Teaching Liturgically in January: Christmastide and the Liturgical Year

Ordinary Time may be coming soon but that doesn’t mean the liturgical events this month should be overlooked.

By Rachel Gleeson

January can be a mixed month in our lives as teachers and in the life of the Church. The liturgical calendar is a strip of white that tapers quickly to a swath of green. Christmas is ending and Ordinary Time is taking center stage. At the same time, Christmas break comes to a close and second semester begins with challenges all its own. In the middle, it is as important as ever to find small ways to bring the liturgical life into our classrooms and into our students’ lives.

Christmas Season and Epiphany

Many schools come back in session when we are still celebrating the Christmas Season. The Twelve Days end on Epiphany but technically the season does not conclude until we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. It may be easy to get back into the school routine as if Christmas ends when our break does, but for many of us this may simply be untrue. Of course, we won’t have all the pageantry and excitement of December 25th, but there are ways to remind our students (and ourselves) that Christmas is not over yet.

To continue to celebrate as the Church calls us to, you might want to simply keep the Christmas decorations hanging in your classroom or have carols playing as students work. Simple gestures like this leave an impression on our students and serve as reminders that celebrating the birth of Christ is more than a one-day event.

One way to keep the Christmas joy going for the remainder of the season is to celebrate Epiphany or the Baptism of Jesus with your students. Epiphany, also called Three Kings’ Day, commemorates the coming of the Wise Men from the East to visit the Infant Jesus. My middle school students love learning how the gifts that were brought were not random but contain deep, symbolic meaning. The gold is a gift fit for a king because Jesus is the King of Kings. The frankincense the Wise Men bring reminds us that Jesus is God, to whom we burn incense. The myrrh was a kind of spice used in burial and points us ahead to the fact that Jesus will die for us. You might consider bringing in examples of each of these gifts or some approximation to give students a hands-on experience of Epiphany.

Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus are also excellent opportunities for cross-curricular activities. Incorporate social studies by having students make a map depicting the journey of the Wise Men or the location of the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. Tie in science by discussing the star of Bethlehem that guided the Wise Men. You could discuss how this star may have been a comet and from there what comets are and how they work. The possibilities are numerous.

The Liturgical Year

As we begin second semester, we are often transitioning out of the Christmas Season and into Ordinary Time. It is fitting that after the chaos and celebration of the holidays, we settle into a calmer liturgical season. This time of year is an excellent opportunity to draw students’ attention to the cycle of the liturgical year. They have recently experienced the changes in color, theme, and tone seen in Advent and Christmas. With that still fresh in their minds, you can explain what these changes mean.

When I teach my middle-school students about the liturgical year, I focus particularly on the colors and seasons. We discuss what each color symbolizes and what the theme of each season is. Connecting the meaning of a color with the theme of the season or feast during which it is used can encourage higher-level thinking. For example, you may ask students why white is worn on the Solemnity of the Assumption. Then students have to connect the fact that a solemnity is a day of celebration with the fact that white is the color of joy. Other examples can be given to help students make connections and deepen their understanding.

Below is a brief explanation of the meaning of each of the colors used in the liturgical year:

  • White—joy and celebration (sometimes substituted with gold)
  • Red—sacrifice and the Holy Spirit
  • Green—life and hope
  • Purple—repentance and preparation
  • Rose—anticipation

To reinforce the cycle and rhythm of the liturgical year, have students create their own liturgical calendar or fill in spots on a blank one. Encourage them to use colors and pictures that correspond to the different liturgical seasons and feasts of the year. The calendar may take the form of a wheel of colors, a traditional monthly calendar, or line with points to mark important days and the beginnings of the various seasons. Let your students be creative!

Ordinary Time may be coming soon but that doesn’t mean the liturgical events this month should be overlooked. Christmas will be over soon but Lent will be here before we know it. Continuing to share the rhythm of the Church’s life with our students will help them appreciate the various colors and themes they see at Mass this month.

Rachel Gleeson is a middle school and high school Theology teacher and liturgy coordinator at a PreK-12 Catholic school in Wisconsin.