December 11, 2021 Column Father De Celles

GAUDETE SUNDAY. Today is “Gaudete Sunday,” or “Rejoice Sunday” (from the first
words of the entrance antiphon, “Gaudéte in Dómino semper”— “Rejoice in the Lord
always”). This reminds us that Advent is a season of “expectant joy” as our anticipation
of the great joy of Christmas builds every day as we draw closer to it. This is symbolized
in the “rose” colored vestments the priests may wear today, “rose” being a shade of
advent violet that is brighter than the normal violets of Advent, as if the brightness of
Christmas joy is shining through the subdued preparation of Advent.
CATHOLIC TRADITIONS. This time of year is filled with all sorts of traditions.
Unfortunately, many of us have lost sight of the Catholic origins of many of the traditions
that dominate the secular celebration of Christmas and Advent.
Consider the Christmas tree. There are many different efforts to explain the
origins of the Christmas tree, including many that try to separate it completely from
Christianity. For example, some say that since many different ancient non-Christian
cultures used evergreens as a sign of life or health that therefore evergreen “Christmas”
trees are not “Christian,” or that Christians “stole” the symbol from the pagans. But there
is no conflict or “stealing” here. Since Christianity converted many ancient pagan
cultures, it was natural for those new Christians to keep the symbols that had
meaningfully expressed their long-held spiritual desires that were ultimately answered
only in Christianity. So, if an evergreen tree expressed a pagan culture’s desires for
eternal life, it was natural for them to carry that symbol into Christianity, which is fine
with the Church.
The specific Christianization and “Christmas-ization” of the evergreen tree can be
traced to at least the early 8 th century in Germany. It seems one Christmas Eve the great
missionary St. Boniface and his companions came upon a group of pagans gathered
around their sacred tree, the “Oak of Geismar” (“Donar’s Oak”) to worship their god,
Thor, and to sacrifice a little child to please him. Horrified by what he had found,
Boniface struck the Oak, which the people believed to be indestructible, and suddenly a
great wind came and blew the tree over, tearing it out of the ground by its roots and into
four pieces. When the tree fell it revealed a small evergreen tree that had grown behind it.
St. Boniface then told the people: “This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be
your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. It is the
sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven.
Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in
your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of
kindness.” The people then took the tree to the great hall of their village and decorated it
with candles, as Boniface told the story of the Baby Jesus. The whole village, including
the pagan priest, was converted that Christmas Eve. (For a beautiful retelling of this tale
see The First Christmas Tree, by Henry van Dyke).
This seems to be the oldest story of the Christmas tree and stands as the inspiration
for later developments in its use. It was popularized later in the middle ages through the
German “Paradise Play” depicting the creation of man, with the evergreen decorated with
apples to symbolize both Eden’s Tree of Life (evergreen) and Tree of Knowledge of

Good and Evil (apples). When the play was performed in churches, the Paradeisbaum
(Paradise Tree) was surrounded by candles. Eventually the Paradeisbaum made its way
into homes and the rest is history.
Santa Claus. Another tradition of the secular celebration of this season is Santa
Claus, if its correct to call a real man a “tradition.” Once again, we often forget the
Catholic origins of Santa Claus, who is none other than Saint Nicholas (“Santa Claus”
derived from the Dutch for “St. Nicholas”). Again, many will argue about non-Christian
or pagan predecessors, but it is clear that our Santa is St. Nicklaus. One reason the two
seem to be disconnected in America is because of the English Protestant and Puritan
origins of our nation—after the “Reformation” the English downplayed the reference to
Saint Nicholas as sounding too Catholic (in England Santa is still called “Father
But Catholics remember the wonderful stories about St. Nicholas, who was bishop
of Myra (in modern Turkey) in the early 300s. The story of how he rescued three sisters
from being sold into slavery by dropping three bags of gold through their window at
night. And how he raised three little boys from the dead after they had been murdered.
Not to mention the many stories of his other amazing miracles—he is called
Thaumaturgus, or Wonderworker. And we should not forget that after being tortured for
his faith in the last Roman persecution, he attended the Council of Nicaea where he
boldly defended the divinity of Christ, and Mary’s status as “Mother of God” against the
arch-heretic Arias. Add all this to his reputation for giving treats to the children he met in
the streets, and you see the same man who is now the beloved and saintly giver of gifts
on Christmas.
Now, so that no one misunderstands me, especially little children, what I am
saying is that Santa Claus is real, and is also known as St. Nicholas. Catholics know him
as a saint who now has eternal life. And it seems that God has sent him back to us to be
the great gift-giver of Christmas. This doesn’t mean that other stories that we read or see
on TV about Santa Claus are not true or bad—I think they’re interesting and sometimes
amusing, and even touching. It just means that WE know the REAL story, the rest of the
DON’T FORGET. Go to confession during Advent—we have confessions every single
day of Advent, except Christmas Eve: Monday through Friday from 6 to 7pm, Saturdays
8 to 8:45am and 3 to 5pm, and Sundays (only during Advent) 8 to 9am.
Also, don’t forget to join us this Thursday December 16, from 7pm to 8pm, for the
last of our Advent Holy Hours with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The Holy
Hour will include a short talk (by me), followed by the Rosary, silent prayer and then
Benediction. This year our topic is “Faith, Hope and Love at Christmas” and this
Thursday I will talk about Love, or Charity.
I also encourage you to attend daily Mass, as well as Wednesday and Friday
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
And don’t forget, gifts for the “Giving Tree” are due in today. Please remember
to help to make Christmas a little merrier for some folks who are having a rough time this

year—families of our parish and Our Lady of the Blue Ridge parish in Madison.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles