It seems that as each year goes by the month of December falls into a predictable rhythm.
Christmas songs pop up on the radio. Shopping occurs, a lot more randomly and with more aggravation than any of us would have believed when we were small. Cards are bought or ordered and wait in stacks to be addressed and mailed (I smile when I remember the neat pile left out on an actual table for days the first year my DH and I were married; by the second Christmas there was an almost-one year old toddling around the house, and the cards were done in snatches and bits, as they still are today). Secret and not-so-secret "wrap sessions" take place; there's the usual shortages of tape, and the usual complications involving Christmas wrapping paper.
This second week passes quickly, I know. Soon it will be Gaudete Sunday, the day when I let most of the Christmas decorating flourish. The Baby Jesus has to wait to make His appearance in the creche, but the stable itself is made ready. The Christmas tree goes up, though the decorating isn't all done immediately. By then the shopping is finished except for the inevitable one last-minute thing that vanished too early from store shelves; even the stockings will soon be hung and ready, their deflated emptiness a reminder that we're still prayerfully preparing our hearts for the celebration of the Birth of Christ.
I know some families put off even these small signs until the Fourth Sunday of Advent, or even Christmas Eve, but for someone as scattered and unorganized as I often am it's more peaceful to get things going on Gaudete Sunday; we can then return to that hushed feeling of expectancy, instead of looking at the calendar in horror as we realize that Christmas falls on the Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday (this year, for instance). If you are the sort of mom who can handle the task of home decoration in a mere day or two, instead of spreading it out slowly over a two-week period, I salute you; but for me to wait too long would highly increase the likelihood that the tree would be completely forgotten and we wouldn't locate the stockings until sometime in February.
These outward signs of our preparation for the Christmas celebration do matter, inasmuch as they affect our inward disposition and our ability to reflect on what it is we are celebrating, what it is we are beginning to ponder. The tree with its glittering lights, the outside decorations, the secret and generous love that prompts us to purchase some gifts for family and friends, the Nativity set with its small earthly and heavenly figures, the Jesse Tree fast filling with symbols of salvation history all prompt us to consider the incredible wonder of the Incarnation: that our God could so love us, His sinful creatures, that He would send His Son among us as a tiny and helpless infant; that that Babe of Bethlehem, the city whose name means "House of Bread," would become our heavenly food, our taste on earth of eternal glory; that this Infant appearing to humble shepherds who came to see what the unearthly joy that had illumined the night sky really meant, would suffer and die a hideous death for them, for us, for all.
It doesn't matter if the cards are sent early or late; it doesn't matter if a substitute has to be invented for a gift that can't be found; it doesn't matter if you had to put the tree up on December 1st to please your in-laws, or if you can't put it up until the 24th because your relatives insist on a tree-decorating Christmas Eve party. What matters is that the joy of Christmas, the joy of knowing this God who became Man so that we could live forever, blooms and grows in our hearts.
Soon, this Advent rhythm will swell into the grand crescendo of the Gloria we sing at Mass on Christmas: some of us in the dark cold grandeur of Midnight Mass; some keeping watch with the shepherds at the earliest Mass on Christmas Morning; some attending Mass later in the day. United in our faith, we unite in our reception of this same Jesus Who was born for us, in the beautiful Eucharistic mystery that is the center of every Mass we attend; and together we journey forward into the second Advent that awaits His Second Coming.