I used to think my neighbors were crazy. Each year they would put up their Christmas tree and decorate it on Christmas Eve after their kids (all nine of them!) went to bed. They waited until the 24th for carols and Christmas cookies. I thought they were gluttons for punishment (with nine kids, it’s a safe assumption) or just quirky, but now I get the beauty in their waiting. Because the Christmas season doesn’t start on the day after Thanksgiving (or Halloween, if you are a retailer), it doesn’t start on December 1 and not even on the first day of Advent. The Feast of Christmas begins when Jesus is born. So I love the symbolism of holding off decorating—for just as Jesus’ birth brought light into a dark world, so the decked halls bring life and light into a winter home. Anticipating the beauty of the tree and all the other goodies of the holiday brings out the true meaning of Advent.
Does this mean my tree won’t be going up until Christmas Eve? Not on your life. My mood after untangling the lights then wrestling them onto our ten-foot tree is not exactly conducive to Christmas cheer. Besides, we go to a very “festive” open house after Christmas Eve Mass so I’m not sure we should be trusted with ladders and electrical connections after we got home!
But bringing out every decoration the second the last fork has dropped on Thanksgiving doesn’t feel right, either. Last week you wrote about needing Christmas joy after a rough year and I second that; the sights and sounds of the weeks leading up to Christmas hold an essential magic. After all, Mary took joy in Jesus before he arrived in the world, right? The feeling of goodwill that accompanies all the wonders of Christmastime (like Hallmark movies!) opens our hearts to love, just as Mary opened her heart to love with her yes. But her joy was tempered with a calm anticipation and wonder, so I’m going to try to embrace that spirit of Advent, the waiting, without rushing full-on into Christmas.
How can we enjoy the special joys of the coming weeks but keep true to the anticipation which is the heart of Advent? Here’s what I’m going to try:
Be gradual and intentional: I’m going to decorate gradually, slowing bringing the lights and the colors of Christmas into the house. Hubby’s favorite Patience Brewster reindeer are already out (he insisted) and of course the nativity. While the tree always comes into the house just about two weeks before Christmas (we get a real one), I’m going to take a cue from last year and not rush to decorate it. Through a combination of procrastination, flu season and general busy-ness, we arrived at December 22nd with a tree that was up and lit, but otherwise bare. I kind of liked it that way, a silent reminder that Christmas was coming, but not quite here yet. And when we did hang the ornaments, all the other craziness of the season had died down, so we could really be present with each other, taking the time to appreciate the memories in each bauble.
Approach holiday music a little differently. Instead of rushing headlong into Christmas carols on November-something, ask Alexa to play you some advent songs. Better yet, check out this playlist I made. We live in a culture that reinforces immediate gratification—did somebody say “same-day-Amazon-delivery”?—so immersing ourselves in the music of waiting, preparing, helps us embrace what we are waiting for, not just what we have to get done. (And this playlist is full of joy as well as reflection—from show tunes to Andrea Bocelli to Mumford and Sons, it’s got something for everyone! A little Advent gift to you!)
Celebrate the whole liturgical season. The Feast of Christmas ends on Epiphany (January 6); I know you and I agree that we should enjoy the tree, the decorations, until then. (I grew up in a theologically-challenged house that took down the tree on January 1—celebrating the Feast of the Holy Rose Bowl, perhaps?) So keep singing Christmas carols until the New Year. (Am I the only one disappointed when the stations go back to regular music on the 26th?) Spend some time after Christmas Day reflecting on the joy Mary must have felt those first special days with her newborn. Listen to the theologically-unsound but hauntingly beautiful “Mary Did you Know?” (I have a complicated relationship with that one.) As Epiphany approaches, move the Wise Men closer to the creche and hum a little “We Three Kings” before blessing your household on the last day of the Christmas season.
So keep Advent in your heart with prayer and reflection. Get to confession. But for all the rest of it, there is no “right” way. (Well, except for the tree/Epiphany thing. Don’t want to upset Lady Mary now, do we?) Put up the tree in November, belt out “Jingle Bells” on the day after Halloween if it brings you joy. Ignore the internet curmudgeons who insist that Catholic halls just can’t be decked until the O Antiphons (yep, that’s WAY into the Catholic weeds). Or embrace that beautiful symbolism and decorate on Christmas Eve. Because He’s coming, and we are full of joyful expectation for Him. That’s what matters.