Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The dizzying spiral

Following the discussion under this post yesterday, I've decided to expand a little concerning what I wrote, and some of what went into it.

To do this, I'd like to highlight a comment from a reader, who wrote in part:
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.
As I said to this reader in an earlier comment, I used the bishop's letter as a jumping-off place because his writing here is the first I've seen so far this Advent season that is continuing a theme I've seen before. The reason I didn't link to those posts is that it's early in Advent, and they haven't really started appearing as they have in years past. Maybe they won't; maybe this is one of those blogoslap-fights that won't happen this year.

So why use the bishop's letter at all? I mean, he's only telling the Catholics of his flock to slow down, stop being so busy, remember that Advent is about preparing for the Incarnation, and quit stressing themselves out over all that "holiday" stuff, right?

Well, let's look at some of what the bishop says (if you'd like to read the actual text, I encourage you to do so):
  1. Remain faithful to the celebration of the four weeks of Advent.
  2. Avoid being consumed by the hype of the "holiday season," which the bishop enumerates as: "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."
  3. Celebrate Advent by means of rich prayer.
  4. Avoid decorating schools for Christmas and have (if anything) a "Gaudete Party" before the children leave for Vacation?
  5. Display an Advent Wreath and Jesse Tree in the home.
  6. Direct quote: "I urge you to hold-off on displaying a decorated Christmas tree until the season of Christmas begins."
  7. Leave decorations up, keep celebrating, have parties etc. throughout the Christmas Season which continues until the January 9 (Baptism of the Lord). (I'd be interested to know if Catholic school children in the Salt Lake diocese are on vacation that long, though.)
Now, let me review this, as it appears to me:

A. The call to pray, to be faithful to the Advent Season, and to use a Jesse Tree and Advent Wreath seem very good, and the sort of thing that every Catholic ought to be thinking about during this season.

B. The call to avoid decorating our churches and homes for Christmas, to avoid spending too much time shopping, to avoid hosting early Christmas parties, or to avoid displaying a lighted and decorated tree before Dec. 25 seems less helpful--from the "Keep Mom in Christmas" perspective. The good bishop clearly expects Catholics to decorate for Christmas, as he advises them to leave their decorations up until January 9. But he also does not seem to expect much if any decoration to go up before midnight on Christmas Eve, and he uses his strongest language ("urge" instead of "encourage") when he speaks in particular of not displaying that lighted, decorated tree until the Christmas Season begins (again, not until midnight on Dec. 24). And as far as the shopping and Christmas parties, again, it seems that the gifts are supposed to appear by magic sleigh and that people are supposed to be free to celebrate when most of their Grinchy employers and/or teachers will expect them back...

C. The instruction to schools is somewhat irrelevant to me, but I do think there's a bit of a discrepancy. If we're supposed to avoid undue celebration before Christmas, wouldn't it make sense for Catholic schools to remain in session until at least noon on Dec. 24--or, if we must, the end of the school day on the 23rd, so that those families who attend a 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass of anticipation will not be rushed after school to get there? And then, of course, shouldn't the schools stay closed until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, so that families actually can plan and have parties and other celebrations throughout the true Christmas Season?

If this seems somewhat torturous, I apologize; I have a tendency to take things to their logical conclusions, and then to begin considering all of the logistics. If this makes me a Martha instead of a Mary, so be it (I've certainly been called worse).

And where my logical conclusions take me on this one: around in circles, I'm afraid. So don't decorate before the 25th but do decorate for the Christmas Season so do decorate on the 25th but don't do more than two hours of unnecessary servile work on Christmas because it's a Holy Day of Obligation and don't put up the Christmas Tree before the 25th but do go to Midnight Mass and do have presents under the phantasmagoric tree by 6 a.m. on Christmas Day but don't spend a lot of time shopping for the presents and don't (remember!) do more than two hours of servile work in the wee hours of Christmas morning but do have the house and yard decorated so that you can leave up the decorations until January 9th to witness to others that Christmas isn't over but don't decorate before the 25th (and remember that servile labor bit) and don't join in any pre-Christmas festivities (unless they're labeled Advent parties and feature, I don't know, purple cookies or something) but do hold parties and celebrations scheduled for when everybody has to be back at work and at school and....

