It is easy to be cheerful at Christmas. Even as Advent brought us ever closer to Christmas Day, we found ourselves giving money to the poor, volunteering with our church, praying with more intensity, and spending more time with friends and loved ones. But once the Epiphany is behind us, and the overwhelming joy we felt in remembering our Savior’s birth begins to recede, many of us may drop these worthy movements in our lives, and return to “ordinary time.”
Can you imagine what our world would be like if everyone, like Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, would “honor Christmas in our heart, and keep it all the year?” The good news is that it is possible!
Here are some suggestions for how to keep the beauty and giving spirit of Christmas alive in your home and family all year long. After all, our Catholic faith is meant to be lived and shared, not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.
Remain active in the life of your church
You may have experienced a momentary rush of goodwill this Christmas volunteering with your parish’s homeless ministry, wrapping gifts for the needy, or donating canned goods. Keep it up! There is no better time than now to join a ministry at your church.
From literacy to child care to nursing home visitation to pro-life events and beyond, our churches are always looking for committed lay people to help, and even to step up and lead. May I suggest the Legion of Mary, which is my personal favorite lay apostolate (and, might I add, the world’s largest). And if you don’t see the ministry you are looking for, start one. Chances are you are being called in some particular way. And don’t just keep the activity to yourself – invite your friends and family to experience the joy of service alongside you.
Commit to your prayer life
Prayer is the time when we meet God. If you feel you simply don’t know how to pray, or can’t find where it belongs in your daily schedule, look for prayer retreats in your diocese or read a good book to get into the basics.
Some tend to see prayer as more difficult than it really is, but prayer can be as simple as saying the Jesus Prayer. No matter what format your prayer takes, however, it is best to simply start and allow God’s grace to take you the rest of the way. Start small with a rosary, a Memorare, the Examen, or other simple, daily prayers. Then let God do the rest.
Committing to an active prayer life also means making your own home a prayerful sanctuary. Set aside an area as your prayer space. Equip it with a comfy chair, a small table to hold your prayer materials and rosary, a candle, or a crucifix. It is good to pray anywhere and always “without ceasing,” but if you’re looking to pray more deeply, setting aside this sacred space reminds us of the importance of what we are doing during prayer time: meeting with God.
Sing with your friends
I feel it is a real shame that people don’t sing together anymore. And I don’t mean karaoke! I mean shared songs that everyone knows, and in which no one is the star.
I was reminded of this recently while having dinner at the L’Arche community. After dinner, core family members took turns deciding which Christmas carols we would sing. It was a sweet, small, unifying gesture. We may have been a bit out of tune but it made no difference to the joy we all felt singing together. And anyway, as Elf tells us, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”
Spend quality time
One of my favorite scenes, in any adaptation of A Christmas Carol, is when Scrooge observes his nephew, his nephew’s wife, and their friends playing parlor games on Christmas Day. It reminds me of the games we played when I was a child, when my family gathered at my Grandma’s house (epic family games of Bingo), or even while stuck in the car on a long drive.
I remember some particularly competitive games we played on car trips. In one game everyone would compete to be the person to spot the most states’ license plates. Another game was to see who could count the highest number of cows (we’re from the south, ya’ll). We would also take turns telling one story in different parts, or play the “I’m going to the beach and bringing a…” game. They’re not complex games, but they get you talking to each other, and it often results in much silliness.
Reclaim the tradition, year-round, of gathering friends and family in your living room for game time. Here’s a list of Victorian Parlour Games to get you started. “Reverend Crawley’s Game” sounds like a Victorian version of Twister.
Start a year-round tradition
Our holidays are usually full of traditions, from the Christmas day menu to who gets to put the last ornament on the top of the tree. Why not bring that spirit into the rest of the year?
Think about starting some new traditions. How about hosting friends on the first Sunday of the month for dinner? Or maybe attending adoration once a month with your children, followed by a shared meal? Consider starting a tradition of making a domestic pilgrimage to a new place at the same time each year. You might even consider re-reading your favorite saint’s biography on the saint’s feast day each year.
We look to our traditions to give us continuity and memories from year to year. But there’s no reason traditions need to be relegated to a certain season, liturgical or otherwise.
Make year-round gifts
Christmas is usually when we make good on our pledges to charity, but why relegate this noble act to just December? If you’re like me, you may find there are more charities you’d like to give to in December than your budget can cover. Instead, consider giving a small amount – say, $25 – to a different charity each month, thereby spreading the giving out throughout the year. This can become a family decision, too. Your children or siblings may have a heart for an entirely different cause. Together, you can teach each other about what special causes are important to you and share in the satisfaction of knowing you’re supporting a number of worthy missions.
There are other ways to make small acts of charity throughout the year. You can buy a homeless person dinner or even just a cup of coffee. Maybe write a letter to a family member or a homebound friend each month. Ask for a Mass to be said for a friend. Or spend a holy hour praying for someone else’s intentions. There are many opportunities every day to give to others.
Look into your own heart
These are all simple suggestions for actions we can take to keep the joy of Christmas alive in our hearts and lives year-round. But I believe there is also a need for some introspection. Why is it that we may default to a belief that we are not capable of living in this loving way for more than a few weeks of the year? What holds us back from loving God freely, and showing that love in the world?
Recently I revisited the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus, a tax collector, hears Jesus is coming and “sought to see who Jesus was.” Being short in stature, this venerable leader of the community thinks nothing of running ahead of the crowd and climbing a tree to get a better view as Jesus passes. Jesus, seeing him there – or, I think, understanding this great and foolish expression of love – asks Zacchaeus to come down, “For I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus “receives him joyfully,” and exclaims, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
We hear nothing in this story about Zacchaeus’s doubt of his own “loveableness.” He does not consider his station in life, the dignity with which he is supposed to conduct himself as a public official, or the chance that, like the disciple Matthew, his status as a tax collector makes him unworthy to be a part of Jesus’s circle. He gives himself totally, and freely, and his reward is to receive God’s love freely in return. As Jesus replies, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Keep Christmas all year long
I believe we do ourselves a great disservice when we assume ourselves incapable of great love or a great relationship with God. As St. Ignatius might say, the mistaken belief of our own unworthiness is a trick of “the enemy of our human nature.” Rather, we were made by God to love Him, and to strive to learn to love and serve our neighbors. It seems that Christmas is the time of year when this is easiest, or most obvious, yet I believe that every day of the year presents the opportunity to “honor Christmas in our heart, and keep it all the year.”
One last thought: I recently attended my church’s annual evening of Christmas lessons and carols and heard a song called “The Work of Christmas” for the first time. As the song says:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.