The Christmas season is a period marked by the partaking of sweets, wine and luscious winter meals. Far more than a merely enjoyable addendum to the prayerful celebration of Christ’s birth, the culinary traditions of Christmas — and the other seasons and feasts throughout the year — serve to unite us more closely to the liturgical life of the Church.
“Food is a natural symbol of the Eucharist,” said Emily Stimpson Chapman, Catholic author of numerous books, including The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet, and Register contributor.
“When we sit down at our kitchen tables, or our dining room tables with friends and family members, we are experiencing a foretaste of what we experience in Holy Communion in the Church,” Chapman told the Register.
There are numerous parallels between the consumption of a physical meal and the reception of the Holy Eucharist, Chapman explained.
While food nourishes, heals, brings about growth, and builds “bonds between friends and family members,” she said, “the Eucharist heals us spiritually, nourishes us spiritually, and helps us to grow in grace.”
“Food keeps us alive,” she said. “The Eucharist keeps us alive spiritually, draws us into the Body of Christ, and forms us into the ultimate communion.”
Eating “is a natural act that has sacred undertones to it,” Chapman said, “because of what it points us to and what it foreshadows. It helps us understand what the Eucharist does in our bodies, in our souls, in our communities.”
“Both food and drink are gifts from God that are meant to be consumed with gratitude and moderation,” said Michael Foley, Catholic author of Drinking With the Saints, Drinking With St. Nick: Christmas Cocktails for Sinners and Saints, among others.
“Both are sacramental (small ‘s’) signs that remind us of God’s goodness and bounty,” Foley told the Register. “And both are, when used well, conducive both to bodily health for ourselves and spiritual fellowship with each other.”
Wine in particular, Foley said, “enjoys a certain privilege in the Catholic imagination because it is the matter that becomes the Precious Blood during the Consecration.”
However, beer also has a special place in Church history. “In the old Roman ritual there is a blessing for beer in which the priest thanks God for the gift of beer, which he provided out of his loving kindness.”
Foley, who also wrote the upcoming Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained, said, “This opportunity for leisure was reinforced by the Twelve Days of Christmas, which forbade servile work and practically commanded that you be merry in honor of Our Lord’s birthday.”
Traditions that are connected to Christmas, and other seasons throughout the year, play a role in elevating us toward a deeper understanding of the liturgical life of the Church, Chapman said.
“The human person is made for liturgy,” she said. “We’re made for routine, and rhythm, and seasons, and in that repetition, that familiarity, we come to know ourselves. We come to know others.”
“When we create those patterns, when we create a habit, we’re really creating mini liturgies in our home. The deeper we’re able to enter into those liturgies, the more fully we can enter into the liturgies of the Church, because we understand them better. We feel them,,” she added.
Even carols can reflect this domestic pattern, such as the Advent hymn People Look East :
“The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.”
There is a link between a domestic life which welcomes others and a life of virtue, as John Cuddeback, philosophy professor at Christendom College, recently wrote on his blog, “Life Craft,” “Home, as usual, is the place to start. … We might say: As for me and my house, we will be lavish in how we take care of you — you, whoever you are, when we are blessed to have you as guest. There are then so many other ways … the generosity of our home can be lavished on others.”
One practical resource for helping us enter into the domestic liturgy includes Theology of Home, a website dedicated to encouraging contemplation of Christ and the eternal within the home. Run by Catholic authors Carrie Gress and Noelle Mering, the site has been posting recipes, decorating ideas and reflections this month to inspire a deeper entrance into the Advent season.
Indeed, the very act of entertaining and cooking, Chapman said, has “natural parallels” that “help us understand the supernatural meaning” of the sacrifices involved: the sacrifice of time, money and a gift of self.
“To cook, in a sense, is really doing what Jesus does in pouring h imself into the bread and the wine,” she said. Acknowledging that a cook’s sacrifice pales in comparison to that of Christ, Chapman said: “We are showing our love for people by cooking; he is showing his love for us by feeding us with Himself.”
Meanwhile, those who lack the time, talent, desire or means to cook during the holidays can nonetheless take part in the cooking process, Chapman said.
“Just like in the liturgy, there’s lots of different parts” involved in cooking, she said. A Mass has the priest, servers, the choir, the congregation, and each have an important role in the liturgy. The same is true when cooking dinner for the holidays.
“It takes a huge number of people to put on a Christmas dinner, Chapman said. “You might not be the cook, but you could be helping wash dishes; you can be there helping set the table; you could be an appreciative guest who expresses your thanks for what ha s been done for you.”
“Everyone has a part to play in a holiday meal, in a home liturgical celebration, ” she emphasized.
As for alcoholic beverages, those who cannot partake, whether through addiction, allergy or some other intolerance, need not feel left out, Foley said.
“You don’t need alcohol to be merry, and, indeed, too much alcohol can turn merriment into a brawl,” he said, citing his essay “How to Drink Like a Saint,” which lists “five lessons in festive drinking”: moderation, gratitude, memory, merriment and ritual. “These can easily be practiced whether one is drinking alcohol or not.”
That enjoyment of food and drink plays a significant role in our tradition is rooted in God’s plan for our humanity, Chapman said.
“God made us to eat,” she said. “He could have made us so that we didn’t need to eat, but he did. He could have made it so that food tasted like dirt, too, but he didn’t. He made it delicious.”
“He made this huge variety of foods. He made it so that we have to eat multiple times a day. We have to kind of slow down, and stop, and be with each other — just to embrace the goodness of food and God’s plan for food in our bodies.”
“God wants us to enjoy eating,” she continued. “He wants us to give thanks for food. He wants us to eat with others. He wants us to eat food that nourishes us, but also brings us joy.”