Blessings for the Nativity and the Christmas Tree

Christmas in our family and among our aunts and uncles in the suburbs of Philadelphia was an intriguing fusion. Each of our relatives’ houses had a prominent and very American Christmas tree in the living room, decked out in ornaments and lights. But beneath the trees there would also be the classic Italian presepio—a manger or Nativity scene of realistically rendered figures. The presepio was taken very seriously as an art form in the former Kingdom of Two Sicilies, and we very much inherited that spirit, though of course we only had mass-market pieces made of paper-maché. Nonetheless, I was drawn into these little Christmas worlds every time we visited our relatives—seeing them beautifully laid out in each house is something I really miss about the old days.

Part of our family Presepio in 2011. The stable was handmade by my father, while the pieces seen to the left are mostly relatively new pieces by Fontanini.
In my own family now we are keeping this blended tradition intact. Since Christmas trees are as ubiquitous as ever, and since we still have the family presepio that my father lovingly fashioned from the forest at Pennypack Creek, the tangible part of this tradition has been relatively easy to continue. But I’ve also found it necessary to tie these customs back to the liturgy, and to direct them back to God by means of special prayers, blessings, and rituals.

Good traditional rituals can be found for both the nativity set and the Christmas tree—some of my personal favorites are those printed in Helen McLoughlin’s Family Advent Customs and Christmas to Candlemas in a Catholic Home. The only problem is that these prayers are really made for Christmas Eve, whereas we like to set up our presepio on the First Sunday of Advent and the Christmas Tree on Gaudete Sunday.

I was delighted, therefore, to stumble upon a little Blessing of the Christmas Crib and Tree, printed in the inside back cover of a Christmas Missal of 1951:

The ritual here is quite simple compared to others I have seen, and it may work quite well for families who are starting to establish their own ceremonies for the domestic church. And fortunately, the prayers  are not so seasonally specific that they couldn’t be used in Advent as well.

Much of the joy in the Christmas cycle is its superabundance of domestic rituals. In centuries past families blessed a Yule Log with holy water and/or wine while making the sign of the cross, blessed their children on Holy Innocents and toasted with St. John’s wine. Since then have been added Advent wreaths, Christmas trees, Jesse trees, Christmas candles, and Epiphany chalk.

It is probably, in fact, too much for most families to adopt in toto, but by choosing select rituals that fit not only with our  favorite devotions but also with the culture and traditions of our domestic churches, the Nativity of Our Lord can assume an even more treasured place in the hearts of our children.

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