'God with us': the blessings of Advent and the joys of Christmas

This story appears in the The Life feature series. View the full series.

Liturgy. Togetherness. Soccer. Devotions. Food. Customs. Charitable actions.

This month, the panelists let us peek into their homes and convents to see how they celebrate Advent or Christmas with customs and celebrations characteristic of their different communities and countries, as they discuss this question:

Does your congregation have any special or unusual Advent or Christmas customs?


Immacula Chukwunyere (2) c.jpgImmaculata Chukwunyere is a member of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus. She was a headmistress and teacher in Nigeria and Kenya before moving to the U.S. in 1999 and now teaches high school English.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we light the first Advent candle and traditionally build an empty crib in preparation for the coming of the infant Jesus. Each time a sister makes a sacrifice or carries out an act of charity, she puts a straw in the empty crib. For us, these Advent practices are special acts of longing for the child Jesus, who has a special place in the spirit and the name of our order.

On Dec. 16, we begin an eight-day novena. On Dec. 24, after Christmas vigil Mass, the youngest sister — encircled by her sisters singing and dancing — leads a joyful procession, carrying the infant Jesus to his bed of straw made from our collective acts of love. The community visits baby Jesus in the crib with song every night until the end of Christmas.

As part of our celebration at Epiphany, we hold a devotional renewal of vows for our finally professed sisters.

Lucia Guerra (2) c.jpgLucía Aurora Herrerías Guerra is a member of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity from Mexico. After years of ministry in education and as a missionary, she now serves in Rome as the president of her congregation.

In the days before Christmas, we share in local traditions like Las Posadas in Mexico, the Novena de Aguinaldos in Colombia, or the Misa de Gallo in the Philippines. We often organize the event ourselves as an opportunity to share with people the living experience of a personal God, Jesus, our "God with us."

But for us, Christmas is a time for mission. Sometimes we have a silent retreat in the morning of Dec. 24, and then a vigil open to whoever wants to pray with us. For dinner, we sometimes invite people who are alone, or we make a short visit to families going through difficulties.

Eilis McCulloh  c.jpgEilis McCulloh professed first vows with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary in June 2017. She is a program assistant with Migration & Refugee Services, Catholic Charities-Diocese of Cleveland, after volunteer experiences in Haiti and Immokalee, Florida.

In 2006, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary began hosting a Nativity Display at Villa Maria Community Center in Pennsylvania. The display includes more than 200 Nativities from around the world. Some are donated to the community while others are loaned for the event.

During the event, our farm sells homegrown poinsettias, wreaths and swags, and our shop sells fair trade gifts.

While the Christmas season can become a blur of activity and commotion, the Nativity Display invites us to focus on the meaning of the season. Through the Nativity display, we are able to share the joy of the Christmas season with hundreds of people.

Eden Panganiban (2) (500x468).jpgEden Panganiban is a member of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit. The former president of the College of the Holy Spirit in Manila, Philippines, she has served in leadership positions since 1989.

Christmas comes very early to the Philippines. When the "-ber" months set in (September to December), one could already feel the Christmas air. Yet there is one ancient practice that every Filipino looks forward to: the "Simbang Gabi" (dawn Mass).

Considered as the Christmas novena, the nine days before Christmas are a climax of the Advent season. Churches all over the country are so packed with churchgoers that parishes have to schedule several Masses at dawn or after dusk.

The National Liturgical Commission has changed the mood of the celebration from Advent to Christmas, with the "Gloria" resounding every day. Native delicacies add to the celebration mode.

sister janet gildea (171x213).jpgJanet Gildea is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. A retired family physician, she is liaison for women religious for the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and directs women in initial formation for the Sisters of Charity.

Celebrating Advent at the border of the United States and Mexico means two novenas.

We begin preparing for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 3. Walking the dirt roads of the colonias, praying the rosary and singing traditional Marian hymns by candlelight, we remember Mary coming to Tepeyac and staying in the tilma of Juan Diego. Mañanitas, the morning birthday song, with traditional Aztec dances, the matachines, are part of the celebration early on Dec. 12 to wake the Virgin!

On Dec. 16, we begin the novena of Las Posadas, which takes us to Christmas. We take to the streets with María and José, seeking welcome and shelter. All this walking in darkness prepares us to receive the light joyfully on Christmas!

Mary Lan 1 (3) c.jpgMary Nguyen Thi Phuong Lan is a Dominican Sister of Our Lady of the Rosary in Vietnam. She studied in universities in Vietnam and the Philippines and has worked in formation in Vietnam.

When Advent comes, I always prepare my soul by actions and words to welcome the Savior. A favorite Advent memory: I was invited to write a letter to the Christ baby, giving him a "bouquet" of acts of charity, sacrifice and prayer. After the Christmas vigil Mass, I spent an hour of prayer with the Christ baby, offering the letter as a small gift to him. This moment was sacred for me, and I felt joy and peace.

On Christmas, traditionally, we close the kitchen and all our sisters can go out for the whole day: Some visit their families, and others visit people who live in poverty, orphans, those who are handicapped, or patients in the hospital.

For me, this is a meaningful way to welcome the birthday of the Christ baby who came to bring peace for humankind, and to bring joy to others as well.

Susan Kidd (429x500).jpgSusan Kidd is a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame and is currently the campus minister of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. She has worked in education and parish ministry in Toronto and Cameroon.

One of our congregation's traditions is our Christmas circular, which we receive from our congregational leadership team. It's a Christmas message dated Dec. 8 and delivered Dec. 1.

The messages are well-written, inspiring texts, gifts that blend magisterial texts with our current chapter directions and Scripture with our constitutions and the writings of our foundress.