You see my dilemma.

And it's usually made worse, on those sorts of blogs and websites where the authors insist that women are still required to cover their heads at Mass and that modest clothing does not include pants on females and that the Novus Ordo may, grudgingly, technically, sort of be valid but it's certainly not worth attending unless you have no other choice and those sorts of things--because on those websites, the fact that a bishop has attempted to address the Advent/Christmas Season thing at all will be recast and trumpeted forth as "Bishop (we'll overlook his Marty Haugen reference) Declares Catholics who Decorate their Tree before Christmas Day are Not Thinking With the Church (and they probably don't even know what a Proper Catholic Boxing Day Fete looks like, anyway!). While one side of me wonders how these particular bloggers/writers (whom I won't name out of charity and the fact that it would take too long) ever get the foam-flecks off of their computer monitors, the other laments the reality that there will be wives and mothers crushed by yet another burden which the Church has not and does not impose upon them--and at this season of hope, no less.

To sum it up: I have no problem with the idea that as Catholics we should approach Advent in hope, and in a spirit of waiting and preparation. I have no problem with the idea that Advent should be, as much as possible, prayerful, peaceful, and anticipating the Christmas celebration rather than plunging full-swing into it. I don't mind the idea of slow, incremental decoration instead of trying to create a full-scale gingerbread house scene indoors and out while the Thanksgiving leftovers are still cooling.

But I have a problem with too many mandates and prohibitions being raised--especially when the goal is to make Advent more prayerful and peaceful. Because all those mandates and prohibitions do is raise the circle of do's and don'ts to a dizzying spiral of paralysis, such that some Catholic moms (me, for instance) start to be tempted to think that it would be a heck of a lot easier to keep Christmas as if it were a Sunday in Ordinary Time, with maybe a slightly nicer dinner, and just forget now and forever any notion of tree, gifts, garlands, lights, cards, music, or other excrescences that do nothing holy whatsoever (except maybe to remind us in undeniably palpable and physical ways that Christmas really is special and that the Incarnation, a unique event in salvation history, is both the feast of the birth of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the mystical feast that calls us to hope for the glorious Advent of His Second Coming and that thus a little revelry and joyous pomp is not at all out of place--us not being solely spiritual creatures, and all). Because the alternative is to go ahead and do what works for one's family--and then carry that burden of Secret Catholic Guilt for being the sort of Bad Evil Catholic who not only attends the Novus Ordo and fails to cover her head at Mass, but who also customarily puts her Christmas tree up on Gaudete Sunday.


L. said...

"Schools should not decorate for Christmas, but can decorate with simple wreaths and greenery."

That does not sound like encourgement -- that sounds like an order to me. I wonder if the Catholic schools in Utah are doing it this way?

Bishop Wester used to be in San Francisco, and our parish school had our annual Christmas fair on the first week in December as usual, and didn't bother calling it an "Advent Fair." Maybe Wester is delighted to be in a place where his flock actually follows his instructions?

(In our house, Christmas MUST end on 12/26 -- the Japanese new year's decorations have to go up, and the Christmas decorations have to come down and be put away. So they're not up for very long at all. But I think we should more properly refer to it as Xmas in our house!)

Donna Jannuzzi said...

I think I'm going to have to stand by my original comments. I think we each read the bishop's letter differently because we are each bringing our own perspectives with us. I simply don't agree with your assessment of his statements. For instance I don't see his recommendations as mandates and prohibitions, I see them as recommendations, suggestions, encouragements. Again, I think your reaction to his letter is based off of *way* more than his letter as further evidenced by rest of your post and references to "those sorts of blogs".

