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Roman Catholic Christmas traditions

Read about the Catholic Christmas customs and gain an understanding of how the feast is observed according to the Roman Catholic tradition.

Published at Thu, May 30 2019 • Updated Fri, September 13 2019
A nativity scene with handmade figures featuring Virgin Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
© JosepMonter / Pixabay
A nativity scene with handmade figures featuring Virgin Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

Common Christmas practices in Catholic tradition

Some of the habits and rituals involve traditions that are followed at home while others refer to common ceremonies honoring the birth of Jesus Christ. Some of them are parts of the Christmas preparatory period and spread a festive and anticipating feeling in the atmosphere.


Lit Advent candles in front of a window.
© Niklas Nordblad / Wikimedia Commons [CC0 1.0]
Lit Advent candles in front of a window.

Advend is the period of preparation and waiting for the coming of the Lord. It begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas and it lasts until the 24th of December.

As in many other Christian churches, Advent is observed in Catholicism too and is related to a range of preparatory Christmas practices.

Some of them are to make an Advent wreath, to keep Advent calendar and pray a daily devotional, as well as to set up Christmas decorations and erect a Christmas tree.

The Nativity Scene

A room-size replica of the Nativity Scene.
© VinnyCiro / Pixabay
A room-size replica of the Nativity Scene.

This is a family tradition where all members take part in the project of setting up the Christmas manger.

Children and parents provide all types of creative ideas represent the Bethlehem nativity scenery. Models and figurines of baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi, angels, and animals can be carved, paper-made or even pre-made.

Some people add the figures one by one each evening in order to build excitement for the upcoming celebration.

Going to the Mass

A Christmas Vigil Mass in a church.
A Christmas Vigil Mass in a church.

The heart of the celebration of Jesus Birthday is one of the four Masses that are taking place during the Christmas period.

Those are the Christmas Day Mass (Mass of the Divine Word), the Christmas Eve Mass (Vigil Mass), the Midnight Mass (Mass of the angels) and the Dawn Mass (Mass of the Shepherds).

It is very typical that families and their children are going to Mass together. It is actually an activity that leads the observers to a deeper spiritual experience of the holiday and a great way to reflect on what Christmas is truly about.

Gift giving

Gift packages by the Christmas tree.
© Kelvin Kay / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Gift packages by the Christmas tree.

Exchanging gifts is a tradition deriving from the magi who reached Bethlehem from distant lands in order to worship Jesus with gifts like gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

It is also a gesture imitating God’s generosity to offer his Son who died for our sins. Children are waiting for gifts from Santa Claus who is the contemporary version of St. Nicholas whose feast on the 6th of December is a highlight of the Advent season.

In different parts of the world, Catholics are following the gift-giving tradition on different dates of the Christmas period but it is also a custom that is observed almost everywhere in the Catholic world.

Christmas baking & meals

Christmas biscuits preparation process.
© em1587 / Pixabay
Christmas biscuits preparation process.

As Christmas approaches, it is a tradition for almost every house to brim with baking and other meal preparatory smells.

The baking starts usually around the 20th of December while the Christmas table that is set up with the finest dinnerware and candles is full of sweets cakes, greenery, fruits and traditional dishes like ham and turkey.

There are many variations across different countries but everywhere the unique and festive meals play a significant role at the celebration.

Most of Catholics observe a 24 hour fast prior to Christmas and this fast is broken by the festive meal with family members on Christmas day.

Carols & light decoration

Colorful Christmas lights on a pedestrian street.
© Mariamichelle / Pixabay
Colorful Christmas lights on a pedestrian street.

Christmas carols are songs or hymns whose lyrics have a Christmas theme.

Apart from the Christian religious services, they are sung by children, students or groups during the Christmas period. In many countries, this tradition is held on Christmas Eve and adds some joy and devoutness to the Christmas atmosphere.

Another element that is highly related to the unique Christmas atmosphere, is the candle and light decorations that are prevalent in Christmas. They bring some light at the darkest period of the year and symbolize the light of Jesus that are shed to the darkness of sin and death.

The interior of a typical Catholic church.
© RitaE / Pixabay
The interior of a typical Catholic church.

Why is Christmas important to the Catholic Church?

Christmas is an extraordinary event for the Catholic Church. It signifies the birth of the savior who is coming (in flesh) to meet people in the world. The Catholic Church designates the four-week period preceding Christmas as Advent. It is a preparatory period of a major event where the Lord is coming as a King and Savior.

According to the Catholic tradition, Christmas is not a one-day celebration, but it is a longer festive period that can last up to 22 days. It is also connected to other holidays that are celebrated in the winter period of the year.

A series of unique customs that have been practiced for centuries, operate as fundamental elements of honoring the birth of Jesus Christ in Catholicism. While most of the rituals can have evolved among countries, the majority of them remain similar for ages and offer the opportunity to the observers to feel and understand the deeper spiritual meaning of this holiday.

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