His first Advent as Pope, Benedict XVI delighted Vatican pilgrims by donning the papal camauro, a traditional fur-trimmed red hat that both keeps His Holiness warm and evokes the image of St. Nicholas.

I haven’t checked whether he’s wearing it again this season, but with or without the camauro, the Pope loves Christmas.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was appointed by Blessed Pope John Paul II to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1982, he turned out to be not only a stalwart defender of the faith, but an effective evangelist of Bavarian Christmas traditions in Rome. He had his long-time friend, Thaddeus Joseph Kuehnel, bring him goodies from home shortly before Christmas — including two Advent wreaths (for his residence and his office) and an authentic Bavarian Christmas tree.

Advent wreaths are a German, not Italian, tradition, but when Bl. John Paul saw the wreaths, he asked for some too. Their popularity spread more and more throughout the Curia each Advent until Kuehnel ended up one year transporting 52 wreaths and eight Christmas trees to the Vatican! The Pope loves Christmas cookies, too — allowing himself, according to his long-time housekeeper, to try one of each variety at seasonal parties.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the cardinal who rose to the papacy urging Christians to practice an “adult” faith should retain a childlike appreciation for the trappings of Christmas? An essay he wrote in 1977 may explain why. He begins by noting that it’s hard for Christians to say anything nice about Christmas anymore; you’re expected to denounce the popular celebrations as excessive, tacky, and commercialized.

Of course, if you said that, you’d be absolutely right, the future Pope admits, but he wonders if in the midst of our pious efforts to “keep Christ in Christmas,” we might be missing the fact that he is indeed there.

Then Cardinal Ratzinger reflected that frenzied Christmas shopping and maudlin sentiments might mask something deeper.

“The sentimental framework often provides the protecting shield behind which hides a noble and genuine sentiment that is simply reluctant to expose itself to the gaze of the other.”

In other words, in our cynical age, no one wants to risk exposing a tender heart — so we keep our sincere love and affection under wraps. And tied up with bows.

If Christmas frees people to love without fear of derision, we may wish to think twice about how hard we denounce the pre-Christmas frenzy, and even about the guilt we feel if we get caught up in it at times.

A well-lived Advent is the safest guarantee of a grace-filled Christmas, but even Mary and Joseph didn’t live it as a silent retreat. God demanded not only holiness, but practical preparations from them as well: traveling, hustling for accommodations, and eventually hosting surprise guests. They carried Christ into the world in the midst of the bustle of a census, after all.

Commercialism may contradict the simplicity of a baby in a cave in Bethlehem, Cardinal Ratzinger continues, “Yet, underneath it all, does it not originate in the notion of giving and thus the inner urgency of love, with its compulsion to share, to give of oneself to the other?” Which brings us, the cardinal concludes, right to the heart of “the true meaning of Christmas”:

“God, on this holy night, desired to make himself into a gift to mankind. ... The one genuine Christmas gift to mankind, to history, to each one of us, is none other than Jesus Christ himself.”

Christmas isn’t a private Christian feast to be protected against weak or non-believers who sully it. It’s Christianity’s gift to the world, and even its least celebration is a cause for joy.

Merry Christmas to all CNA readers. An earlier version of this column first appeared in Faith & Family Magazine.