By: Maria Von Trapp, 1955
In ancient Rome, people used to exchange gifts on New Year's Day. According to their means, these might be jewelry, pieces of gold and silver, or just home-made pastry, cookies, and candies. But they were a means of saying "Happy New Year." (In French Canada this custom has been preserved to the present day.) This is one of the instances where Holy Mother Church took an already existing custom and "baptized" it. When the Apostles brought the Gospel to Rome, the people learned of the Three Wise Men who came from the Orient to present gifts to the newborn King of the Jews. From then on, the old custom was only slightly changed. The exchanging of presents remained, but now it was done in imitation of the Three Holy Kings. It should be understood that everyone in the family has a present for everybody else; these presents should be precious, though not in terms of money, as they should not be bought, but home-made. This is quite a task in a large family, but fingers become skilled in handicrafts of many kinds block prints, wood carvings, leather work, needle work, lettering with beautiful illuminations, and clay work. All these, and one's imagination, are called upon to create many beautiful, useful things, which could not be bought for money because they are made not only with the hands but also with the heart. But it is not of the immediate family alone that we have to think when we make gifts. The true Christmas spirit results in a desire, if only it were possible, to extinguish all suffering, all hunger and need of any kind, all over the world. Inspired by this desire, everyone prepares for some poor or unfortunate member of the community some real substantial Christmas joy. The parcels that have to go a long distance, or even overseas, are made in the first week of Advent, and the boxes are lined with fir branches from our own woods. "Geben ist seliger als nehmen" ("To give is more blessed than to receive"), says an old proverb, and these are the weeks of the year to prove how true it is. The very essence of Christmas is to give, give, give--since at the very first Christmas the Heavenly Father gave His only begotten Son to us.
The great feasts of the Church--Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Epiphany--are privileged to have an octave. That means that the feast is not over at the end of the first evening, but is celebrated for a whole week. Octaves follow the feast like the train on a beautiful wedding dress. Christmas alone is also preceded by an octave. By the seventeenth of December, a week before the great day, not only the children are impatient the Church herself has become so eager for Christmas that she makes an impassioned appeal to the Messias to come, and to come quickly. From that day on, in the so-called Greater Antiphons at Vespers (from the initial letters they are called the "O-Antiphons") prayer and expectation rise in an ever-growing crescendo. The whole of Advent is characterized by the boundless desire for the coming of Christ expressed in the liturgy, and one can almost feel the increasing impatience in the antiphons for Vespers of the several Sundays "The Lord comes from afar" (first Sunday); "the Lord will come" (second and third Sundays); "the Lord is near" (fourth Sunday). Throughout the whole season there is a growing emphasis on the Lord's coming--our remembrance of His first coming, our glowing desire for His second coming at this present Christmas, and our great expectation of His final coming in the latter days. These days of holy impatience should be marked also in the family. The "O-Antiphons" might be written out on a piece of white cardboard, and each day for the main family meal they might be put in the center of the table, and afterwards added to the family's evening prayer. An old custom comes down from the monasteries of medieval times, where the monks used to get extra treats during this octave before Christmas. For example, on December 19th, when the Church calls on Christ, "O Radix Jesse" ("O Root of Jesse"), Brother Gardener brought his choicest vegetables and fruits, with specially beautiful roots among them; or on December 20th, when the Antiphon says, "O Key of David...." Brother Cellarer used his key for the wine cellar and brought out the best wine. Finally, on December 23rd, it was the turn of the Abbot, who came with special gifts to the brothers. This beautiful custom could be restored in families, the members of the house taking turns in providing a surprise at the evening meal, leaving the last day for the father, the day before that for the mother, the day before that for the oldest child, and so on. There is also the tradition, going back to Honorius of Autun, that connects the "O-Antiphons" with the seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost with which the Holy Child was filled at the moment of His birth.