VATICAN CITY - No saint was ever known for having a "funeral face," Pope Francis said; the joy of knowing one is loved by God and saved by Christ must be seen at least in a sense of peace, if not a smile.

Celebrating the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, Dec. 14, Pope Francis paid an evening visit to Rome's St. Joseph parish, meeting with the sick, with a group of Gypsies, with a First Communion class and with dozens of couples whose newborn babies were baptized in the past year.

Published in International

The Good Shepherd doesn’t want Torontonians to forget there are people living on the streets, sleeping in doorways, eating whatever they can find while the rest of us shop for the perfect Christmas morning surprise.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

ROME - In the heart of Rome's high-end shopping district, sparkling with Christmas lights and shiny baubles in the windows of famous designers, Pope Francis prayed that people would spend time in silence and in service as they prepare to celebrate Jesus' birth.

Published in International

The peace and joy of Christmas emanates from the remarkable narrative of a birth in a Bethlehem manger more than 2,000 years ago. Children have always been enchanted by the birthday of the Baby Jesus, which is probably why The Register's annual Christmas drawing contest has become so popular.

Published in Features

Just like traditions of putting up the tree and hanging lights, there are Christmas movies we will watch year after year, almost without fail. They evoke feelings of nostalgia and bring back childhood memories.

Published in Features

TORONTO - As a priest-chaplain at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, people often want to know what it’s like to spend Christmas in a hospital community.

Published in Vatican

We’re told in song that this is “the season to be jolly.” Yet, it’s ironic that, like many occasions when we should be most happy — planning a wedding, moving to a new home, bringing a new baby home for the first time, the first day of a dream job — Christmas brings plenty of stress.

Published in Features

Salt+Light TV has the Christmas season covered this year.

Published in Arts News

Christmas dinner comes a day late for Zenzie Rees, who forgoes cooking the traditional holiday meal at home and instead volunteers and eats at The Good Shepherd Refuge on Boxing Day. Rees volunteers her time to serve Christmas dinner with about 80 others from noon until 2:30 p.m. at the downtown mission.

Published in Canada

In Keening for the Dawn: Christmastide, Steve Bell combines the Christmas theme with his folksy sound and a soft country touch.

Published in Music News

The event we celebrate at the feast of Christmas is mind-boggling: the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth.

Published in Guest Columns

TORONTO - Christmas celebrations are heralded by the senses, and none more so than sound, with music at the heart of almost all of our seasonal memories. Think Bing Crosby crooning “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” or Judy Garland rending heart strings everywhere with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — it doesn’t get more quintessentially “Christmas-time” than that.

Published in Music News

TORONTO - Through a cold, foggy night at the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, the scent of pine and smoke from a bonfire cut through like a crisp reminder of the very Canadian setting for a very old and beloved story.

Published in Arts News
December 19, 2012

Oh Christmas tree!

I am not a convert. Yet. But I confess to having taken meaningful steps away from my ancient iron-clad convictions.

The steps are, in fact, inevitable since they lead me from my dark, cramped basement office past the living room where my wife has set up, decorated and illuminated a beautiful Christmas tree. There I’ve said it. We have a beautiful Christmas tree in our house.

Not long ago — I’m talking, oh, last week — it would have been easier for Oliver Cromwell to beg the Pope’s blessing at Midnight Mass than for me to bring the words “beautiful,” “Christmas tree” and “our house” within a light year of each other.

I grew up loving Christmas. And loathing Christmas trees. Always hated them. Never could abide the wretched things. When I was about five, I got smacked across the face by an evil branch on some odious Yuletide sapling my father was bringing home. When I was about 25, I suffered agonizing frostbite on my ears one brutal December night in Edmonton after being forced outside to buy a ridiculous lump of pine.

Going bareheaded was my defiance of the whole reprehensible ritual of tree shopping. It was tactical defiance. My plan was to make it essential that we grab the first tannenbaum at hand, no matter how scrawny or mangled, and vamoose before my head froze. The glowing white circles of pain on both my ears gave proof how well that scheme worked.

Frankly, I would now rather go shoe shopping with a three-legged woman than endure the torments of touring the local Christmas tree lot. Indeed, the two adventures bear a remarkable resemblance. In both, everything must be circled, touched, inspected, hoisted and balanced, sized, deemed worthy and then suddenly and inexplicably unworthy, several times before grudging approval and final settlement are reached. For a dead strip of leather. Or a dead stretch of tree.

My wife, you’ll have guessed, buys our trees. That’s because she insists we have a tree. I go along — as long as I don’t have to have anything whatever to do with the thing itself.
I have never, Cromwell-like, tried to ban Christmas trees from our house just because someone else might enjoy them. I am not a Christmas tree dog in the manger. On the contrary, I once got a tiding of great joy from a Christmas tree when one of our three cats took a flying leap, put what looked like a professional wrestling hold on the angel at the top, and rode the whole collapsing mass down to the living room floor below. I still give that kitten extra supper just to say thanks for a job well done.