They call us forth: "What are we doing to be a welcoming, loving presence to one another, to the stranger we meet, to the one who is 'different' from us? May we take the time these days to be present."

Blessed Advent! Merry Christmas!

Karan Varker (2) c.jpgKaran Varker is a Sister of Charity of Australia. She has been a teacher, principal and teacher-trainer working in Papua New Guinea, America Samoa, Australia and the Solomon Islands. Her present ministry is in nurturing the spirituality of teachers.

With the coming of these joyful liturgical seasons, in Advent, our communities usually set up the Christmas crib and an Advent wreath in our chapels or churches. Each week, an Advent candle is lit and an Advent prayer is said. Sisters generally celebrate Christmas Mass in their parishes.

Since Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, Advent and Christmas occur in our long, hot summer. While this does not affect our Advent celebrations, it does that of Christmas. Our family Christmas meals may be cold meats and salads or barbecues outside.

After Christmas, many set off for their summer holidays, usually spent at a beautiful Australian beach.

Giselle 2 (2) c.jpgGiselle Gómez Guillén was born in Nicaragua and entered the Society of St. Teresa of Jesus in San Antonio. She taught religion and psychology and served as school principal in Nicaragua. She was elected provincial of the province of Central America and Cuba and is now serving as general counselor in Rome.

"La Purísima" is a widespread celebration Dec. 8 in Nicaragua. Thousands join in the preparatory novena. The host of each night's celebration decorates an altar with an image — often inherited from ancestors — of the Immaculate Conception.

Prayers alternate with traditional Marian songs, accompanied by whistles, tambourines and other instruments. Outside, rockets and firecrackers explode. The host provides fruits, sweets, drinks, sugar cane and gifts.

On Dec. 7, many celebrate "la Gritería." People visit altars until midnight, praying, singing and yelling: "Quién causa tanta alegría?" ("Who causes so much joy?"), and others yell back: "La Concepción de María!" ("Mary's Immaculate Conception"). More food, drinks and gifts are shared!

We share in the local traditions or even organize an event, but for us, Christmas is a time for mission. We invite others for prayer or a meal, or we visit families in difficulty.

SrTerryAbraham (2) c.jpgTeresita Abraham is a Presentation Sister from India living in rural Zambia. She developed the Garden of Oneness, a sanctuary of peace and harmony where she lives and works.

Our congregation was founded on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1775, by Nano Nagle. She customarily celebrated this day by inviting 50 poor children to a Christmas dinner. She waited on them at table and helped them "as their menial servant." To her, they represented the "Great Patron of the Poor," who on that day made his first appearance among us and who came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.

The annals of the first Presentation House say, "Since her death it has been carefully kept up in this monastery, and it is to be faithfully adhered to while ever the community shall have existence."

Today, we continue to hold this holy ritual in a variety of ways, because we believe God comes to us through children of every being, especially the lowliest and least of all that lives.

Florence Nwaonuma (2) c.jpgFlorence Nwaonuma is a member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has served as president of the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious.

For the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the celebration of Christmas begins on Dec. 22 every year with holy Mass and other celebrations with our affiliates and friends. We call this our Founder's Day celebration.

Preliminary activities to this day include a football match (soccer in the United States) among the sisters from the congregation's zones. We also have birthday celebrations for our sisters and an exchange of gifts among our communities. We visit and share whatever we have with the less privileged and with prisoners and orphans.

On Christmas Day, we cook and invite our friends to share our meal with us.

Sarah Puls (3) c.jpgSarah Puls was a social worker before becoming a Sister of the Good Samaritan in Australia. She currently works with asylum-seekers and refugees as a caseworker.

The sisters who live in my local community make our gifts for one another, chosen carefully for individual tastes — a song, a poem, a recipe.

We all work with people who come to Australia seeking safety from violence and persecution, so at Christmas, we welcome people into our home to share life and traditions. I love to cook and enjoy making sure there is food for each person's needs, including vegetarian and halal.

This year, we will be a diverse group of different religious and cultural backgrounds, families with children and adults who are separated from their families — all friends who would otherwise be lonely — and they join us in sharing the joy of God present in human form.

Pat FarrellPat Farrell is a member of the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, California. After serving in congregational leadership and vocation ministry, she now lives in the Chicago area and is executive director of the Dominican Sisters Conference, which unites 19 congregations of Dominican Sisters in the United States.

What is my favorite Christmas tradition in the convent? It has to be Christmas stockings. You see, my family didn't celebrate Christmas with stockings, so I knew nothing about the wonderful surprises waiting within those long, decorated knee socks hanging from the fireplace mantle. I discovered Christmas stockings in the convent!

All year long, I think about the surprise I will add to my sisters' stocking next Christmas. Is it something they can use, like stamps or Kleenex? Or is it frivolous and fun — maybe chocolate?

On Christmas Eve, the youngest sister gets to distribute the stockings, and when the opening begins, so do the oohs, ahs and the laughter.

Joy! That's what Christmas is about!

Regi JosephRegi Joseph is a Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary sister in India. She is a teacher in in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. She has worked in education in city and rural areas.

In our school, we try to inculcate the true spirit of Christmas: that of sharing and caring.

The students create the mood and spirit of Christmas with the help of teachers by preparing special assemblies, participating in carol-singing competitions, decorating classrooms, and joining in an outreach program in which they distribute food and gifts to orphanages and homes for the aged and differently abled persons. They spend quality time with these people and entertain them with cultural performances.

Four times a week, the students visit a school in the slums and teach the children there. As part of the Christmas celebration, these children are brought to our school, and the students perform a cultural program and conduct games for them.

It is remarkable that 99 percent of our students are non-Christians, yet they joyfully and enthusiastically celebrate the spirit of Christmas.

Read more in Global Sisters Report's The Life series.