Perhaps we will just have to agree to disagree. I just can't go where you are going with this; my mind doesn't work that way. I don't feel crushed by any burdens or responsibilities or paralyzed by the circle of do's and don'ts because as I said before, I honestly don't care what anybody thinks about how I should celebrate my Christmas. And I don't really care how anyone else celebrates their Christmas. In the end, I can only be responsible for myself and my family and I can try, in that process, to be a witness to the hope, joy and peace of the season.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

As someone who has suffered under the weight of "what's the right way to do it", Erin is correct in her assessment of how that sort of mind works in a situation like this. Someone who wants to find the best, most Catholic way of celebrating a major feast day is going to read the Bishop's letter differently. A "thou shalt not" from a Bishop, even an implied one, carries weight.

The phrasing he used does sound binding to a heart already worried and anxious. Had he wanted to alleviate those mental spirals Erin describes he could have said... to the extent that you can within reason. That would have been helpful instead of his "examples of what this will entail" that will only make a mom trying to be the best Catholic/mom/school teacher she can be think that she now has a directive to accomplish. I don't blame the Bishop as I don't expect him to understand the inner workings of a mom's brain and I do believe he wrote this letter in what he considered to be a pastoral gesture.

Of course we are all going to read the letter differently! Thanks be to God that you are so enlightened and don't carry this particular burden. But for those of us who have struggled with it and for those who continue to struggle with it, I agree that the Bishop could have used a slightly different phrasing to help alleviate some undo burdens.

Lindsay said...


I can't find it quickly, but I know that there is a particular date in the ordo which is given as the traditional day to bless Christmas trees, and it is at least a week before, but I want to say it might even be close to Gaudette???

Anyway, I know that in years past we've sort of used that as a guage (you'd think I could remember or find when it is). Also, in the past, we've put up the tree and lights (the time consuming part) early, but held off on the full fledged decorating.

I don't really feel his words are legalistic or burdensome. I think that his intended audience is not faithful families who are working to find a good balance but rather is the majority of his flock who, if I may paint with a broad brush, probably have very little idea that one might even consider not indulging in all the festivities of the season whole hog starting the day after Thanksgiving.

My own approach has been to find a balance that saves my sanity while guarding my enthusiasm. I mean, if Jesus the Guest is on the way, I'd be a pretty poor hostess if I waited until the last minute to prepare!

Anonymous said...

No one has mentioned the weather as a potential disabler of waiting until the last minute to prepare for Christmas celebrations, surely a factor in Utah. I've learned to do all my shopping early so as to avoid the guilt and worry seeing the UPS man negotiate our icy steps the week of Christmas.

LeeAnn Balbirona said...

I think the bishop's comments were meant to inspire simplicity (in a culture that is often grossly extravagant) as well as respect for the differences between advent and Christmas (in a culture that hardly knows what advent is). I don't think his main intended audience was homeschooling/ blogging Catholic moms who already are pretty zealous in their observance of these differences, but rather the general Catholic populace of his diocese who are unaware or indifferent to them.

Also, I am surprised at folks saying it takes them days and weeks to decorate for Christmas. It takes us maybe two or three hours, including bringing in the boxes from the garage. I am a fairly organized person but I've also come to appreciate keeping things simpler so as not to drive myself crazy. Decorations consist of:

1. A couple strands of lights on the katsura tree outdoors and maybe on the front porch. (I do not hang them on the house, only because I do not want to risk my neck up on a ladder. Plenty of the neighbors do and it's beautiful. We just settle for being the Charlie Brown house.)

2. Advent wreath on the living room coffee table.

3. Nativity scene on the mantel.

4. Christmas Tree, 6' noble fir from the produce stand. Four strands of lights. Each kid has a ziploc bag with their own ornaments (one ornament per year old). We have more ornaments than this but usually leave a lot in the boxes.

5. Depending on which friends are fundraising for what group, we may end up with a fresh evergreen wreath or scented candles or something similar. Changes year to year. This year we have candles and a bowl of cinnamon-scented pinecone potpourri.

