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Christmas beginnings

Holiday traditions incorporate religious, secular

UP graphic by Scarlett Blanchard
UP graphic by Scarlett Blanchard

The Christmas season in America begins before October ends. Public spaces decorate with red and green and play Christmas music, retailers push sales for gifts, restaurants and cafés roll out limited edition holiday flavors and families travel to see each other.

While there will always be Christmas trees in malls across America, the ways families celebrate Christmas varies. For some, it is a personal and religious experience that is enhanced by participating in shared rituals like opening presents on Christmas morning or reading Bible passages. Families cling to these traditions and their symbolic meaning related to their faith.

Reverend Jamey Seaton.
Reverend Jamey Seaton

Reverend Jamey Seaton, 33, is the administrative assistant of The Apostolic Church of Beaumont and an ordained minister of the United Apostolic Church International. He has a degree in theology and will complete his master’s in executive leadership and hospitality/ tourism in 2019. He is also a husband and a father of two young children, and he is preparing for the holiday season with his family.

“In our personal home, we do have a Christmas tree set up,” he said. “It does have lights on it, it does have ornaments hanging from it, we do have a wreath hanging at the door and a ‘Merry Christmas’ sign hanging inside our house, with other Christmas décor throughout the living room area and kitchen.”

Deacon Anthony McFarland, 31, is also preparing for the Christmas season as a seminary student of St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. Although currently serving at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Mont Belvieu, McFarland will be ordained at St. Anthony’s Cathedral Basilica in Beaumont in 2019.

In his childhood home, McFarland said his family took care to decorate for the holiday.

“There are plenty of nativities, wreaths, garlands,” he said. “All of that symbolic tension that is present in the beauty of a Christmas tree comes through Christ who died on a tree — a cross made of wood — but the evergreen represents the new life that comes from him.”

McFarland described Catholicism as a faith, but also a way of living and said the Catholic calendar marks the beginning of the Christmas season on Dec. 25 and continues for two to three weeks. The start of the season is Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

“Christmas doesn’t always fall on a Sunday, so (my family) stuck to the tradition of going to Midnight Mass,” he said. “For centuries, this has been offered — the idea being that in the night, in the darkness, Christ was born.

“The masses are bigger than normal because of what is believed to have happened at that time. We don’t have a birth certificate that says baby Jesus was born at such-and-such time, but it was in the night.”

There are also Christmas morning masses, normally, at each parish there are two or three, maybe four or five masses just for Christmas day, McFarland said.

“But life can be hard enough and we don’t have to endure the torture of waking up early to go mass, so we chose to do midnight and sleep in the next day,” he said, laughing.

Seaton and his family participate in traditional holiday rituals, like decorating a tree, making charitable donations and visiting family. A normal Christmas morning includes opening presents, but the Seatons are diverting from this tradition.

“This year, we are actually not doing gifts,” he said. “We are starting a new tradition with our family, and that is we are going to be creating memories instead of giving gifts. We are going to be taking a trip and doing a week-long family vacation. So, in a way, that is a gift, but it’s not going to be something like a toy.”

Even though Seaton’s children will not be tearing into boxes Christmas morning, they will probably hear stories about Santa Claus just the same.

“We do talk about Santa Claus, but my kids, even at ages five and three, know and understand the holiday season is not about him­­ — we know, and they know, what it’s about,” he said.

That is not to say that Santa Claus has no religious importance, McFarland said.

“Santa Claus is called ‘St. Nick’ for a reason,” he said. “Between the third and fourth century, there was a bishop in Turkey who was St. Nicholas of Myra. He was known for giving gifts to the poor and needy, and that continued after his death. His feast day is Dec. 19th, and people celebrate him by leaving a shoe outside the door. He would come by and leave candy or a bag of goodies in the shoe for when you wake up. His feast day was morphed into the fat, jolly guy in the North Pole, but older depictions of Santa Claus are of a bishop.”

The Santa Claus myth is just one example of a religious symbol evolving to be more commercialized over time, but McFarland still focuses on what he believes to be the purpose of Christmas.

In the midst of reindeer and holly, the religious aspect of Christmas is not lost on the Seatons.

“In simplistic terms, we view it as a religious holiday,” Seaton said. “It’s not the recorded date of (Jesus’) birth, but that’s when we celebrate it.

“(Christmas) comes from that whole idea of winter solstice. The days were shorter and the nights seemed to be longer, so people would fellowship more and be together more.

“The Christians adopted it, and it became something we took in, and said, ‘We’ll start celebrating the 25th of December as the day that (Jesus) arrived.’”

There is a season of Advent in the Catholic calendar which is the four weeks before Christmas day. This time is consecrated to prepare for the coming of Jesus.

Deacon Anthony McFarland.
Deacon Anthony McFarland

“Christ is coming at the nativity, but also his second coming at the end of time and, on a personal level, he comes into our hearts daily,” McFarland said.

During Christmas mass, Catholics give special honor to the virgin birth during a phrase in the Nicene creed.

“There is a line that says Jesus was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” McFarland said. “That line is honored with kneeling, silent prayer, and then rising and continuing with the creed.”

In the church, there are simple Christmas decorations.

“There is (a nativity scene) at the church, normally just one, usually in the sanctuary,” McFarland said. “There are lightly-decorated Christmas trees, nothing like what you would see in a mall, and wreaths, garlands and poinsettias.

“Red is a Christmas color for a reason. It is the color of blood. It keeps the season focused on the greater mystery that is afoot — more than Christmas lists and the fat guy with presents.”

Seaton and his family have fully embraced the Christian traditions of Christmas.

“We do the Christmas story every Christmas morning,” Seaton said. “We read it from the book of Luke and discuss what happened with Mary, Joseph, the birth of Jesus, and the witnessing of the shepherds and the wise men. That is a tradition we do, no matter where we are, every Christmas.”

The purpose of celebrating Christmas is the family time spent together, Seaton said.

“But it is also all about Jesus Christ,” he said. “You can read about it in the four Gospels — Mary was not married, but was giving birth to Jesus who the Bible declares, ‘That which is in you is of the Holy Ghost.’ So, Jesus was born and came to the world to save people from their sins, and that is what the Christian doctrine is all based upon.

“It’s a great reminder of the real reason we are even here. If it’s true about the pagan traditions during the winter solstice, if they noticed something changing in nature, I think it’s a great idea for us to look at it and think, ‘If something changed there, then something can change here in us, individually.’ They stayed alive because they stayed together.”

The purpose of Christmas is recalling Christ’s nativity, McFarland said.

“He was born among us as the Word made flesh, as God incarnate,” he said.“This changed history and man’s relationship with God. He was Christ and died for our sins as an adult — all that is encompassed in this itty-bitty baby in the manger.”

Story by Claire Robertson, UP contributor 

Category: Features