So, in my rather silly sign-off post on Crunchy Cons yesterday, I mentioned in passing that we had followed our family tradition of putting up the Christmas tree on Gaudete Sunday. Guess what all the comments are about?
I know that there is a perception out there that until sometime after Vatican II, all faithful Catholics religiously avoided so much as a sprig of holly in their homes until sometime after six p.m. (or dusk, whichever came first) on Christmas Eve. But I think that family traditions varied quite a bit even before Vatican II, and have a suspicion that this is one of those things which some people want to make a law, which was never really more than a custom.
In many ways, the debate over whether, and how much, Truly Faithful Catholics may decorate their homes prior to Christmas Eve is a bit like the debate over women wearing slacks. The Church says, "Don't confuse Advent with Christmas," and people start to condemn their neighbors for putting up their trees before noon on Christmas Eve; the Church says, "Dress modestly," and people start to condemn their (female) neighbors for wearing a perfectly modest pair of slacks on occasion. It really is as though some people believe that there is only One Right Authentically Catholic Blessed and Holy way to do all of these specific practical things, and that anyone who does things a little differently should be shunned for not having figured out that Right Way yet.
Are there people--some of them Catholics--who blur the line between Advent and Christmas too much, seeing "Christmas" as beginning on Black Friday and ending December 24th? Sure, and by kindness and charitable example we can try to remind them that Advent is its own liturgical season, a time of hope and longing and excited anticipation of the feast that is yet to come. But for Catholics who are keeping Advent through Scripture readings, Jesse trees, Advent calendars, the lighting of candles on an Advent wreath, not to mention special prayers, frequent Mass attendance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, participation in the life of the parish, and similar activities, I really don't think it's a terrible spiritual danger for a tree to go up on Gaudete Sunday or the Fourth Sunday of Advent, for decorations to bloom slowly over the course of the whole season, and for the creche to be waiting (with a cluster of sheep who presumably live there all the time) for the arrival of the Holy Family, presently located atop Mom's computer desk on their slow journey across the living room to the "Bethlehem" of Bookgirl's desk (since the set belongs, thanks to generous godparents, to her).
I know there are some who take a more strident view; in fact, what prompted my Crunchy Con post was the memory of a very orthodox priest who insisted that there should be no decorations, nothing at all, before Dec. 24, in the home. I said something lightly about someone with no children not quite understanding the reality of the situation--and you'd have thought I declared myself an open heretic, from the tenor of a couple of the responses. No, I don't think priests have to marry and have children in order to teach us what the Church teaches about marriage and family life. But that's not the same thing as pointing out that a priest in a rectory might not quite envision the difficulties that could arise if there were an actual mandate against decorating for Christmas ahead of Christmas Eve; speaking just for myself, I can say in all honesty that if this were a hard and fast rule, I probably wouldn't end up decorating my home at all--not churlishly or sulkily, but just because when your whole family is in the choir and your tiny mission parish gets 8 p.m for its "Midnight" Mass and you have to cook dinner starting about 3:30 so you can feed your family by about five p.m. in order to leave by 5:30 to be at church by about sixish in order to be ready to sing at 7:15 for about 15 minutes to be followed by the Chilren's Pageant (yay! Outside of Mass!) during which you will also be singing at intervals followed, of course, by Mass, and then by a little fellowship after Mass, so that you probably won't be home again until maybe 10:30 or 11 p.m. at which time you still have to get the kids to bed--well, maybe I'm just not organized enough, but I don't think I'd be able to get a tree, a creche, and a handful of other decorations unpacked, set up, decorated etc. in the window of time between noon and 3:30, and I'm sure not going to be able to do it all starting at about 11:30 p.m., night owl though I am. By which incredibly long sentence I'm just saying that this is one of those times when Danielle Bean's principle, "Do what works best for your family," is the best principle to apply; there is nothing sinful about getting things ready ahead of time, provided the character of Advent remains visible in your home throught the preparatory season.
But, of course, people have to fight over it all. There has to be an attitude that says "If I can do this, so can you--you're just not trying hard enough." There has to be a spirit of superiority and judgment on one side, and defensiveness and anger on the other. There has to be a fostering of joylessness and guilt, so that whatever you do you'll secretly worry that you aren't being Authentically Catholic enough (the O'Kelly family waits until 11:59 on Christmas Eve before they even bring their tree in from the garage! I'm not doing that, so I'm failing!). There has to be an attempt to take something innocent and beautiful, the desire to bedeck the house with garlands and lights from the wellspring of joy in our hearts at the coming of our Savior, and twist it into something cheerless and empty.
Who do you think is behind that, I wonder? Who wants us, especially at Christmas, to say "O Come, O Come Emmanuel!" with one side of our mouths, and "Thank you, Lord, for not making me like all those wretched sinners out there!" with the other? Who wants to sow such division over such trivialities, and disturb our peace, and make it hard for us to kneel in wonder before the Babe of Bethlehem?
I have a guess or two--and it's not the Grinch.