To honor Jesus as "the reason for the season," Christians are embracing both longstanding traditions and newer activities rooted in their faith.
"We are bombarded by the secular aspects of the holiday," said Doris Gallagher, of Eldersburg. "To help keep us focused on the real meaning of Christmas, we have tried to create meaningful traditions that center around waiting for the birth of Jesus and giving to others."
Gallagher said she and her husband and their seven children gather greens during the first week of Advent for an Advent wreath. The wreath has candles for the four weeks of Advent, and sometimes another candle is added for Christmas Day, too. "We light the candles and do a prayer or meditation at dinner each night. The kids take turns blowing out the candles," she said.
The Gallaghers set up a Nativity during Advent, but their stable remains empty except for a cow. "The shepherd and sheep hang out on the top of a tall piece of furniture," Gallagher said. "The Wise Men are in the distant east. Mary, Joseph and the donkey travel around the main rooms of our house, making their way to the stable. They move at night," she said. "The kids have always been excited to check their progress in the morning. Each time a child does a good deed during Advent, she or he can add a piece of straw to the manger," she said. On Christmas morning the Gallagher family finds Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in the stable with the shepherds, sheep and angels.
The Gallagher family attends an alternative Christmas market at their church, St. Joseph Catholic Community in Eldersburg, the first weekend in December. Organizations and charities at the market are on hand to promote their ministries. "Our donations to these groups can be given as gifts to others, instead of a typical gift," Gallagher said.
The family also tries to find time to go to a nursing home to sing Christmas carols, Gallagher said.
Dani Knight, of Finksburg, said, "I type or write Christmas, never with an X [like Xmas]," she said. "When people write that I always say, 'You should keep Christ in Christmas.'"
Knight said she always sets up a Nativity scene. "And we have one at my gym under the gym tree," she said of her Westminster business.
Carmen Amedori, of Westminster, sets up a Nativity, too. On the years she traveled she didn't always have a tree, "but that Nativity is always up," she said. "It is one that my mother had. I do not put the baby Jesus in his basket until Christmas Eve because that's how my mother did it."
Amedori said she gets teary when she brings out her Nativity. "I'm not sure if it is because [it was] my mom's or because I know one day my children will be setting it up and having good Christmas memories," she said.
Ruth Whitlock, of Gamber, recently wrote an article in an Advent booklet for her church, Reisterstown United Methodist. "For each week of Advent, five or six of us write what it means to us," she said. "In the article I said what puts Christ back into Christmas at the mall in Westminster is the carolers. I look forward to them every year."
Whitlock said, "On the first Sunday of December, the beginning of Advent, we always went to church to sing carols and decorate the trees that would go in the sanctuary. They are all white and decorated with glitter and gold string and with white Christian symbols," she said. "Afterward, in the fellowship hall, they'd have drinks and cookies and Santa visited with the little ones."
She said the first thing that goes up in her house is the manger scene.
Eldersburg resident Maureen Nieberlein said, "As a kid in Catholic school, I always had an Advent calendar. I can remember being excited to open the windows in the calendar." Nieberlein also recalled how, on Christmas Eve, "we always had two stories to read before bed. One was 'The Night Before Christmas' and the other was a Golden Book about the night that Christ was born." Nieberlein said she and her husband kept those traditions alive with their children.
"When the kids were young sometimes we went to 7 o'clock Mass in the evening then came home, got into jammies, got cookies and read the Christmas story," Nieberlein said. "If we didn't go to Mass on Christmas Eve we went Christmas Day." She and her husband still attend Christmas Eve services.
When Linda Pugh, of Sykesville, was a child, her family set their Advent candles in a foil-covered shirt box. "We'd put four holes in the corner for candles held by clay. Then it was filled with greenery," she said. "At dinner we'd light a candle and my brother and I would say something about anticipating Christmas ... and it wasn't just about Santa."
Now, the Pugh family makes an Advent wreath at an intergenerational gathering held at her church, St. Barnabas Episcopal in Sykesville, the Sunday before Advent starts. "This year they gave us a flier with topics to talk about when you light the candle - things like hope and faith," she said.
"I also try to instill some sort of a sense of giving in the boys," Pugh said, referring to her grandsons Noah and Dimitri. "We buy leashes at the dollar store and take them with dog food to the Carroll County Humane Society," she said.
"Our church holds a 'Pageant in a Bag' during the Christmas Eve family service," Pugh said, "and we all like that." Pugh said each child is given a brown paper bag with a simple costume inside. "It could be sheep ears and a tail, or a headband, or a crown. While the Christmas story is read each child comes up when his or her part is read."
Whitlock said, "As long as Christmas has Christ in it, the holiday will be first in my heart."