Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Keep Mom in Christmas

Everywhere you turn in the Catholic blogosphere at the beginning of Advent, you see the beginnings of a familiar theme: Keep Advent Advent, and Wait for Christmas.

In spirit, that's fine. In practice...

Well, let's look at what Bishop Wester of Utah has told his flock:
As we renew our sense of the liturgical celebration of time, I encourage you to remain faithful to the celebration of the four weeks of Advent. As I mentioned earlier, it is so easy to be consumed by the hype of the “holiday season:” to decorate our churches and houses for Christmas, to spend more time shopping than in prayer, and to host Christmas parties before the season has arrived. I know it is an enormous challenge to remain faithful to the Advent season when we are surrounded by a society which, while claiming to be Christian, does not take the time to reflect and prepare as the church calls us to do. [...]

Here are some particular examples of what this will entail. Schools should not decorate for Christmas, but can decorate with simple wreaths and greenery. They might celebrate “Gaudete parties” before departing for Christmas break. I encourage each home to display and bless an Advent wreath where the family can gather for prayer either in the morning, at dinner, or some other practical time. I urge you to hold-off on displaying a decorated Christmas tree until the season of Christmas begins. You may want to incorporate a Jesse Tree in your family’s observance of the season.
Bishop Wester, to whom I give all due respect, of course, is, here, continuing a theme I've seen crop up just about every year in the Catholic blogosphere, as the Advent Purists insist that Christmas trees, Christmas cookie baking, decking the halls (or singing about it) Christmas shopping, writing and sending Christmas cards, attending mandatory office "Holiday" parties one's absence from which will be noted with grave disapproval, or otherwise engaging in any Christmas-related activities prior to just before midnight on December 24 amounts to violating the proper liturgical season, which is Advent.

Yet somehow most people (and I excuse Bishop Wester from this, as he is a bishop and thus not a married person with children who has to think about these things) still expect there to be a decorated tree, wrapped presents below that tree, jars and tins full of Christmas cookies, homemade fudge, candy canes and other goodies, halls decked with holly and lights and a fully-staffed Nativity scene on the premises, filled stockings, softly-wafting Christmas tunes, and a delicious Christmas dinner served on Christmas dishes on a table festooned with red and green or silver and gold or whatever the family's taste might be--on Christmas Day.

So sometime between Midnight Mass and the earliest children's awakening the next day (somewhere between four and six a.m., if the child is younger than ten), someone is supposed to accomplish all or the vast majority of that, while retaining her good temper, sanity, and the cheerful gladness proper to the joyous day.


Now look, I'm not saying that our culture isn't seriously distorted, in that it thinks of "Christmas" primarily as a shopping season beginning sometime in late August and ending when all the returns are over in January. Buying into that culture is not a recipe for a truly Catholic understanding of Advent, and its focus not only on our recollection of the great mystery and gift of the Incarnation, but also on Christ's Second Coming, which we look for in joy and hope.

But at the same time, Advent is a time of preparation, and some of that preparation can indeed include, at least in my way of looking at things, some of the preparations we are making so that we can truly rejoice on Christmas Day--and by "we" I'm including all the moms out there, who deserve to spend a joyful, peaceful, quiet and relaxing Christmas feast as much as everybody else does.

If Mom is one of those kind of super-organized, super-crafty, superwomen who bought and wrapped all of this year's gifts during last year's post-Christmas sales, and who is ready to whisk a fully decorated and lighted Christmas tree and a trunkful of other ready-to-go merriment and cheer out of some spacious yet hidden and inaccessible-to-small-hands closet while the children are still drinking their after-Midnight-Mass, before-bed hot cocoa, that's terrific--more power to her, and may her tribe increase.

