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."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.
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.
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):
- Remain faithful to the celebration of the four weeks of Advent.
- 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."
- Celebrate Advent by means of rich prayer.
- Avoid decorating schools for Christmas and have (if anything) a "Gaudete Party" before the children leave for the...er...um...Advent Vacation?
- Display an Advent Wreath and Jesse Tree in the home.
- Direct quote: "I urge you to hold-off on displaying a decorated Christmas tree until the season of Christmas begins."
- 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.)
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.