My opposition to Christmas trees is, in fact, rooted in cold logic. What, I have always asked, is the point of dragging a tree into the house just because it’s December? Do we carve up slabs of lawn and slap them down on the kitchen floor because it’s April? Do we pile autumnal leaves over the flat-screen HDTV because it’s September? No. We do not. We leave outside what belongs outside. Right?

Yes. Except this year my wife lost her mother in January, her father in mid-November. Early in December, she brought home a box of decorations that had been on virtually every tree put up in her family’s house for the past 50 Christmases. Suddenly, the quintessential Santa that I would have scorned as emblematic of Christmas commercialization became a symbol of childhood magic and memory. Suddenly, the glittery guitar, violin and harp that I would once have derided as tchotchkes are all that is left of the music my father-in-law filled the house with each Christmas. The bright red and yellow glass balls for the tree branches went from baubles of banality to fragile reminders of loving hands that will lift and place them no more.

“The great light, of which the Christmas tree is a sign and a reminder, not only hasn’t dimmed with the passing of centuries and millennia, but continues to shine on us and enlighten each person who comes into this world, especially when we go through moments of uncertainty and difficulty,” Pope Benedict said last week at the lighting ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.

Beautiful words that are, I confess, entirely made manifest by our beautiful tree. I am not yet a convert, Holy Father. But give me a few more steps.

Published in Peter Stockland

Making Jesus the centre of Christmas is an important and worthy endeavour, if also a challenge in our increasingly secular culture.

Putting Christ back into Christmas evokes St. Paul’s reminder of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. “Put on Christ,” he encourages us in his Letter to the Romans (Rom. 13:14).

The ways that we seek to focus on Jesus’ birth this Christmas can help us develop some spiritual practices to make Christ the centre of our everyday lives.

One of my guides this Advent has been Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely and humble hero of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (I re-read this childhood favourite so that I could fully appreciate the film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, currently playing in theatres.) Despite the lack of an overt Christmas theme, Bilbo’s adventures can offer some insight for our spiritual journey.

Christmas celebrations are full of great art — or at least imitations of great art. (We have all had occasion to shudder at an off-key rendition of our favourite Christmas hymn.) Great art — whether visual, literary, musical, cinematic or narrative — reminds us of our true human nature, as God created us. When a work of art expresses the best of what it means to be human, this goodness can be a starting point for dialogue with our secular culture. It can also become a doorway to spiritual awareness for the believer and non-believer.

Engaging with a great work of art becomes an adventure of the kind that Bilbo Baggins goes on. The newness of his experiences makes the little hobbit keenly sensitive to the beauties and dangers around him. His dwarf companions seek to regain lost treasure, but Bilbo goes on the journey for entirely different reasons. Ultimately, he is transformed — by the beauties he experiences, the goodness he witnesses in others, the dangers he faces and the choices he makes.

We can choose to engage our secular culture with a similar sensitivity: both to the seeds of the Gospel it contains and to its innate dangers. Especially at Christmas when the artistic expression is often clearly Christian, we can highlight the best of these expressions of faith. Instead of just listening to the radio, we can play a mix of religious hymns, letting their awe and wonder flood our hearts. We can look more closely at the masterpieces on our Christmas cards, even using them in our prayers as a way to meditate on the amazing mystery of the Incarnation.

Throughout the year, we can become like the magi, seeking Christ in the secular corners of our culture.

Gift-giving in a consumer culture easily becomes an exercise in impressing others, a way to “prove” our love by how much money we spend, or a way to “use” one another — gift-giving in the hopes of getting something back. Consumerism falsely fulfills our insecurities through the acquiring of more and more material things.

In The Hobbit, the dwarves’ attitudes toward the dazzling treasure are quite consumeristic. Bilbo is the one who sees the gold for what it is: useful only up to a certain point. His brushes with gold help him to see with a spiritual vision and to choose friendship over treasure, honesty over deception, justice over greed.

As Bilbo clearly saw, material things are gifts to be used and shared. We can strive to make our Christmas gifts more authentic expressions of love, more personal and meaningful: a homemade gift card for going out for ice cream together; a hand-crafted item; a favourite spiritual book. This personal approach shifts our focus from the gift to our relationship with the person receiving the gift. Gift-giving then takes its proper place as a celebration of God’s abundant love for us.

Throughout the year, we can continue to shift from our consumeristic, “gotta-have-it” attitude to a deepening perspective of gratitude. We can seek to share what we have received, giving of ourselves with greater love.

Christmas Mass is where we celebrate the ultimate gift: God’s coming to us. This coming of God is a mystery and a grace to be celebrated year-round with a humble and brave “hobbit-like” heart that views the spiritual life as a quest for a more abundant life. Every Mass — not just Christmas — becomes an invitation for us to cherish the coming of our God, to welcome Him, and to respond to His coming with love.