6. Christmas stockings stay in the box in the garage until Christmas Eve.

7. I have some special Christmas tableware and linens but they don't get pulled out unless we have a party or until Christmas Day. I don't count that as Christmas decorating since they aren't on display the whole season.

I'm not saying everyone should decorate like me, but if a mom is finding decorating for Advent/Christmas very stressful, simplifying the decorations can be extremely helpful. If you really enjoy going all out, then great but if it feels like WORK and drudgery, then scaling back is probably overdue. The savvy mom delegates as much as possible to the kids too, you know. :)

I do the majority of my gift-shopping online and before Thanksgiving. The only thing hanging over my head now is Christmas cards and a few smaller gifts.

Anonymous said...

My comment came late to the party on the earlier post, so I'll just briefly reiterate the observation that the list of things Erin listed as preparation for Christmas made my head spin. Way more Martha Stewart than I can handle, and not necessary to have a "real" Christmas unless one simply enjoys doing all that. But it hardly seems necessary.


Barbara C. said...

Your point about Catholic schools is an interesting one. The other solution would be to wait until the kids come back from break to have their Christmas party.

And I totally agree with LeeAnn about the decorations. I think a lot of people go a little overboard with it.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks for writing about this and defending your observations. I feel the same way -- my husband takes great pride in his "piety" of resisting excessive Christmas hoopla -- while wife here does the fudge and cards and mantle decorating and present wrapping etc. I enjoy all that, but still feel that annoyance and creeping of guilt.

freddy said...

Here's my imaginary staff meeting at the wholly fake "St. Guiltina's Grade School."

Principal: Okay, people, we've all read the Bishop's letter, so let's get to work. First off, you all need to contact your volunteer moms to provide cookies and punch for the "Gaudete Party" before break. Yes, Grade One?

Grade One: We can have grape juice and pink lemonade, and one of our moms volunteered to order purple and rose colored m&m's.

Principal: Good idea. Everyone, talk to your moms!

Grade Three: What shall we do with the Christmas Stocking art project the children have been working on?

Grades Five and Six: Yeah, ours have been doing ornaments and wreaths.

Principal: Make sure you collect all Christmas related art projects! I know in the past we've used them for the Christmas party and the Christmas pageant before they all go home for break, but we're doing things a little differently this year, ladies! I expect each and every one of you to be here before we resume classes January 4th, decorating for your students' return!

Grade Seven: What about the Christmas Pageant? Aren't we doing that this year?

Principal: Oh, yes. We'll be doing the pageant after the students return from break, and I want each and every one of you to encourage parents and loved ones to attend! Classroom Christmas parties will be that week as well....Yes, Grade Four?

Grade Four: But with all the celebrations, after two weeks off from school, how will we get the students to pay attention to their class work?

Principal: That's not important! What's important is that we celebrate the true Christmas Season properly!

Anonymous said...

I just want to hang with all my liberal Catholic friends because they don't care about any of this stuff!

Charlotte said...

For your information, I will be writing the dreaded Santa post soon, possibly tonight. Let the arguing begin! : )

Red Cardigan said...

Char, bring it on! :)

Actually, my only gripe about the Santa thing is: it's not lying. Either there's a place for specific fairy tales in a child's life, or not--but if you think all fairy tales are lying, you're more Puritan than Catholic.

That said, plenty of people choose not to do St. Nicholas as the gift-bringer because it doesn't work for their family. Great! Although I did cringe when some people started saying, in effect, "No way are we doing Santa! I want my kids to know from earliest infancy that I'm the one doing all the work--and I want and deserve all the credit, dagnabit!"

'Cause that just seems rather opposed to the whole spirit of Christmas, to me...

L. said...

My oldest son once asked me, "Why do grown-ups lie about Santa?" And I told him, it's not a lie, it's a tradition some families do, to teach about giving to people without recognition from those who receive the gifts.

Dymphna said...

