03 December 2008


One of the delightful aspects of being a relatively recent convert is incorporating old Catholic traditions into our family life. In the nominally Catholic home in which I was raised, we followed the secular calendar; i.e., we put up the tree right after Thanksgiving, and Christmas was over on the 26th--away went the tree, the lights, and the presents.

These days, I know better. We're celebrating this penitential season by going day by day through the Advent calendar--new to both of us--as it counts down the time until the birth of the Savior of the world. We're keeping a manger with an empty crib, the infant Jesus not making an appearance until midnight on Christmas Eve. In the meantime, the children are learning self-sacrifice by placing a piece of straw in the crib each time they perform an act of kindness, and are encouraged to make the crib as comfortable as possible for the divine child. They were so excited about this they kept trying to find nice things to do, just to be given the chance to put a bit of straw in the tiny crib.

In Bavaria and other parts of Germany, December 6 marks the opening of the Christkindl Markt, and more significantly, the feast of St. Nicholas. Catholic families celebrate St. Nicholas Day by a visit from the saintly bishop, who then leaves coins or gifts in children's shoes. It's a holiday we plan to observe as well (sans costumed St. Nick).

Another lovely Bavarian custom we would take part in if we could is vividly described by James Monti:
Across Germany, all the Christmas markets and many businesses close at noon on Christmas Eve, allowing everyone to return home for the approaching "holy night"--Weihnacht. A stillness descends upon the countryside as afternoon gives way to evening in the Alpine Bavarian village of Berchtesgaden, situated amid forested mountains. In such a setting one can almost imagine on Christmas night encountering in the snow-cloaked woods the Madonna and Child wandering through the quiet forest, causing the thorn bushes to blossom.... Yet the twelve hours of stillness leading to midnight on Christmas Eve are thrice punctuated by an extraordinary ceremony of medieval origin to welcome the Christ Child to Berchtesgaden. At noon, six o'clock, and shortly before midnight, over twleve hundred young men dressed in traditional Alpine costumes take their places at various points across the surrounding valley, armed with antique guns and cannons used solely for the purpose to which they are now put. The "Berchtesgaden cannoneers" unleash a massive twelve-hundred-gun salute to the infant Savior that resounds to the mountain slopes. During the third and final firing of the "Christmas guns" near midnight, the din of seven thousand shots of gun and cannon fire mingles with the tolling bells of Berchtesgaden's churches, summoning the villagers to midnight Mass, the supreme act of Christmas celebration for German Catholic families.