When Can We Decorate for Christmas?

One of the controversies that one encounters nowadays among conscientious, tradition-minded Catholics concerns the question of when it is “correct” to decorate for Christmas.

Stores put out the Christmas items earlier and earlier each year; in many places the local radio stations play Christmas music as early as Halloween now; and then, of course, there is the problem that on December 26 many trees are out to the curbs for trash pickup and all other decorations taken down, even as the Christmas season in the Church is really only beginning.

Is it “correct” for Catholics to have such a clear and distinct separation of seasons – which means, in this case, no Christmas decorating until Christmas Eve!?

My answer is based on two things: 1) What the liturgical seasons mean; and 2) What is actually done in traditionally Catholic places.

The season of Advent is a time of preparation. It is — as I have written about a fair amount in the past — a penitential season. We fast before we feast. Nowadays the penitential nature of Advent has been almost completely eclipsed. The priest may well wear purple at Mass, there may not be a Gloria, and the church may not be decked out for Christmas… but outside, it’s “Christmas in full swing”. So, can’t we just do what everyone else does?

This is where those who are trying to be faithful to the true sense of the faith may end up indulging excess: “No Christmas music until midnight Mass! No decorations until 12/24! You can give a gift for the Feast of St. Nicholas but you can’t otherwise put out gifts before then!” And so forth…

Inasmuch as Advent is a period of preparation, though, what exactly is wrong with starting to put up Christmas decorations? What is wrong with doing the Christmas shopping? Yes, our world has the seasons backward — yes, the world celebrates Christmas only until 12/25, whereas we really start our festivity then. But is it truly so wrong to begin to acknowledge Christmas before the big day arrives?

Here I answer: there is no problem. We should maintain the spirit of Advent. This is obviously easier said than done in our world today. We should have specific Advent traditions. We should teach our children about it and not go all-out on the egg nog and Christmas cookies. But you can start decorating. You can start “getting in the spirit”. This is fine. Especially if you then really celebrate the season like the Church does — from December 25 at least until the Baptism of the Lord (or at the very least, to Epiphany — though there is an old tradition of going until February 2, the Presentation, also).

So putting up the tree around Thanksgiving, listening to the Christmas station, doing your Christmas shopping… not a problem in my mind. Just don’t forget that it’s Advent. Ask yourself if you are really preparing spiritually for Christmas. Ask yourself if you are teaching your children about that and actually leading them in that regard. That should include things like an extra effort to go to Confession, and otherwise observing a certain austerity or restraint. Save something for the actual season!

Two simple questions are: How is Advent different for us than either Ordinary Time or Christmas? And, do the differences reflect the spirit of Advent?

Now with regard to “what is actually done in Catholic places”, the tradition in the Vatican is a good indicator. But I can also speak to what happens in the neighborhoods of Rome, where real Romans still live. First the Vatican.

The large tree in St. Peter’s Square (a specimen of which is pictured above) is brought in at the end of November and the process of decorating it begins. Yes — they put their tree up around the time that we Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving! The tree is then officially illuminated closer to the Immaculate Conception. I am told by a reliable source that the illumination this year will be on December 5. Thus it will remain into January.

This is not a new tradition — this is the way things have long been done in the Vatican.

But unlike our American neighbors who might put their trees out to the curb on 12/26, the tree in St. Peter’s Square is left up, as I said, for all of the Christmas season. Until recently, in fact, it was left up until at least February 2 (following the old tradition). Now it is taken down sometime after Epiphany, following the more contemporary liturgical norms. The tree might go up fairly early, but it stays up for the entire Christmas season.

In many of the neighborhoods of Rome, there are very charming street decorations put up by associations in those areas. They often involve lights strung over the streets — more or less elaborate depending upon the neighborhood and those who live there. Here is one of the main thoroughfares in the heart of Rome (surely these lights are provided by the city itself and not by a neighborhood association):

But it’s not just Rome. Here is photo I once took in the wonderful town of Sorrento, south of Naples, near the Amalfi Coast:

Yes, the problem is not so much how early the decorations go up, but how long they remain. They should stay up for the entire Christmas season!

So I would not be too critical of those who decorate early. It should be within reason. For me, before Thanksgiving is pushing it. But putting the tree up on ‘Black Friday’? No problem. Keep it up till the Baptism of the Lord, though! Be the crazy Catholic in your neighborhood who celebrates the true meaning of the season and does so until the season really ends.

And don’t forget about Advent! Don’t get lost in the preparations, especially the material ones. Make them — but don’t neglect the preparation of your own soul (and the oversight you should have over your children in that regard). Let Advent be different; indeed, let it have a penitential tone, for we should fast before we feast.

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