By KAREN JAMES
From the lighting of the first Advent candle to the final stroke of midnight Mass, Christmas traditions evoke the meaning of the season for many Catholics.
The standard traditions in Catholic churches and homes may include placing a manger scene in a place of honor in one’s home, to the rare occasion of having your Christmas tree blessed. For parishioners throughout the Diocese of Wilmington, some traditions run deep, having been passed down from generation to generation, while others are newer, but just as meaningful.
Music and memories
For Elaine Serpe of Hockessin, the Christmas pageant at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Wilmington is something she has been a part of since she was a child. Performed since the 1950s, the pageant was originally done at midnight Mass and at one Christmas morning Mass. It’s now done at the 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Masses on Christmas Eve.
“The pageant is our way of coming together as a Catholic family and celebrating what Christmas really means,” Serpe said. “There is a calmness and serenity that comes over the church when the music begins and the children process from the church sacristy.”
Serpe played an angel when she was a child, and her children participated in the pageant from first through eighth grades. “The innocence of the children reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas.”
Other musically based traditions of choice are the hymns that have existed for centuries. Gregorian chant consists of a single line of melody with a flexible rhythm sung to Latin words by unaccompanied male voices. The chant has been a favorite of Dave Bonk since he was young.
Bonk, of Hockessin, who served as an altar boy for St. Paul’s Church in Wilmington as a child, loved hearing the Gregorian chant hymns and the smell of incense at high Mass.
“I was enthralled by the ceremony and the smell of the bees wax candles that I loved to light,” Bonk said. “The chanting was mesmerizing and comforting at the same time.” Bonk also enjoys hearing hand bells during Mass. “There’s a beautiful chime to them that’s usually only played during the Christmas season.”
Blessing of a manger
Newark resident Suzy Rogers, a member of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Glasgow enjoys the meaning of the Advent wreath and “the opportunity to bring the Baby Jesus from our manger at home to Mass during advent for a blessing by the priest.” Another common manger tradition includes taking a piece of straw from their church’s manger scene and place it in their own manger setting at home.
Italian and Polish meals
The Feast of the Seven Fishes may be the most embraced tradition by Italian-Americans on Christmas Eve, a vigil or fasting day. The abundance of seafood reflects the observance of abstinence from meat until the feast of Christmas Day.
The Wigilia meal of 12 dishes is commonplace in many Polish-American homes and is also made on Dec. 24. The term is often applied to the whole of Christmas Eve, extending further to Pasterka — midnight Mass, held in Roman Catholic churches all over Poland and in Polish communities worldwide at or before midnight.
Mardee Cool, who often attends Mass at St. Ann’s and St. Joseph on the Brandywine, said her family has been partaking in the Seven Fishes dinner for several generations, while Aleksandra Rozanski of Wilmington keeps up the Wigilia tradition in her family that began when she was a child in Bialystok, Poland. Rozanski attends St. Hedwig in Wilmington.
Books and baking
Baking a cake and singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus is the favorite Christmas pastime of Nancy Martin, who attends St. Mary of the Assumption in Hockessin. “I was given the idea from one of my son’s prep teachers years ago, and even though they are all adults, we still sing Happy Birthday Christmas Eve,” she said.
For Lisa Winnington of Wilmington, attending midnight Mass at St. John the Beloved is something she has been doing for a decade. In the morning, she and her children read the Nativity story and place baby Jesus in his crib, wishing him a happy birthday.
“There’s something about midnight Mass, making you feel like you are in the sense of the moment of when Jesus was born. It’s dark, it’s nighttime and there are stars,” Winnington said. “Reading about the Nativity helps us to focus on what the day is really about.”
Karen James is a freelance writer.