Us mere mortal mothers, though, face with dread the thought of trying to do everything, or even nearly everything, in that quiet lull between Midnight Mass and Christmas morning. We know our own weaknesses, lack of organizational abilities, propensity to stress--and we know these things would not vanish but would instead significantly increase if we were constantly pressured to keep our Advent homes bare of any suggestion that the Christmas feast and festivities would soon be upon us. We would spend Christmas day not relaxing and rejoicing, but exhausted and tearful as our last-minute, eleventh hour attempts to create a Christmas scene in our homes betrayed our own shortcomings in one giant disappointment after another. We would drag ourselves through the First Day of Christmas until we could finally wash the Christmas dinner dishes, and would then collapse into bed before the children were at all ready to go to bed themselves.

I realize that lots of the Advent Purists would argue that they're not calling for Mom to do nothing to prepare for Christmas beforehand. But once you agree that she ought to do some things, aren't we, then, only arguing about degrees and details? And don't those things usually come down to what works for one's family?

I agree that we should let the focus, these next weeks, be on Advent--which itself points to the coming of Christ. But I also think we should try to keep Mom in Christmas--by not making her feel either guilty for doing too much beforehand, or stressed about not doing enough; and, perhaps more importantly, by trusting her to make the right decisions about these things for her little domestic church.


Will Duquette said...

At our house we try not to celebrate Christmas as a family until it's really Christmas...but we also try not to be unreasonable. For example, we usually put up the Christmas tree the weekend before Christmas, because Christmas Eve is already too crowded. Also, I'm not going to turn down an invitation to a Christmas party just because it's still Advent. It's just a question of not letting Advent be crowded out--and of not letting Christmas end when the last present is unwrapped.

And what you do or don't do along these lines is none of my business. :-)

mdavid said...

Love that bishop! He will have a real flock, a smaller flock, made up of people who are serious about following Christ as a group.

I wouldn't say our family is the Advent "purist" type when dealing with the outside world - we dutifully attend the company Christmas party, pinch our incense to Caesar, and try to fit in where we can. But at home and with friends, it's following the traditional season with no regrets. Personally, I find it refreshing to do less, have less rush, avoid the gift-giving craze, be at peace.

Related sidenote: I'm always slightly amused at watching serious Christians (of all flavors, but especially Catholic who are generally more "mainstream" than other fundies) slowly finding out just how hostile the culture is becoming. The older among them still don't get it and pine for the older days; the younger, they know it will end badly and are responding.

Lindsey said...

I have no problem with secular Christmas music during Advent (Silver Bells, Jingle Bells, Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer). I have no problem with Christmas lights and Christmas shopping (like you said, it has to be done SOMEtime!) and putting up the tree at some point. Yes, baking cookies, eating cookies...lol, all these things happen in Advent at my house.

However, I get thoroughly annoyed when our local Christian radio station (not Catholic) begins the 24/7 Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving, and then turns it off Dec 26. I personally am trying to refrain from singing "Christ the Lord is born" and "Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oria!" right now, so I have to just keep the radio off. (Actually, I'm planning to burn a CD of some Advent hymns so we can enjoy those in the car when I get the urge to turn on the radio.) But it's really the loss of the Christmas music, JUST AS CHRISTMAS IS BEGINNING, that saddens me the most. Because they have basically given in, whole-heartedly, to the secular, consumerist Christmas season, which is Thanksgiving night through Dec 25.

I write them about it every year--there are 1 million Catholics in my city, as well as Orthodox and other liturgical Christians like Anglicans and Lutherans, who certainly celebrate Christmas as a full season beginning Dec 25. But, they never write back to acknowledge my concern. And I don't know if it's something I just need to stop whining about. :o/

Lindsey said...

One more thing: I've tried something new this year (as the MOM and organizer of about 95% of Advent and Christmas happenings around here--in addition to my regular work). I actually started shopping in November. My goal was to finish before Advent began. I didn't quite make it, but I'm almost done, and plan to have a much more meditative, prayerful, and peaceful time of preparation this Advent.

Charlotte said...

I saw this letter from the Utah bishop on another blog and was disturbed by it. Even with a simple Christmas (whatever that is), there are many tasks to be accomplished and planned for (as you said) and most of the time, it's the mother who does it all. The idea that it would all happen in the 48 hours before Christmas Eve is hilarious and unrealistic.