American women overdo it. You don't need to decorate the yard. You don't need to have a party, especially nowadays becuase your husband's job might be in danger and with a 10% unemployment he won't be getting a new one anytime soon. You don't need to bake cookies, the kids would be happier with Oreos. You don't need to have a perfect tree. The dog, cat and kids are just going to wreck it anyway. Why not get a smaller tree and decorate on Christmas Eve? You don't need to haul the kids all over creation. What's wrong with letting children play and socialize on their own? All this so called stress is self induced.

Anonymous said...

Dymphna, you rock. You absolutely nailed it. It's just another example of American excess. And then we all sit around complaining and wondering why no one appreciates our efforts.

As I said in a previous comment on the previous post on this topic, if it takes you a month, then you are doing too much.

Charlotte said...

Well then you will have some interest in what I'm writing....because it touches on that subject of "I'm giving you the gifts, not Santa" to some extent.

Also, I think I'm going to write another separate blogpost on your topic here, to offer my thoughts more completely.

Charlotte said...

Dymphna, respectfully stated (since you and I often agree on many things), since you don't have children, I don't think you can comprehend how strongly-held beliefs about children and child-rearing pre-children can completely change and morph once you have actual children. It's just true.

LeeAnn Balbirona said...

Since when did discussing the stress of when/how to put up holiday decorations become a matter of debating child-rearing techniques? Dymphna said nothing other than "do less."

Kids' wishes and dreams shouldn't be allowed to run the family into the ground either.

I have four children, ages 4-13, and while I agree that beliefs about how parenting should be done change before and after having children, I really don't see what that has to do with what Dymphna posted.

Charlotte said...

In defense of Santa:

Charlotte said...

Dymphna mentioned kids/children FOUR times in her few short sentences.

Red Cardigan said...

Dymphna, some others have expressed what you have, and I may have to address all of it in a third post--next week some time. :)

For now, though, let's look at what you said:

1. Yard: no, you don't, and I often don't. But the bishop says to leave your decorations up until Jan 9 as a witness. Unless you regularly invite hoardes of non-Catholics over for dinner, I'm guessing he's referencing yard decorations.

2. You don't need to have a party. Nope, you can skip it. And when one or more of the four of your eight siblings who lives in your town invites you and your family to a party, you can say, "Oh, sorry, I don't come to Christmas parties before Dec. 25. Thanks anyway!" It's not like that won't cause hurt feelings and deep family misunderstandings or anything.

3. You don't need to bake cookies. Sure. Skip that too. And show up with oreos to that family cookie exchange party--nobody will care! Oh, wait; you're not going to that party, 'cause it's during Advent...except you already RSVP'd. Decisions, decisions...

4. Smaller, non-perfect tree: did that last year, probably again this year with a psycho destructo kitten in the house. Still: wait till Christmas Eve? Well, we have to be at church at around 6 p.m. to do a final practice/last minute changes/etc. for the music we will begin singing at 7 p.m. for the Mass that begins at 8 p.m. which means we have to leave our house at 5:30 p.m. which means an extremely early light supper served at around 4:30 or 4:45 p.m. so cooked earlier than that (say, threeish)--but you're right, there's simply scads of time before then to set up the tree and pull out the cat-safe ornaments and put up lights etc. What am I thinking, selfishly trying to set up our pathetic little Charlie Brown tree earlier than the 24th?

These are real life examples from my real (very non Martha-Stewart) life.

But there's an attitude here that I find...rather annoying. All the things I do at Christmas I do out of love for my family (it's not like I've got a burning desire for a tree in my living room or anything). What some of you seem to be saying is, "Eh--the family doesn't need anything special to celebrate Christmas with. A junky tree, some oreos--you're good." And that almost seems, again, Puritanical to me: the Puritans hated, with a deep, fierce hatred, any trappings or decorations or feasting or merriment associated with Christmas--which they called "popery;" and they punished any of their members if they had the temerity to adopt any of it.

