Monday, December 15, 2008

Tree Wars

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.


Ellyn said...

I went through a spell when I dropped out of any Catholic online chat groups etc. because I was worn down by (what I perceived to be) the comments that made me feel like a bad Catholic, a bad mother, a bad Catholic mother etc. I've made peace with it all now...though these Christmas discussions give me something of a flashback.

Looking back on my childhood, I don't know how my mother survived the Christmas eve preparations. We always put up the tree on Christmas eve, just because that was the way it was always done in my father's family. (Actually Santa brought the tree during the night - that's a degree of difficulty I cannot imagine!) And I remember the scurrying to finish decoration, vacuum up stray needles and tinsel, get dinner on the table etc. so we could get to church on time. I am nostalgic for the magical Christmas Eves of my childhood, but I am also secretly relieved my family has prevailed and convinced me to put the tree up in advance. Especially since I've been working for the Church and I'm at the end of my tether from the preparations there by quitting time on December 24.

Anonymous said...

We put the tree up early too. I'm in the choir so everything happening on Christmas Eve won't happen. Not a big deal at my parish though. The parish center Christmas decos went up the week after Thanksgiving and there are trees (not lighted) and other decos in the church this week. Being from a CINO family we put the tree up whenever my mom had time, I guess I just carried that over. We have added scripture readings, advent wreath etc so the kids understand Advent is different from Christmas.

This will be the first year we bring our children to Midnight (10:00 pm) mass ;) I don't even want to think about how long it will take them to get to sleep so "santa" can get to work.

LeeAnn said...

I think in the "olde days" people had more help in the house to help with the Christmas cooking and also perhaps more family members to spread the work among. I have always loved the IDEA of bringing in and decorating the tree on Xmas eve--in part because of Tasha Tudor's beautiful illustrations of such a moment--but I believe that's mainly a German or Austrian custom. See also the Trapp Family Christmas customs. I don't think that it was prevalent throughout Europe and certainly not in America. I've never pulled it off and for many of the reasons you list, it's not highly practical to do so. For one thing, unless you store the tree in the garage, you are not likely to be able to find one in those last few days before Xmas. Enjoy your tree! We haven't gotten ours yet and I'm hoping the roads de-ice enough for us to get out next Sunday and find one.

Hélène said...

I was a little surprised by that kerfuffle over there as well. But should we be surprised, given that in almost every post you wrote people got up in arms over something or other?

I look at the Christmas tree and Christmas decorations this way. Advent is a time of preparing for the King of Kings to come, both into our homes and into our hearts. If an earthly king was coming, would we want to save all the decorations and preparations for six hours before he arrived? No, you would want to prepare by putting out flowers and other decorations so there would only be a few last minute details to take care of before his arrival. The same with Christ. I know He is coming, so I want to prepare my house. I put up the tree early because I can, but I don't prepare the Christmas [Eve] dinner early because I can't.

Anonymous said...

Oy vay! Such a pickle.

Loved comments about various traditions.

I recall hearing a Christmas tradition in Germany or Austria wherein the family was involved in some activity whilst noises of scurrying about went on in a special room, and when a bell was rung signaling arrival of St Nicholas or a Christmas angel, the children went in to behold a magnificent tree lit with little white candles and gifts. Because of my timidity with open flames, I could never remove the spectre of a pine tree causing a housefire on Christmas eve, but now I cans see that tradition makes sense for other people because the tree obviously must've been freshly chopped for that one day and there were no hazardous dried needles involved.

I enjoyed the idea of families 'saving' their trees on through Lent and sending the burning tree rolling down a hill on Easter, but I may be making up that English tradition.

In any case, the importance of Christmas celebrations in a family is to capture the momentous occasion together, if possible, and if it were providential to have someone setting up everything while family went to Mass Christmas eve or on the day of, then that's how that might work out. Usually with school out, however, parents had to come up with anticipatory activities such as what to do with Christmas greeting cards, cleaning the house, making gingerbread men, decorating Christmas boxes, etc., and the real celebration (with all the lovely decorations as a side-note) came after the period of Advent readings and wreaths and secret Santas (the competition to see who was the most surprised in their guess of secret Santa, by choosing someone in the family to treat secretly, and then confounding the issue by secret favors to others or doing something special that was typical of another sibling).

Mothers are often the coordinators of all the festivities, and it seems to me that her role in enjoying celebrations is as important as the rest of family members, so what if a tree is decorated ahead of time, even lit in the evenings as winter approaches, it gets folks in the mindset that something beautiful is approaching...

In my large childhood family, multi-colored outdoor lights went up on the perfect tree outside near the front door, but were turned on Christmas eve. Usually we had 4-10 feet of snow to set off the glow of those lit bulbs, from inside the warmth of the house, to send visions of forthcoming excitement after Mass.

Melody M. said...

I used to feel badly about putting my tree up on Gaudete Sunday until I realized last year that the Pope does it too! Now, I figure that if it's good enough for our beloved Holy Father, it's definitely good enough for me and my family. (But, I do try to wait to turn on any lights until Christmas Eve!)

Rebecca said...

The way I think of it, we have to fight a little battle against our culture which begins Christmas around Halloween and ends it on December 25th. The way I personally try to do my part has to do not so much with avoiding doing anything Christmassy before Christmas Day, but with really "living it up" from Christmas Day through Feb. 2. Going to Mass as much as possible, Christmas parties, having people over a lot and playing tons of Christmas music, having a big epiphany party Jan. 6th, etc. I think decorating gradually beforehand doesn't violate this but can be an outward preparation which ought to mirror and even help along the preparation of the heart. I do like to save some final touches til last, because it makes Christmas morning seem even more magical I think, but all these kinds of details are definitely a matter of de gustibus non disputandum est. My children love to see all the lights on houses during Advent and we talk about it as everyone "getting ready for Christmas!"

Martha said...

I have noticed at our parish that on years Christmas closely follows a Sunday, the decorations start to go up before the 4th Sunday of Advent (because no one wants to work Sunday afternoon, or on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, to put everything up.) In fact, our church has lights on its outdoor trees already, and there is a large nativity scene by the school office (without baby Jesus, of course.) This despite the fact that for 4 years in a row one of our priests gave the same homily about "this is Advent, not Christmas."