My Dad grew up in a German Lutheran household where on Christmas morning a fully decorated Christmas tree suddenly appeared. I have a good friend who grew up with the same. Sounds magical and exciting, and for the kids I'm sure it was. But for the parents? Gotta wonder. And then add Santa to the mix and maybe midnight mass, etc., and I wonder if any of the parents ever slept on Christmas Eve?

Yes, it is a challenge to balance Advent with Christmas preparations, and I'm not even gonna pretend I have a handle on it or have the first idea as to how to go about that. But to suggest what the Utah bishop did just seems to me to put alot of people on a guilt trip. Most of us weren't raised this way and our Christmas traditions/celebrations/preparations are deeply entrenched.

Donna Jannuzzi said...

Why is his letter disturbing? He is not suggesting that you do no preparations. He's suggesting that we keep it balanced and that we remember what the Advent season is really about. He doesn't say, "don't shop." He's suggesting we not spend more time shopping than we spend praying. He also doesn't say, "don't decorate." He merely says not to decorate for Christmas - yet. Put up greenery and wreaths but perhaps leave the bows and extras until Christmas Day. I wouldn't expect anyone to put up and decorate a tree in one night - I know I wouldn't, but maybe you can put up a tree with lights a few days before Christmas. Then wait to put up the ornaments on Christmas Eve or on Christmas day.

And if you read the full text you linked to there is this, "As Catholics, we must celebrate Advent differently. Our reckoning of time is itself a sacramental witness to the fullness of the paschal mystery."

I know I rarely comment here, but I do read often... I mean so often you talk about rasing your children in a way that is quite counter-cultural. In the sense that to be living your Catholic faith *is* counter-culteral these days. Why give in on this point? My children are still very little and I can already see that yes, it will be a struggle to keep the Advent season and to teach them that Christmas is about more than presents and cookies and Santa and such, but I think it is a fight worth fighting.

Maybe there are some other commentaries out there that have sparked your thoughts as presented here. I read Bishop Wester's letter and I don't agree that he is saying, "engaging in any Christmas-related activities prior to just before midnight on December 24 amounts to violating the proper liturgical season." Not getting that at all. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Since I've been reading blogs, I've learned a lot of stuff. Some important, some not so. I've learned that there are Catholics who don't let their children trick or treat; that only wear jean jumpers and/or Little House on the Prairie skirts; I've learned about the NO and the EF forms of Mass; I could go on...

The fact is, sometimes I wonder why I eschew the women's magazine fantasy world for this sometimes crazy Catholic cyber world? Neither the Ladies Home Journal/Martha Stewart Living fantasy or the pious sterility of the Utah bishop's statement reflects the reality of my life, here in NJ, with my husband, children and extended family.

We will prepare for Christmas during this Advent season like we always have, muddle through, doing somethings well and other things not so well. But I'm not going to get discouraged that I'm not doing it right, according to someone else's idea of how it should be done.

Debbie said...

I have tried to wait until Christmas for several years now. What I found was that I missed out on Christmas. I waited to put the tree up. In our house, it takes a few weeks to get the tree up, lit and decorated. Last year we waited and it only got lit. This year, we put it up after Thanksgiving. It is not done yet. I probably won't be DONE until Christmas Eve. We have many little hands to 'help'. There was no time or energy last year to even consider midnight Mass. I am remembering this year to let Advent be Advent but it has many of the trappings of Christmas. We have to return to work and school in the twelve days after Christmas so a celebration from Christmas to Epiphany is out of the question.

I did try for many years to wait until Christmas but, it just kept me from rejoicing on Christmas. I will put up the nativity but I won't place Jesus in the crib until Christmas. I probably will let the kids put the wisemen in various locations throughout the house as they 'journey' to visit Christ. As for the music, well, call it instructing the children. They do not know all the Christmas songs so they need to learn them by long repetitions. We will start that immediately. It is 'practice'.

Charlotte said...

Being counter-cultural just for the sake of being counter-cultural.....I see that too much from the militant Catholic mommy crowd and the traddy crowd.

