Catholic Christmas Traditions

Ecclesiastes 3:1 "All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven"

Christ is born in Bethlehem, Alleluia! The mood of this Feast is summed up by words of the angels to the shepherds in Luke 2:10-14:

“And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.”

The long-awaited Messiah is born, and His Nativity is filled with Mystery. Did you know that "Bethlehem" means "House of Bread"? Yes, the Bread of Life, the Living Bread from Heaven, was born in a town called "House of Bread" -- and, foretelling His future as the Bread of Life Who feeds His sheep, was laid in a manger.

Once the sun goes down on Christmas Eve, the Yule log is lit in the fireplace. Back when homes had great fireplaces, fires were lit on Christmas Eve using logs so huge as to be able to burn for all the days of Christmas. In Provence, the Yule log is lit with great ceremony. The Grandfather will pour sweet wine over it three times while saying:

Alègre! Alègre! Alègre! Que nostre Segne nous alègre!
S’un autre an sian pas mai, moun Dieu fugen pas men!

Which means:

Joy! Joy! Joy! May God bring us joy!
And if, in the year to come, we are not more, let us not be less!

Alas, fireplaces are less common than they once were, but if you have no fireplace, a decorated log can be used as a centerpiece, as is done in Italy where the log is known as a "ceppo."

While the Yule log burns, a candle is put in the window. This is an old Irish custom stemming from the Protestant persecutions: the candle signaled to priests that the home was a safe place for Mass to be offered, but when the English asked questions, they were told that it was a symbolic invitation to Joseph and Mary.

The Christ candle -- a large white candle decorated with holly and such -- is lit for Christmas Eve Supper, replacing the Advent wreath. It is re-lit each night until the Epiphany to represent Christ's Light and in order to help guide the Magi to the manger. 1 The greenery of the Advent wreath itself is now decorated and hanged on the front door, remaining there throughout the Christmas season.

Christmas Overview

  • Theme: His Nativity
  • Color: White or Gold
  • Mood: Joy
  • Symbols: star, manger, candles, bells, mother and Child, the Holy Family, angels,
    Christmas candle, 3 wise men, Christmas trees, holly and ivy, poinsettias,
    Glastonbury thorn, mistletoe, Christmas roses, Yule log, cardinals, robins
  • Length: With regard to liturgical calculations: 25 December - 13 January
    As a spiritual Season/liturgical cycle: 25 December - Candlemas

Just as from Ash Wednesday on, we commemorate Christ in the desert for forty days, and just as after Easter we celebrate for forty days until the Ascension, after Christmas we celebrate the Child Jesus for forty days -- all through the season of Time After Epiphany -- until Candlemas. The schema of those Christ Child celebrations looks like this:

  • Christmas: Christ is born
  • Feast of the Holy Innocents: Herod slaughters the baby boys in order to kill the Christ Child
  • The Circumcision (the Octave of Christmas): Jesus follows the Law
  • Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus: After He is circumcised, He is named and becomes a part of the Holy Family
  • Twelfth Night : The Twelve Days of Christmas as a Feast come to an end
  • Feast of the Epiphany: Jesus reveals His divinity to the three Magi, and during His Baptism, and at the wedding at Cana
  • Baptism of Our Lord/Octave of the Epiphany: Christmas liturgically ends with the Octave of the Epiphany.
  • Feast of the Holy Family: Jesus condescends to be subject to His parents
  • Feast of the Purification (Candlemas): 40 days after giving birth, Mary goes to the Temple to be purified and to "redeem" Jesus per the Old Testament Law of the firstborn. Christmas truly ends as a Season with Candlemas and the beginning of Septuagesima.

The Symbols of Christmas

Light is the pre-eminent symbol of Christmas. The Light Who is Christ was foreshadowed by the Advent candles, and is now symbolized by the Christ Candle that burns throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Feasts of the Epiphany and Candlemas celebrate Christ as Light of the World in even more explicit ways

In Roman times wreaths (made of laurel) were used as symbols of victory. Christians adopted the practice, using wreaths (usually of pine nowadays) to represent the victory of the newborn King. Some families turn their Advent wreaths into Christmas wreaths to be used starting on Christmas morning.

Poinsettia plants (Euphorbia pulcherima), called "Nativity Flower," and "Flores de Noche buena" or "Flowers of Holy Night" in Mexico, is a New World Christmas tradition. The shape of the leaves symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, their red color represents the Blood of Christ and the burning love of God.

The legend is that in the late 1800's a candy maker in Indiana wanted to express the holy meaning of Christmas through a symbol made of candy. He took white peppermint sticks and bent them to suggest both the shepherd's staff carried by the adoring shepherds, and the letter "J" for Jesus. He let the color white symbolize the purity and sinless nature of Jesus, but added the color red to represent His Blood. The three small stripes symbolize the stripes of His scourging.  That there are three of them represents the Holy Trinity; the bold stripe represents the Blood Jesus shed for mankind.

Christmas Mass

Mass is obligatory on Christmas, and this can be fulfilled by going to any one of three Masses:

  • the already mentioned Mass at Midnight, called the "Angels' Mass"
  • the Mass on Christmas morning, called the "Shepherds' Mass"
  • the Mass on Christmas day, called the "Mass of the Divine Word" or "Kings' Mass"


Gift giving is done differently by different Catholic households and in different Catholic countries. Some families present gifts on December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas Bishop of Myra after whom "Santa Claus" was partly modelled. Many Catholics (such as Italian Catholics) present gifts on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, in imitation of the Magi. And some exchange them on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. Stories are told to children to explain who brings the gifts, and they vary greatly around the world:

  • Italy: La Befana (on the Epiphany)
  • England: Father Christmas
  • France: Père Noel
  • Austria and Switzerland: Christkind
  • Russia: Baboushka
  • Sweden: Jultomten
  • Mexico and Spain: Three Kings (on the Epiphany)
  • United States: St. Nicholas (Santa Claus)
  • Hungary: Angels
  • Poland: Mikolaj or St.Nicholas (on St. Nicholas's Day)