No matter how the rest of Advent has gone, Christmas Eve is always a day of expectation. Traditionally, Catholics fasted and abstained from meat before noon on Christmas Eve, then put up their trees and other decorations as they prepared for Midnight Mass. Some Catholic cultures, particularly the Slavic nations and in parts of Italy, kept the fast all day, preparing a meatless supper of many courses for Christmas Eve.
Today, many of these customs have vanished, but the Church still calls us to set aside Christmas Eve as a day of preparation. The Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy, released by the Vatican in December 2001, suggests a period of prayer and the reading of the account of the birth of Christ found in the Gospel of Saint Luke. (You can combine this with the Prayer to Jesus in the Manger.)
The Directory also notes that, "Where possible, the Church desires that the faithful should prepare for the celebration of Midnight Mass on the 24 December with the Office of Readings." One way to do this is to incorporate the Scripture Reading for December 24 into your evening meal.
And in recent years, many parishes have begun to revive an ancient tradition before Midnight Mass: The Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. If you can't make it to Midnight Mass (or even if you can), you could read this ancient text aloud in front of your Nativity scene.
Christmas Eve is a busy day, but taken together, all of these practices can be performed in under a half-hour. Why not use one or more of them to help you and your family prepare yourselves for the feast we celebrate tonight? A few moments of reflection will greatly increase our joy at Christ's birth.
(Detail of a Fontanini Nativity scene during Advent, before the Christ Child is placed in the manger on Christmas Eve. Photo © Amy J. Richert)
Christmas Eve Customs:
- Fasting: A Powerful Spiritual Tool
- Abstinence as Spiritual Discipline
- Prayer to Jesus in the Manger
- Scripture Reading for December 24
- The Proclamation of the Birth of Christ
- Polish Christmas Eve Supper Recipes - Wigilia (from About.com Eastern European Food)
- La Vigilia Napoletana (from About.com Italian Food)