Now there are, it seems, some of us "papists" who frown with deep suspicion on the idea of lights and decorations and cookies and the like. Stick a tree in the corner on Dec. 24, decorate it if you must, hand around a plate of store bought cookies, mutter, "He is born!" as if it were a vaguely impolite thing to say, and call it a Christmas if you like--but count me out.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Some of us even... gasp... sing carols as we decorate the tree early. And of course imperfectly. Because we have kids. And they help. And the resulting tree looks like a bunch of kids did it....

And we bake cookies all through Advent. Because it's cold and dark and we're cooped up in the afternoon and waiting and preparing is FUN!

During Advent we're supposed to prepare to recieve the Christ Child at Christmas (people look East, the time is near....).

A house preparing to welcome a child isn't calm and understated.

There are baby showers. Gifts. A nursery prepared. Clothes brought out, washed, and stowed away. Frenetic countdowns. Shopping trips. Food prepared. Dry runs made. Doctors visits.

The whole last month before the birth is a frenzy of activity, culminating in the joy that is BABY!

Advent is like that. It's OK to celebrate a little in anticipation, as long as the BIG celebration is for Christmas! It's not like the parties and activities satisify the urge to rejoice... rather, the whole of advent is a gradual keying up of excitement, leading up to midnight Mass!

It's very human to anticipate a baby's birth with excitement.....

LeeAnn Balbirona said...

Red, I think you are arguing with Dymphna (and me?) as if she (we) agreed with everything the bishop said. I don't think that's the case. Speaking for myself, I acknowledge drifting from the original letter of contention and merely stating what *I* think is proper. I think the bishop's letter is probably not helpful to already-observant Catholics and with regards to Christmas *preparations* I think he's wrong; these have always been done and will continue to be done during Advent. Ideally, Christmas parties *should* be held during the Christmas season (Dec 24-Jan 6) but again, this is not always practical and I think some reasonable allowances must be made for families who are constrained by work and school schedules.

And also, I think every family values different traditions. Baking to me is not enjoyable or interesting. I am content to buy holiday Oreos (well, I would be if I weren't gluten-intolerant) and store-bought pies. My mother always baked and she worked full time. My kids may some day grow up wishing I'd baked with them or maybe they'll bake with grandma.

I like our Christmas tree and it has greatly sentimental value to it because of the ornaments we use year after year. I am by no means a Puritan. I know my limits, however, and don't try to overreach in the "must make the house and season magical!" department. I'm posting photos this month of our decorations, if anyone cares to take a look.

LeeAnn Balbirona said...

And my tree was up the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Usually I do wait longer, although the longest you can wait around here is the last Sunday before Christmas, because after that all the tree stands and farms close up shop. But this year, I needed that dose of Christmas cheer a bit earlier. No presents under the tree or stockings on the mantel though. Those will for sure wait until the final days before Christmas, if not Christmas eve.

priest's wife said...

I think this- as almost everything- is a balance between living in this world but not being of the world. So- Advent sometimes has Christmas in it- but keep celebrating as a family at least until Epiphany

Geoff G. said...

I. for one, am all in favor of resurrecting the practice of Twelfth Night as being the big feast and party of the season (which is actually the eve of the Epiphany).

Good medievalist that I am, I do try to keep the Christmas decorations up through then. I understand, however, that modern school calendars being what they are, this may not be practical in all households.

Traditionally, you have until Candlemas to get your decorations down, which is in early February. Plenty of time!

kate said...

Oh, the angst. I think the problem with bits of the bishop's letter is that he's a man, he's single, and he didn't perceive the logistical problems of some of the principles he's expressing. Heck, the same thing happens at my house and my husband is married!
When the preparations cause bitterness, we're doing too much. Or maybe too much on our own without the team on board. And if we can't pray on Christmas because we're too tired - well, might want a different plan for next year. Do what you can do. The enemy of the good is the perfect.
Women often fall prey to comparison and judgment - we compare ourselves and we judge others. Both are spiritual hazards. We need to root ourselves in prayer so that we can resist both.

"For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline."2Tim1:7