Domestic Observances: Christian Practices

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Contemporary forms and practices of Christian religious life in the home vary widely among the various denom-inations and branches of Christianity, as well as among ethnic and socioeconomic groups within those broader divisions. The usual division of Western Christians into Roman Catholic and Protestant is, for the purpose of the present discussion, more suitably replaced by a distinction between those denominations, such as Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Lutheran, with strong liturgical traditions, and those, such as Baptists and Pentecostals, that have a less fully developed ritual heritage.

Western Christians often adorn their homes with religious images such as crucifixes and holy pictures, and Eastern Christian homes traditionally contain an icon corner where images of Christ and the saints are honored and where family prayers are said. A lighted candle or oil lamp usually burns before these icons. In the homes of families of the Eastern churches and the Western churches with more developed liturgies, palm or other branches blessed in church on Palm Sunday may be placed behind these images.

Traditional Roman Catholics sometimes provide small fonts for holy water at the doors of bedrooms, and during the month of May a Marian shrine may be set up in a corner of the home. The blessing of a new home, usually conducted by a priest, is practiced by some liturgically oriented Christian families of both East and West, with Eastern Christians observing an annual renewal of the house blessing during the period following the Feast of Theophany (Epiphany) on January 6.

Some form of grace, said daily at the main meal or at each meal, is common among Christians, at least on special occasions. Also common among most denominations is the practice of an adult or older member of the family hearing a child's bedtime prayers. Christian families observe the Lord's Day (Sunday) in various ways. A festive meal is often part of the day, which may be honored as a day of rest. Among some families of the nonliturgical traditions, family gatherings for prayer, often held early in the morning and consisting of Bible readings, hymn singing, and prayers by a leader, are customary.

Devout Christian families often say prayers for sick family members. These prayer services can include the laying on of hands and anointing with oil by a priest (in the liturgical traditions) or by a layperson (in the nonliturgical traditions). These rites of anointing are usually reserved for the seriously ill and dying in more conservative religious families. In the Eastern tradition, a priest, or, among Western Christians, a layperson or priest sometimes brings the Eucharist from the church to the sick person; in the less liturgically oriented churches the Lord's Supper may be celebrated by an ordained person in the sickroom.

Families of different denominations observe anniversaries of the deaths of family members and friends in various ways. Not uncommon among Eastern Christians, especially those of Slavic extraction, is the custom of burning a lighted candle before a picture of the deceased person during the day of the anniversary. A festive dinner, with gifts for the honored person, is commonly given on the saints' name days of family members, and various national groups enjoy festive meals featuring traditional ethnic foods on the feast days of their important saints.

The cycle of feasts and seasons of the Christian calendar provides many occasions for religious observances in the home, especially among Christians with strong liturgical traditions. During the pre-Lenten Carnival season, doughnut making and pancake suppers are common, such customs originating from earlier times when lard and other meat products had to be consumed before the beginning of Lent. While Lenten fasting and abstinence have become merely token or even nonexistent among many Western Christians, Eastern Christians commonly abstain from meat, butter, eggs, milk, and other animal products throughout this period, as well as during other penitential times. Some families in the nonliturgical churches are returning to the ancient practice of fasting twice weekly, usually on Tuesday and Friday. In the West during Lent, families often give money saved by having simple meals to charitable organizations. Also, soft pretzels continue to be served in some homes, a practice that originated in the Middle Ages when the shape of the pretzel was thought to resemble the crossed arms of a person at prayer. Hot cross buns, another customary food of medieval origin, are served in some Christian homes on the Fridays of Lent and during the last days of Holy Week.

Eastern Christian families continue their tradition of creating intricately decorated Easter eggs to be included in a basket of foods (with sausage, butter, cakes, and other foods proscribed during Lent), which is taken to the church and blessed at the all-night Easter service and eaten at a holy breakfast following that service on Easter morning. A similar breakfast has become popular among some Western Christian families in recent years following the restoration of the Easter Vigil service to its original time in the middle of the night. Two unique Eastern Christian family customs practiced during this season should be noted: (1) the bringing home of a lighted flame from the matins service of Holy Saturday (held on Holy Friday evening) and the marking of the form of a cross on the underside of every door lintel with smoke from this flame; and (2) the blessing of and picnicking at the graves of departed relatives and friends on the Sunday following Easter Day.

Many Western Christian families observe a similar memorial custom, but in the autumn season rather than at Easter. Picnicking at the graves of the departed on November 2 (All Souls Day) is common especially among Hispanic Christians; visits to cemeteries on that day, or the following Sunday, are also made by members of various denominations.

Eastern Christians continue the ancient practice of preparing fruit on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (August 6) and flowers on the Feast of the Dormition of Mary (August 15) to be taken to the church for a special blessing. Some Western Christians have renewed a similar practice of bringing freshly baked bread to the church to be blessed at Lammastide (the first two weeks of August).