Everyone and every family is different and works on a different time table. Some people might need all that Christmas stuff out and all the preparations for a month or more just to think and focus and grasp the meaning of Advent and Christmas. Others not. There is no Catholic playbook that we should all be following.

Donna Jannuzzi said...

"There is no Catholic playbook that we should all be following." I agree.

Hmmm, also, I don't find myself being counter-cultural merely for the sake of it. I find that living my Catholic faith, even as poorly as I sometimes do, makes me an outsider; I am speaking from my own personal experience. Not many of my acquaintance (presently or in the past) believe or live as I do. And I hope you are not lumping me into some category - militant or traddy - simply from one comment.

I don't consider myself an Advent purist as Erin put it. When I read Erin's post I sensed something like anger or hostility or maybe resentment? I don't want to read too much into her comments - or read them and come away with a feeling or meaning she did not intend. So if I'm wrong here I hope she will correct me. As I said, I read the Bishop's letter and I just don't quite understand the reaction. Isn't he just saying what he should say as a shepherd of his flock? He is encouraging his flock and giving examples of how they can quietly and prayerfully live this season. The point of my first comment was that I found there to be some discord between his letter and Erin's reaction. That's all. He uses words like "encourage" and he recognizes the challenges in living this season peacefully and prayerfully when we are surrounded by so much noise. I don't find that disturbing or sterile at all. In fact I find it comforting.

Erin Manning said...

Donna, no hostility here!

I really was using Bishop Wester's letter as a jumping-off place. The bishop uses reasonable words like "encourage," as you say; but for the typical Catholic mom, a whole lot of guilt can be created by even such a gentle word.

Say Mom isn't physically, mentally, or emotionally capable of producing, like magic, a fully decorated and lighted Christmas tree on Christmas Day (N.B.: the bishop is encouraging his flock to hold off on displaying the tree before then--e.g., he encourages his flock not to display the tree before the start of the Christmas Season, which doesn't really begin until after midnight on the 24th/25th.) What is Mom to do?

Ignore the bishop's encouragement, put up the tree early, and then beat herself up for being a bad Catholic? Follow the bishop's recommendation, and spend a big chunk of her Christmas putting up and decorating the tree instead of celebrating with her family? Skip the tree altogether, to the dismay and disappointment of her children?

And that's just the tree--the bishop also has gentle words about those who spend more time shopping than in prayer during Advent. Well, what if Mom is a faithful, life-welcoming Catholic mom who has been blessed with a quiverfull of children, not having any serious reason to practice NFP or anything? What if a shopping trip (driving, parking, waiting in line to find an item, waiting in line to *pay* for that item, driving to the next store, etc.) which selects just one gift for each of her ten children takes a whole eight-hour Saturday? Must she then berate herself for not offering God an eight-hour day in prayer? After all, her *husband* seems to have plenty of time for his Advent devotions--and hey, he's not doing *any* of the shopping, so doesn't that make him a better Catholic?

This is getting long; I'll continue below.

Erin Manning said...


And the Bishop's letter is gentle and encouraging, but I've seen, every year, posts sprout up on the Catholic blogosphere which chastise those who put the tree up early, scold those who waste time shopping, abjure those who sing Christmas carols (apparently the choir is supposed to show up for Midnight Mass having learned all the music by osmosis), and otherwise shovel huge, steaming mounds of guilt on the person who spends too much time during Advent with Christmas preparations.

Guess what? That person is almost always Mom.

So Mom can either sit back and say, "You know, you're all right! I won't squander my Advent with Christmas preparations. And there won't be a tree, or gifts, or cards sent out, or a Christmas dinner, or anything at all to mark the feast once it actually arrives--because Heaven forbid I should do any of that before midnight on the 24th!"

Or, she can struggle through the season of Advent, her ordinary tasks and obligations made heavier by the weight of the burdens of guilt placed on her by those who won't lift a finger to budge them, but who pride themselves on *their* piety because they aren't caught up in all that nonsense. (Because, anyway, it's the wife's job.)

Maybe that makes me a bit of a Catholic feminist (I've been called that before, and it's not entirely inaccurate). But that's how I see it.

