Keeping Christ in Christmas – Our Family’s Approach

“Actions speak louder than words.”  “One picture is worth a thousand words.”  “Talk is cheap.”  There are lots of different sayings in the English language that generally express the same thing – words alone don’t do the necessary job of communicating, especially in the case of a personal message.  Like “I love you,” for instance.

So human beings in every culture have developed rituals to express the value they place on people and special events.   Take, for example, Turkey on the dining room table for Thanksgiving or presents under the tree at Christmas.  And then there are birthdays.  Even if all party-goers are tone-deaf and the birthday boy or girl is on the Atkins diet, we must sing the silly song and blow out the candles on that carb-laden cake!

The problem with human beings is that we have a stubborn tendency to allow rituals to become merely mechanical actions, forgetting their real meaning (one of the effects of original sin).  The Puritan response to this regrettable tendency was to abolish as many rituals and traditions as possible.  In the originally Puritan state of Massachusetts, for example, Christmas was not an official holiday until the 1890’s!

The Catholic approach has always been different.  We accept the celebrations with their occasional excesses and their traditional trappings (even those of pagan origins such as the Christmas tree).  The goal is to revive the original meaning of the rituals or invest them with a new, Christian meaning.  In the pagan Roman world of the fourth century AD, everyone felt relief as the days once again started getting longer following the depressing darkness of the winter solstice.  So they observed Dec 25 as “the birthday of the unconquerable Sun.”  “What a great time to celebrate the birthday of the truly unconquerable Son!” thought the early Christians.  So they successfully co-opted the day.  Christmas was born.

So what do we make of the current gift-giving extravaganza of Christmas in America?  First let’s talk about Christmas morning.  It’s Jesus’ birthday, but the piles of presents under the tree are the real focus, especially for the kids.  The first present is opened and then another and another, faster and faster.  It resembles a school of sharks going into a feeding frenzy.  Almost instantly the thrill is gone and the room is filled with crumpled wrapping paper (but it took so long to wrap them all!).

My wife and I did not want to be like the Grinch and call it all off.  So when we started our family, we established some rules.  On Christmas morning, before we go to the tree, we gather at the manger, sing a carol together, read a short scripture passage, and thank God for Jesus, the greatest gift of all.  Then we open one gift per person at a time, with everyone paying attention to what others get (this is hard!).  St. Paul says “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those that weep.”  Hopefully we do more of the former than the latter.

We further restrain the feeding frenzy by recourse to the 12 days of Christmas.  We don’t open everything on the 25th.  Rather, we leave some presents wrapped and under the tree for the other 11 days (this takes a bit of discipline!).  That way, everyone can savor each present, have something to look forward to, and prolong the feast.  We get more prayers, readings and carols around the manger that way, too.  Of course, we don’t have enough presents for each person each of the 12 days, but we’re okay with that.

This D’Ambrosio tradition has generally worked well over the last 19 years, with a few occasional bugs to work out, of course.  Like the time grandma called long distance one Christmas night and asks her little darling how he enjoyed her gift.  When the darling responded back “what gift?” there were a few red faces.  Now we make sure grandparents presents get opened first!


Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 1.800.803.0118.

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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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1 Comment

  1. I surely agree with you that the goal of every Catholic celebration whether liturgical or traditional is to revive the original meaning of the rituals or invest them with a new, Christian meaning. With all the trappings of commercialism, we should never be swayed to focus more the essential and true meaning of what we are celebrating brought by our deep Catholic faith.

    God bless your undertaking!

    Sole Gage
    Say It With God’s Word
    on Gift-Giving
    on educational toys

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