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How to recapture a proper celebration of Advent and Christmas

Trying to return our society to a Christian appreciation of Christmas may seem impossible, but it is worth trying to do because it can be the first sally in the much-needed effort to return our nation to its religious and Christian roots.

(Image: Tomas Robertson/Unsplash.com)

With the total destruction of Advent and the near-total destruction of Christmas due to their commercialization over the past forty years or more, I want to offer some suggestions on how to re-capture a proper celebration of the Advent-Christmas cycle of the Church’s year. Let us try to make the most of it.

Use Advent well and wisely. That means spiritual preparation. If you cannot attend daily Mass, at least meditate on the Scripture readings assigned to the Masses of the season. (My Advent Meditations: Helps to “Wait in Joyful Hope” would be of some value.) Since the Church’s “particular voice” for the season is Isaiah, try to read a chapter a day of that prophetic book. Make friends with the key figures of the season: John the Baptist and his parents for the first half; Our Lady and St. Joseph for the second half. Having lived the first Advent two millennia ago, they can provide us with valuable examples for us who seek to do so today.

No Christmas parties during Advent. The first battle I always had to wage in taking over a new parish was my adamant refusal to allow Christmas parties during Advent. Parish societies were uniformly annoyed by the ban and routinely complained that “everyone has their Christmas parties before Christmas; no one has them after!” To which, I routinely replied: “Then everyone will come to yours since there will be no competition!”

There is, however, a more fundamental rationale, namely, that there is still a quasi-penitential character to Advent as a time of preparation, first of all, for the Final Judgment and then for the coming of the Christ Child. Both demand self-examination, self-denial, and penance (hence, the need for a good pre-Christmas visit to the confessional). The Church signals this attitude with purple vestments and abstaining from the Gloria (except for feasts and solemnities). Furthermore, there has always been a Catholic intuition that feasting ought to be preceded by fasting; in fact, the feasting takes on its deepest meaning only when preceded by fasting. Any partying can rightly be done for: St. Nicholas Day, with its delightful traditions for children (December 6); the Immaculate Conception, our national patroness (December 8); Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and so dear to our Mexican brothers and sisters in the Faith (December 12).

Operating in this manner holds to a proper liturgical spirit, which demonstrates that we Catholics march to the beat of a different drummer.

Bring Advent into your home, the domestic church. For years now, the Advent wreath has become rather common in Christian homes. Make the construction of the wreath a genuine spiritual and family activity. Use it on the dinner table or the coffee table as a focal point for family prayer during the season. Introduce the Jesse Tree and keep an Advent calendar, especially if there are little children in the family, capitalizing on their keen sense of anticipation – a real virtue and asset in one’s ability to celebrate Advent properly.

Advocate for a return of Christ to Christmas in the public arena. That can entail many different and creative possibilities. During my years of work for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, I was perhaps proudest of getting a nativity scene displayed in New York’s Central Park for the first time in history. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra’s song, “If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere!” If you can’t get that done, at least put one up on your own property and surely encourage your parish priest to have one in front of the church, if that has not heretofore been the case. Make sure that local retail stores are selling nativity scenes and religious Christmas cards; if they’re not available, ask the manager why not. Return any “Happy Holiday” greetings with “Merry Christmas,” following the lead of that very successful campaign of the Knights of Columbus in the 1950s to “put Christ back into Christmas.”

Decorate at the right time. Don’t follow the example of Madison Avenue with the absurdity of putting up Christmas decorations right after Halloween or just before Thanksgiving. Again, let’s remember: They are Christmas decorations, not Advent decorations. And so, I always suggest doing both outdoor decorations and the Christmas tree the first night of the “O Antiphons.” And what are they? Glad you asked!