Oh, and God has only chosen to bless us with a small family, and my dear husband helps out with a lot of preparations and activities, so this isn't personal; I've just known plenty of women whose lives were made more difficult by their obligations at this time of year on the one hand, and the heavy guilt placed on them within their own families or communities for "failing to observe Advent properly by being caught up in all that Christmas nonsense" on the other.

Anonymous said...

I think back to my mother's recollections of Christmas back when she was growing up in rural Ireland in the 40s. The preparation took one day and yes, all on Christmas Eve. For a family of ten children. One special meal was prepared (meat, potatoes, perhaps a special bread or dessert as a treat). One trip to local shop to buy perhaps one treat or toy for the ten children to wake up to in the stockings, which were actually stockings. No tree. The well-used candles were placed in the windows. And greenery from outside placed around the mantle and pictures etc. Preparations took one day. Off to midnight Mass.

My opinion is that if your Christmas preparations take you a month, you are doing too much. Period. You are buying too much, decorating too much, baking too much, crafting too much and sending too many cards.

We are making Christmas harder than it is, as it is not hard. At all.

Anonymous said...

To my previous comment at 12:58, I did not mean anyone in particular when I said "you"...that was just a general use of the word. Just wanted to make that clear!

Barbara C. said...

I have one extra-large Rubbermaid tub in which ALL of our Christmas and Advent things fit--including our tree!! Each year I try to add one more thing to it (this year it was a nativity set). I try to Keep It Simple Stupid. This is partly because I'm lazy. I am also terrible at crafts and cookies. And doing much more would "exceed my capacity for responsibility" (hat tip Shoved to Them).

The biggest problem I've been having is resisting the urge to take down the tree on New Years and finding a way to celebrate the real Christmas season. After years of conditioning that Christmas is over on Dec. 26 (despite being raised Catholic), it always feels like I'm swimming upstream to keep celebrating until Epiphany.

priest's wife said...

I think the biggest problem with celebrating Christmas (not preparing for- celebrating) during Advent- is that we are all done after dinner on Dec 25- the 12 days of Christmas BEGINS on that day!!!

Even though Christmas music and decor during November and December are probably just there to sell things- at least it is beautiful, unlike the month of scary, evil stuff for halloween

Donna Jannuzzi said...

I don't want to quote you too much because this response is already very long, but to start one of the things you said was, "And the Bishop's letter is gentle and encouraging, but I've seen, every year, posts sprout up on the Catholic blogosphere which chastise those who put the tree up early, scold those who waste time shopping, abjure those who sing Christmas carols (apparently the choir is supposed to show up for Midnight Mass having learned all the music by osmosis), and otherwise shovel huge, steaming mounds of guilt on the person who spends too much time during Advent with Christmas preparations."

I think that my point in both of my comments above was that I don't think the bishop is trying to do that at all, that is, heap mounds of guilt on those who spend time during Advent preparing for Christmas. He never says, don't prepare, don't send out cards, don't practice Christmas music, I just don't see him saying any of that. I think what he is suggesting is balance, and he is trying to stress the importance of observing this season properly, not skipping ahead to the celebrations before we’ve prepared our hearts. And in a way that is isn’t that something that you alluded to in your post below? I don’t see him saying or implying that if you do all those things that you are a “bad Catholic.” So maybe you could have referenced one of those posts that *does* say those things instead of picking on the bishop’s letter? (Which I found to be quite beautiful actually).

Again, the whole reason for my commenting in the first place was that I read your post and then I read the bishop's letter and I was left a bit confused. If someone reads the bishop’s letter, which even you say is gentle and encouraging (unless you meant that sarcastically) and comes away feeling guilt, well I don’t think that is the fault of the bishop. They are obviously bringing their own baggage to the table.

