For New Christians, Christmas has New Meaning

It’s not that Christmases past weren’t meaningful for Tracey Keim. But today, the 41-year-old Metuchen resident expects to have her most spiritually important Christmas yet, one revolving more around a manger than a tree.

She is becoming Catholic. And each day for nearly a month, she has been counting the days of Advent, the period when Catholics and many Protestants anticipate Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago by recognizing what preceded it biblically — for example, the Annunciation, when Mary learned of her impending motherhood, and the Incarnation, when God was “made flesh.”
Keim and thousands of others in New Jersey are paying newfound attention to the religious sides of Christmas this year, because they are in the process of changing Christian denominations — or of coming to Christianity for the first time — and are learning about their new church. 
“I’m appreciative more of the religious aspect of the holiday,” said Keim, who was born Russian Orthodox and married a Catholic on Nov. 15. “I’m getting gifts for people, but that’s not the first priority. The first priority is to go to church.”
Many Americans change denominations, or religions, each year, whether because they married someone of another religion, decided a new path is more meaningful, or for a host of other reasons.
About 44 percent of Americans eventually leave their childhood denomination for a new one, a new religion, or no religion at all, according to a study released earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
When they make that change, either between Christian denominations or to Christianity, education about their new church often makes Christmas more meaningful to them, said the Rev. Michael Sheehan, director of the catechumenate for the Newark Archdiocese. In the Newark Archdiocese alone, about 1,200 people are going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a year-long process culminating on Easter by which adults become Catholics and parish members.
“When people are moving from one Christian community to another, they’re used to the traditions that our culture celebrates. But have they always understood the meaning of these traditions? No, probably not,” he said.
For many, like Tommy Michaels of Edison, who is participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation, the time to change is when a baby is on the way.
“A lot of what I’ve known about Christmas is from advertisements and TV,” said Michaels, who was raised in a Lutheran family and whose wife, due to have a baby boy Jan. 8, is Catholic. “This Christmas, my mind is more focused on the true meaning of Christmas and the birth of Christ, and the spirituality behind the holiday.”
He has fond family memories of previous Christmases, he said, but “I think the spiritual aspect was missing to some degree. I think that’s how it’s going to be different. The true meaning of Christmas is that we’re celebrating the birth of Christ. That’s so much more meaningful than simply the gift-giving. Family’s still an important piece of it, but I’m giving more thought to the religious aspect of it.”
Nativity scenes representing the site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem take on larger roles in the Christmas observance of most people participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, said Sara Sharlowe, director of that program in the Metuchen Diocese.
“Prior to them going through the process, Christmas had very secular connotations,” she said. “Yeah, they understood they’re celebrating Jesus’ birthday, but the big thing is the gift-giving. When they come into this process, they’re really focusing on who Jesus was, and the fact that God loved us so much that he became man. That’s one of the things we’re celebrating at Chistmastime.”
That is true for Keim, who has a manger and other elements of a nativity scene in her house for the first time.
“Before, it was always, ‘Let’s get a Christmas tree, let’s get gifts!'” said Keim, who is taking the classes even though she is not technically a candidate for the Rite of Christian Initiation, because earlier in life she received sacraments in the Russian Orthodox Church that are recognized by Roman Catholicism. “But just buying a manger and having a place for that in your home, it’s just kind of centering.”
Some others taking classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation, like Damien Lastro of Metuchen, were already baptized Catholic but skipped other sacraments like Confirmation and never became regular churchgoers. For them, too, this Christmas will stand out.
“I’m definitely going to make it a thing to go to Mass on Christmas and Christmas Eve, where, in the past, it was you might go one year, might not go the next year,” Lastro said. In the run-up to Christmas, he said, “I’ve been trying to be more aware of things like praying and keeping others in mind, and being less selfish and helping others. Now that I’m going through the process and very absorbed in it, it’s more of a commitment than it’s ever been.”
Source: The Star-Ledger
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