The Rev. Eamon Miley remembers his first Christmas in the United States.
“The biggest shock when I came to this country was to see, the day after Christmas, all the Christmas trees on the road,” said the pastor at St. Martin Catholic Church.
In Ireland, and the Catholic faith, Christmas is celebrated as a season. It follows Advent, a season of penance and waiting to commemorate the birth of Christ. “Just like we have the seasons autumn, spring, summer and fall, our church has seasons, such as Advent and Christmas,” Miley said.
Today, Christmas Day, marks the start of the Christmas season, which begins with the birth of Jesus Christ – the event in which God became man. “When you think of it, this is ‘Christ’s Mass’ or Christmas. This is the Mass of Christ,” Miley said, explaining that attending church services is as much a part of the Christmas tradition as opening presents for children around the world.
Today also marks the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
“They culminate on the Epiphany, Jan. 6, which traditionally commemorates the day the three wise men would have reached baby Jesus,” Miley said.
But for Catholics, as with other liturgical churches, the season of Christmas continues into February. “February 2, to be exact,” Miley said. “That marks the day Jesus was presented at the temple, the day Mary gave Him over to God.”
Each year, Miley said, people of faith seek to “go deeper into understanding the mystery of Christmas, of Jesus’ life.”
Deeper, he said, into understanding that Christ was born to die for the sins of man. “He came to take our suffering.”
With a season to ponder, pray and worship, Miley said people of liturgical faiths such as Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans, can immerse themselves in the Christmas spirit for more than just a day.
“In Ireland, every day was Christmas Day,” he said.
As residents across Pike County spend today with family and friends, unwrapping gifts and sharing stories and food, Miley said his family in Ireland celebrates differently. “Christmas Day is spent just with family, not going out (except to Mass) and not visiting,” he said. “The next day is St. Stephens’ Day.”
That day, he said, commemorates the first martyr who died for his faith and, in Ireland, is marked by many with fasting. “Many people don’t eat meat the day after Christmas as a penance, a sacrifice to remind us that Jesus came into the world to suffer and die.”
While most people are familiar with the 12 Days of Christmas as a popular holiday song, Miley said they stem from the tradition of the church and the season of Christmas.
“And, I read something this year that shares a history to the carol,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful symbolism and, in our church, there is symbolism in everything.”
The history, according to a popular e-mail circulating in recent weeks, is that Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their faith openly from 1558 to 1829. During that period, this song was developed for young Catholics. Each verse reflects a teaching of faith:
The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ.
The two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments.
The three French hens stand for faith, hope and love.
The four calling birds represent the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The five golden rings recall the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.
The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation.
The seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership and mercy.
The eight maids a-milking were the eight Beatitudes.
The nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The 10 lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.
The 11 pipers piping represent the eleven faithful disciples.
The 12 drummers drumming symbolize the twelve points of belief in the Apostle’s Creed.