The Advent season encompasses immensely rich and varied family observances. The custom of the Advent wreath enjoys widespread popularity in the West. On the Advent wreath, constructed from a circle of evergreens surmounted by four candles (usually three purple and one rose colored), Christians light one additional candle each week during the four weeks of Advent. In some families the wreath is lighted before the evening meal to the accompaniment of brief prayers and often the singing of the Advent carol O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Among Western Christians three traditional feasts during Advent are regaining the popularity they had in earlier centuries: Saint Barbara's Day (December 4), when a dormant branch of flowering cherry, known as the Barbara branch, is brought indoors and blooms on or near Christmas Day; the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6), which is often celebrated with small gifts placed in the children's shoes left outside bedroom doors on the eve of the feast; and the Feast of Santa Lucia (December 13, usually the date of the earliest sunset of the year), which is observed with customs dating from pre-Christian times and features saffron-yellow yeast buns, known as Lucia cakes, baked in the form of a spiral sun.

Among Hispanic people the last nine days of Advent are known as Posadas ("lodgings"). Children, portraying Mary and Joseph seeking shelter on their way to Bethlehem, go from door to door and are turned away repeatedly. Finally, the last home welcomes them, which then becomes the site of a joyful service and feast.

Some families honor the religious significance of the traditional Christmas tree by a ritual blessing of the tree. Often they place a crêche or nativity scene under or near the tree and adorn it with other traditional decorations, such as candles and glittering tinsel.

A festive family dinner on Christmas Eve is common among many ethnic groups, often with a prescribed number of courses (usually seven, nine, eleven, or twelve) limited to fish or vegetable dishes. The fact that the day before Christmas was one of strict fast and abstinence in previous centuries accounts for the tradition of a meatless festive meal. Ethnic variations abound at this Christmas Eve meal; among the better known is the Polish custom of the distribution by the head of the family of portions of a waferlike rectangle of unleavened bread, known as oplatek, with prayers and good wishes for the holy season and the coming year.

The Feast of the Epiphany (traditionally celebrated on January 6 but observed by some denominations on a Sunday near that date) is little observed in most Western Christian homes, although Twelfth Night parties on the eve of the feast, a custom dating from the Middle Ages, continue to be held or are being revived. In Hispanic cultures, January 6, known as the Day of the Three Kings, is a major feast, and families of Slavic extraction continue the centuries-old custom of using blessed chalk to mark the doorways of their homes with the numerals of the current year and the initials of the Three Kings. Known as the Feast of Theophany among Eastern Christians, January 6 celebrates the manifestation of God's presence in the world that was given at the baptism of Jesus. Water, as the primal element representing all creation, is blessed in the churches and preserved by families at home; the custom of the reverent drinking of some of this blessed water by members of the family persists, and the priest uses the same water to bless the home on the traditional annual visit during this season.

Recent developments in Christian domestic religious observance include the adoption by some Christian families of Jewish feasts. These include anukkah near the winter solstice, with its custom of lighting the menorah (an eight-branched candelabrum), and the feast of Purim in the spring, when the story of Queen Esther is read aloud to the accompaniment of joyous noisemaking by children. Christian families celebrating these festivals serve traditional foods, such as potato pancakes for anukkah and prune-filled three-cornered pastries for Purim. Of particular interest is the celebration of the Seder (the Jewish Passover meal) in some Christian homes during Holy Week. As Christians rediscover the centrality of Jewish Passover imagery to their own beliefs and practices, especially its relevance to the Eucharist, they have begun to extend invitations to family and friends to celebrate a Seder with them annually; some families follow the Jewish ritual strictly, while others adapt it in various ways.

See Also

Carnival; Christmas; Easter; Epiphany; Hal-loween.


Much information on the domestic practice of European Catholics up until recent times can be found in Pius Parsch's The Church's Year of Grace, 5 vols. (Collegeville, Minn., 19531959). Francis X. Weiser's Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: The Year of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore (New York, 1958) deals more directly with domestic practices among Catholics of European heritage prior to the Second Vatican Council. No comparable texts exist on domestic practices among families of the nonliturgical traditions or of those of the Eastern Christian tradition, although Constance J. Tarasar's The Season of Christmas (Syosset, N.Y., 1980) provides much information on family practices among Eastern Christians for the period between November 15 and February 2.

The more recent contemporary trend toward self- or family-generated ritual is discussed by Virginia H. Hine in "Self-Generated Ritual: Trend or Fad?" in Worship 55 (September 1981): 404419. My book Passover Seder for Christian Families (San Jose, Calif., 1984) provides an example of the adaptation of Jewish traditions among contemporary Christians. The bimonthly periodical Family Festivals (San Jose, Calif., 1981) offers numerous examples of contemporary adaptations by Christian families of observances from diverse non-Christian religious traditions.

New Sources

Cox, Harvey Gallagher. Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey through the Jewish Year. Boston, 2001.

Gutiérrez, Ramón, Salvatore Scalora, and William Beezley. Home Altars of Mexico. Albuquerque, 1997.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York, 1996.

Restad, Penne L. Christmas in America. New York, 1995.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites. Princeton, N.J., 1995.

Sam Mackintosh (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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