power by the Vicar of him who is called, in the Sacred Scriptures, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
On this day, in 1000, St. Stephen was crowned as first Catholic King of Hungary. A quarter century later, Mieszko II Lambert had his coronation as King of Poland. In 1046, Henry III was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Clement II; two decades after, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy received the Crown of England, at Westminster Abbey, London. A decade following, Bolesław II the Generous was given that of Poland. The very site of Christ’s birth, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem would see Baldwin of Boulogne crowned as first King of Jerusalem in 1100; his successors would be crowned there as well. Thirty years after, in Palermo, Count Roger II was crowned the first King of Sicily. So, on and on it went, so long as Coronations denoted Catholic Kingship.
So too with the feast of the Epiphany, whose connection with the Three Kings gave it a Royal flavour. Dom Guéranger, again:
The race of Emperors like Julian and Valens was to be followed by Monarchs, who would bend their knee before this Babe of Bethlehem and offer him the homage of orthodox faith and devoted hearts. Theodosius, Charlemagne, our own Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor, Stephen of Hungary, the Emperor Henry II, Ferdinand of Castile, Louis IX of France, are examples of Kings who had a special devotion to the Feast of the Epiphany. Their ambition was to go, in company with the Magi, to the feet of the Divine Infant, and offer him their gifts. At the English Court, the custom is still retained, and the reigning Sovereign offers an ingot of Gold as a tribute of homage to Jesus the King of kings: the ingot is afterwards redeemed by a certain sum of money.
But gold and frankincense aside, some Royals have tasted myrrh at Christmas. In 1648, the defeated Charles I was brought to Windsor Castle, site of so many glorious Christmas celebrations in previous years, decades, and centuries, as a prisoner. Separated from his wife and children, the King was allowed no religious observance of any kind, the feast having been banned by the victorious Puritans. As he well knew, his death lay before him, and he was murdered at Whitehall on January 30. Christmas of 1792 was similarly observed by Louis XVI in his prison at the Temple, likewise separated from his family; he was permitted however to read Christmas prayers from a breviary and wrote the Last Testament which is read at Masses for his soul throughout France every January 21, the date of his murder. Christmas of 1917 was more domestic for Tsar Nicholas II, as he and his family spent the feast together in Tobolsk, and were allowed the Liturgy of the day. The Tsarina and princesses made gifts by hand for the family and staff – and prayed for deliverance: their murders would occur several months later. The following year, Bl. Emperor Karl, his wife, Servant of God Zita, and their family spent their last Christmas in Austria at the Castle of Eckartsau. They found gifts to give, and even though the Emperor and several of the children had the Spanish flu, they made as merry as they could – with no inkling of the end that awaited the Blessed on the lonely island of Madeira in 1922.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh play their part in each of our Christmases: the splendour and outward show of the holiday; its liturgical celebrations; and the bittersweet nostalgia for Christmases past that can sometimes be overwhelming. Or, as with the last-named Royals, it can be a sombre, “blue Christmas” indeed, due to personal misfortune.
But wherever, however the feast and the season find us, we must try to enter into them as well and completely as we can. In A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present, having shown Scrooge the Cratchits and before bringing him to his nephew’s house, takes him to a miner’s hut, a lighthouse, and a ship at sea, all of whose denizens are keeping Christmas so well as they might. The last is particularly poignant:
Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea—on, on—until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.
So let it be with us. Let us, as we have said, enjoy the Sacraments so often as we can in this holy and luminous time. Remembering always to direct our thoughts thereby to the glorious birth we commemorate, let us enjoy the Christmas decorations we encounter in store, bar, or hotel, be they elegant of tacky. Whether a community tree-lighting or carol sing, let us not despise the efforts of our neighbours to honour Christmas as they can, but join in. To the World, the Flesh, and the devil, let us repel the hatred and despair they offer with the joy and light the Christ Child brings yet again this and every year. To all of you, I wish a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!