Maybe I'm immune to the feeling of guilt heaped onto me by others because I simply don't feel it. But then, I generally don't care what anybody thinks about what I *should* or shouldn’t be doing. I feel no obligation to anyone to celebrate my Christmas in any particular way. So often I read the words of mothers who are stressed-out and anxious about the upcoming Christmas season. Who is making them feel that way? Why do they feel the need to do all of that in the first place? I'm not saying it's wrong to want to celebrate Christmas that way, but no one is making anyone do anything. If you want to have a big elaborate Christmas with all the decorations and tons of cookies and crafts and presents, then by all means do. I personally don’t think it makes you a bad Catholic. I also don’t know why such a person would care what the bishop thinks anyhow. You feel and do these things because you either want to or don't want to. If you want to, then who cares what anyone else thinks? Including me. The other side of the coin is this – if you want to celebrate your Christmas with all the bells and whistles well then stop whining about how stressed-out you are! Quite frankly I get tired of hearing how busy everyone is and how they don’t know how they’ll get it all done. As for moms going it all alone? Your husband isn’t helping you? Your family isn’t helping you? Umm, that’s not any of my business, you need to work that out with your husband and your family (and of course I mean you in the general sense).

I'll have to continue below as well:

Donna Jannuzzi said...


My mother used to go “all out” for Christmas with the decorating, baking, and shopping. Christmas was always very fun and exciting I’ll admit, but, I never really learned what Christmas was about. As I grew up and did learn what Christmas was all about I felt a bit cheated. The most joyful and peaceful Christmases that I have had have been the ones where I did very, very little. I prepared only what I felt was necessary. For someone like me who chooses to celebrate the season a bit more quietly I do find the bishop’s letter encouraging, I find it comforting and in this world that is increasingly secular and materialistic I find it *refreshing.* It is as if he is saying, “there is a different way.” My own personal experience has been that this different way is much more fulfilling. Does that make me some kind of special holy Catholic who has found some kind of magic formula for celebrating Christmas in just the right way? No. I have found what works for me and my family and I am open to the possibility that this might (and probably will) change as the years go by. But I would offer that if a mom is feeling stress, guilt and anxiety about her Christmas preparations – from either side of this discussion – then maybe she needs to stop and think about what is important to her and reprioritize. She needs to figure out what works for her and her family – for her own sake and for no one else’s. Once she figures that out she should stand up for herself – seriously! – to heck with what anyone else thinks. No one should be feeling all of those emotions just described during this season because that is not what this season is about.

And finally, this is why I generally only read blogs and do not comment. I am too terribly long-winded.

Erin Manning said...

Donna, I've decided to do a follow-up post. See you there! :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I'm long winded too, but this time, I think Erin has it just about right. There should be a build-up, a waiting, and for sure celebration isn't over until the end of the Twelve Days.

Anonymous said...

If I thought I'd had to meet that list of Christmas requirements I would not get out of bed between Thanksgiving and New Year. Homemade fudge and candy canes and a special set of dishes on a table festooned with whatever? It sounds more Martha Stewart than religious, something for households with "staff."

I take the Bishop's message as encouragement to walk away from the stress load, not add to it.


Morgan said...

I think it's important to note that just because the secular world has largely lost the meaning of Christmas, doesn't mean that Catholics have to eschew every tradition that secular folks partake in. Just because they sing "Silver Bells" doesn't mean that singing "Silver Bells" during Advent will make my kids forget it's Christ's birth. As long as your home is focused on preparing for Christ's birth, and it's something that you continuously teach your children, they aren't going to have any problem keeping the true meaning of Christmas.

My husband is of no religion; I am Catholic. He LOVES Christmas and starts up the Christmas music right after Thanksgiving. We compromise by lighting the Advent wreath and singing Advent hymns before dinner every night, and Advent calendar, and leaving the decorations up until February 2nd.

I doesn't have to be one or the other. It's possible to balance both. And secular Christmas stuff is not intrinsically evil.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your balanced approach. I have ten kids and although some are older they still require attention. Still have 3 five and under. For more than a decade I have slowly decorated and have always felt pangs of guilt, but if I don't there won't be any decorations or I will be ill for days. So, amen sister... We celebrate advent in the Catholic way... preparation and decorating in anticipation is part of that preparation.