Some extra-liturgical practices of Christmas
Louis J. Tofari
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ is nearly upon us, and in relation to the three Masses of Christmas Day (in nocte, in aurora, and in die) there are some beautiful “extra-liturgical” customs that are frequently seen in Catholic churches throughout the world.
These traditions are called “extra-liturgical” as they are not strictly part of the rubrics, and yet, they are accepted practices which help to further enliven and emphasize the nature of the sacred liturgy.
So let’s briefly mention a few of these extra-liturgical practices dedicated to the Christ Child.
One of the most well-known customs of Christmas Mass is the use of additional candles during the Midnight Mass, thus, the candlelight Mass. Customarily the faithful will hold tapers, while the church itself, particularly the sanctuary, is lighted festively with extra candles. It should be noted that this practice of extra candles in the sanctuary is actually described in the rubrics of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum and liturgical references (for example, Candles in the Roman Rite).
Of course, the candles signify and honor the birth of the Light of the World, Who will shortly again—on Candlemas Day—be acknowledged as the Light of the Gentiles. The light of the candles dispel the darkness of the night, while in northern regions, the burning candles provide warmth against the cold (though nowadays, this aspect tends to be lost as most churches have central heating).
Procession to the crib and blessing of the Child
One of the most touching and symbolic extra-liturgical customs seen at the Midnight Mass is the bearing of the Christ Child figurine to a Nativity scene, or manger.
Several versions of this practice exist, but a common one occurs just before the Mass. Bearing the Divine Infant statue, the celebrant solemnly processes to the Nativity scene where he reverently places the Child into the crib. He then proceeds to venerate the Christ Child by incensing it. In some cases, the crib is also blessed with holy water.
Enthroning the Infant King above the altar
A particular interesting Italian custom—and also observed in some American parishes—is the enthronement of the Christ Child (or bambino) as a king above the altar during the Midnight Mass. The Infant King is also incensed during the Mass along with the altar cross.
Veneration of the Christ Child
Another frequently seen practice is allowing the faithful to venerate the statuette of the Divine Babe by kissing His foot after the Christmas Day Masses. This custom is especially prevalent among the Italians and Spanish. In some parts of Mexico, this veneration is extended specifically to children after every public Mass during the Christmas Octave.
One last custom that should be mentioned, that really is not extra-liturgical per se, but noteworthy just the same: the Christmas Communion. Previously in centuries past, when the faithful did not frequent Communion as regularly as perhaps today (thanks to the 20th century efforts of Pope St. Pius X), receiving their newly-born Lord in the Holy Eucharist was the greatest joy experienced by communicants on Christmas Day.