Window lights: When Catholicism was outlawed in England and Ireland, Catholics would invite “underground” priests to their homes by placing lighted candles in their windows. To explain this custom, Catholics said the candles were beacons to light the way for Mary and Joseph (as they were, by inviting priests to bring Jesus in the Eucharist).
La Posada & Luminaries: La Posadas, an Hispanic custom, are a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph trying to find a place to stay in Bethlehem. On each of the nine days before Christmas (or on Christmas Eve), families gather & go knocking on doors throughout the neighborhood (where everyone gets involved). At one door after another, they’re told there is no room. Finally, they come to a house where they’re welcomed and everyone has a party. This can be done in a single home, knocking on as many doors within the house as possible (while an adult slips from one room to the next to answer from inside “there’s no room here”) until the family gets to the nativity scene. Posadas ended Christmas Eve with Mass, and bonfires were lit along the road to the church to help people (symbolizing the Holy Family) find their way. Paper bags stabilized with sand, each with a candle burning inside have replaced the bonfires (at least in the U.S.). They’re one way of saying that the Holy Family is welcome in this home, that we’ve made room for them.
Caroling: Whether carols (about Jesus) are sung as a family at home or in the neighborhood or in nursing homes, this is a good way of sharing the good news of the real meaning of the season.
Birthday cake for Jesus: After all, it’s His birthday 🙂 !
Oplatek or Oplatki: a wafer of bread like the Host, which reminds us that Jesus is the Bread of Life (“Bethlehem” means “House of Bread”, and Baby Jesus was laid in a feeding trough). The father begins by breaking off a piece of the oplateck and passing the rest. Each member of the family breaks off a piece. In some families, each person asks forgiveness of the others before they eat the oplatek. Pieces of oplatek are sent to family members who couldn’t be present as a way of including them in the family celebration.
The feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28) is a good day for blessing children (“Children’s Day”, as it were)
The feast of the Holy Family (Sunday between Christmas and New Years) is a good day to renew marriage vows and to ask the Holy Family to pray for families.
Epiphany: Also known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany (literally “revelation”) celebrates the coming of the magi, the first Gentiles (non-Jewish people) to whom Jesus was revealed. Some families exchange gifts on Epiphany, in honor of the gifts given by the wise men. Some bake a dry bean into a crown cake for Epiphany. Whoever gets the piece with the bean is king for the night. A more solemn custom is the blessing of homes on Epiphany, going through the house and sprinkling it with holy water, then using blessed chalk to write over the door the year interspersed with crosses and the initials of the wise men (Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior). The blessing for 2011 would read 20+C+M+B+11. The letters are also the first letters of the blessing “Christus mansionem benedicat” (“May Christ bless this house”).