Your social media pictures of Christmas trees already assembled and decorated in November make me shudder. I am a small-hearted, fussy man. I like my Christmas in December, please, and that not until the actual Feast of the Nativity (Not the Feast of the Incarnation. Rookie mistake) on the evening of the 24th. The problem is me, not you. Well, the problem is a bit more widespread than that, but my attitude, I mean. My bad attitude is all me. The real problem is that as a culture we don’t really know how to celebrate Christmas anymore. Most of us dive right into the saccharine insanity of it even before Thanksgiving. This year, in fact, I saw Christmas wrapping paper displays at the grocery store in the month of October! Dear giant, impersonal corporations, please stop making us hate holidays.
Like Santa, I feel the real need to punch something.
It seems to me that we currently have two options. We can either learn to stop worrying, buy the wrapping paper in June, put up the tree when the school year starts, and sing our hearts out to Jingle Bell Rock during Lent, or we can become emotionally warped anti-Christmas crusaders and maintain a penitential Advent with nary a wisp of mistletoe in sight. The best of this breed leaves the Christmas tree up until February and haughtily explains to the rest of us that in the unreformed, medieval calendar, Christmas lasts until the feast of Purification. I am tempted to become the latter of these options. But really, neither one is any good at all.
The first seems more open-hearted but ends up destroying the holiday season. We are so tired of celebrating that by the time the Feast of the Nativity actually arrives, we are exhausted; the tree is taken down the next day and the next 11 days of Christmas go uncelebrated. What about the Epiphany and the wise men! These intrepid travelers shift heaven and earth to make their way across the desert only to find our doors locked and the manger scene boxed up in the basement. The Christmas festivities that predate the birth of Our Lord seem to have been unearned, a sentimental holiday that makes its departure from the Nativity but doesn’t actually understand the way in which the birth of Our Lord shakes the very foundations of the universe.
The other option, the Advent curmudgeon, is also an untenable position because it misses the whole point in a different way. At the heart of all the traditions and rules of the Church is the everlasting virtue of charity. At Christmas, this is impossible to miss, like not noticing a crying babe in a manger. The anti-Christmas crusader gets the rules right but doesn’t notice Christ. Nothing to see here. It’s still Advent. As I said, I’m sympathetic but what we really need is to find a way to maintain respect for both seasons and truly celebrate the Birth of Christ while rising to his challenge to, above all else, love.
So, how to celebrate in a way that embraces the love that everyone seems to have developed for the season? Sure, there are the usual complaints about over-commercialization and bad music and all that, but the point really is that in an increasingly post-Christian world, people are celebrating the birth of Christ! Even a tame, watered-down version of the feast is better than nothing at all. I’m not really interested in fighting it.
The secret is in the Catholic calendar.
Here are a few ways, based on the joyful preparation of the Church, to properly celebrate that both get us into the spirit of the season but also respect the unique celebrations that are Advent and Christmas. The best part of it is, when Christmas comes each year, our family is happy to celebrate the whole season.
- Make an Advent wreath and actually light it each night at dinner. Ostentatiously explain to the kids that the 3rd candle isn’t pink; it is rose.
- Celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec 6. Have the kids put out shoes to be filled with chocolate coins. Explain to them that St. Nick both loved children and punched heretics. And he actually existed.
- Celebrate the Feast of St. Lucy on Dec 13. Nominate a “St. Lucy” and go all out with the wreath-candle hat. Have the boys make hats decorated with stars and moons. Form a procession to the neighbor’s house to deliver treats. Chant an old-school litany. Kids love it.
- 8 days before Christmas, begin singing one of the “O Antiphons” each night before dinner. Basically, the verses to O Come O Come Emmanuel. Monks have been chanting these for hundreds of year at Evening Prayer and they are really a lovely way to mark the time. Bonus points if you do it in Latin.
- On Christmas Eve, decorate the tree, put on all the Christmas music, and go totally overboard. I think it was GK Chesterton who argued that the Feasts of the Church should arrive suddenly and joyously. At Christmas, this is particularly appropriate because it is exactly how a new child arrives into the world: suddenly and joyously.
- Christmas Day. Go to Mass! This is a really great experience and we have found that it doesn’t take away from family time at all. After Mass we come home and feast on all manner of pancakes and breakfast treats. If Advent is penitential, Christmas has to be a true feast.
- Keep the tree up for at least the 12 days after. While everyone else is sick of Christmas. We are just getting started. We don’t leave it up until Feb 2 because that tends to feel like a bit too much, but we compromise and leave it usually until the Baptism of Our Lord in mid-January.