It’s been a busy week here at the Canter home. We stretched into every day of Christmas: baking cookies, staying up late to eat popcorn and play games, and reading “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” over and over again. We made our first attempt at a traditional English Christmas cake, and discovered the best pattern for folding paper airplanes. It was a time for family celebration that is unique to this season. At the heart of it all was the source of our joy: the smiling Child, raising His tiny Hand in blessing from the manger of our crèche.
On Sunday, as the sun neared the end of its short course across the winter sky, we prepared treats for the animals in our care. Twelfth Night is a special occasion for them, you know; as a reward for their faithful attendance on the night Jesus was born, they are granted the gift of speech for one hour to praise Him on the eve of Epiphany. (Or so goes a wonderful legend of various origins.) So we process out of doors with stale gingerbread for the hens, apple slices for the rabbit, a dish of milk for the cat, and cookies for the dog and a few favorite cows; singing “The Friendly Beasts” as we go.
Monday was the Epiphany, one of my favorite feasts of the whole Church year. We began the day fittingly with Mass, and while the children went on to school I hurried home to bake the king cake and set the table. I use my mother’s recipe for a sock-it-to-me cake, doubled and baked in a bundt pan. After pouring half the batter into the pan and sprinkling in a cinnamon-brown sugar swirl, I drop in the “bean” – it’s really a sizable bit of rolled up foil, to ensure that eager little revelers will see it before they swallow it. The bean is hidden when the remaining batter is poured in and baked; whoever finds it in their piece gets to present the gifts to Jesus.
Dinner is a raucous affair, with “crackers” containing paper crowns and games and the silliest possible jokes. The junior members of the family like to explain knowingly how the candles make the figures spin on the Nativity carousel. Afterward we gather before the crèche to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, and at each verse the kings are placed in the scene by the hand of a different child (with their camel – the camel is very important). Finally at the last verse the Finder of the Bean brings forward one of our greatest treasures – a beautiful box containing a little bit of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and places it before the image of the Sacred Heart.
Then Papa rises to read the Epiphany prayers and mark the doorway with the annual blessing. We spray virtually everything with holy water and invite Christ into every nook and cranny of our hearts and home. And I realize, this is why I love it so much: because God didn’t enter the world to save it in a remote way. The Child Jesus longs to find a home in every soul, to dwell with every family no matter how humble or hard the circumstances. He is “God with us”, eternally and forevermore, if we will only make a place for Him. As the keeper of this home and a guardian of my children’s souls, my role in prioritizing love for love cannot be overestimated.
And yet, as a convert, these customs are new to me. I grew up with many good family traditions, but what I have described here was not part of our faith background. I have cobbled it together from books, articles, and long conversations with many good mamas and friends. Every year I tune it a little more finely to meet the needs of our growing family dynamic, and I am sometimes surprised by what the children remember and anticipate from year to year. As they have gotten older, I have come to appreciate their feedback as they develop their own relationships with Christ.
Now I have packed everything away and put the house back in order. The normal routine has returned, and quite honestly, I am ready for a nap. Keeping the festive season can be a great deal of work, but take heart! Whether you’ve never attempted liturgical living or yours looks completely different, keeping a faithful home is a high calling and it matters. The world desperately needs families to live their faith bravely. Our culture has lost its traditions, but we have more resources than ever for finding and reviving them. The Catholic world is full of rich customs that bring meaning to every facet of our lives, because we are by no means the first to attempt to offer every part of our selves to God’s service. Let’s join the ranks of those who have gone before, and like them, become saints.