Beginning on December 17, in proximate preparation for the Lord’s historical coming at Bethlehem, the Church has recourse to wonderful biblical prophecies which describe the coming Messiah as Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dawn from on High, King, and Emmanuel. These titles are incorporated into antiphons used to frame Mary’s Magnificat during the praying of Vespers in the week leading up to Christmas. Everyone should recognize them as the titles for the verses of the old-time Advent favorite, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

And speaking of hymns, no Christmas carols until Christmas! We are most fortunate to have a panoply of beautiful Advent hymns in the English language. Did you ever notice how you can’t find a radio station playing a Christmas carol after 5 p.m. on Christmas Day? No wonder – since they’ve been playing them since Thanksgiving (or earlier!).

Encourage and support religious entertainment for the Advent/Christmas cycle. If your community sponsors a performance of Handel’s Messiah, make sure you’re there for it; if it doesn’t, ask why there isn’t one. Approach your parish music director to put on a service of Lessons and Carols on the Fourth Sunday of Advent; it would even make a great ecumenical celebration, especially with Lutherans and Episcopalians.

Make the necessary Christmas preparations holy. We Catholics are not dour Puritans or Scrooges, who shun a genuine Christmas spirit; nor should we do “Christmas things” grudgingly. Shopping for gifts for family and friends should be done happily. Let’s remember that we give gifts at Christmas in imitation of our Heavenly Father, who began the whole process by giving us the inestimable gift of His Only Son.

While generosity is called for, extravagance is not. Give religious gifts like spiritual books, subscriptions to reliable Catholic periodicals, sacred art for home decoration, as well as spiritual bouquets. When family members ask you what you want, don’t be afraid to ask for something that really matters to you, like suggesting that your fallen-away son or daughter make a long-overdue confession before Christmas and get back on track with their life in Christ’s Church. When writing Christmas cards (or email versions of them), make a point of praying for the people to whom you are writing.

And remember the poor, not with perfunctory or token gifts, but gifts imbued with a true sacrificial dimension. So much of popular Christmas lore brings to mind the poverty of the Christ-Child, born in a stable. A lovely French carol, Jésus-Christ s’habille en pauvres (Jesus Christ comes in the guise of the poor), recounts how a poor family share their humble Christmas dinner with someone who is even poorer than they, finally to discover that their Guest was none other than the Lord Himself (the haunting melody of that carol comes into English hymnody as Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence).

Make the Sacred Liturgy the high point of your Christmas celebration. All too often of late, even practicing Catholics have developed the unseemly habit of “squeezing” Holy Mass into a convenient slot amid the other observances of the day. How many priests bemoan the fact that the vigil Masses of Christmas at four and five in the afternoon are jammed, while the Midnight Mass (if one is even scheduled) and the morning Masses are depressingly empty! Of course, this is a pastoral challenge for parish priests, who ought not conform to demands for Masses of convenience, which have the effect of voiding the feast of its centrality and significance.

Only when Holy Mass is honored, do the other aspects of the day have any real meaning; indeed, then the opening of presents, the visiting of friends, the Christmas banquet all become “sacraments” of the Sacrament. Nor should we forget that for us Catholics, Christmas happens every day as the great mystery of the Incarnation is re-presented as Emmanuel once more “pitches His tent among us.”

Keep Christmas alive for the duration of the liturgical season. The Christmas season ends with the feast of the Lord’s Baptism (this year, January 10). So, keep up the tree and outdoor decorations until then; don’t stop singing those Christmas carols until then; and have all the Christmas parties you want then (be sure to have a really big splash for the Solemnity of the Epiphany on January 6). Undoubtedly, not a few friends or neighbors will ask you why you’re behaving in that way, which will give you an opportunity to catechize or evangelize on the meaning of the feast.

Some of you are probably asking yourselves why I would devote so much energy to this discussion. Well, let me confess that I really love Advent and Christmas. And, oh yes, transparency and full disclosure require me to admit that Christmas is my birthday, so there’s a bit of an ulterior motive. A much more pressing reason exists, though, and it is this: Trying to return our society to a Christian appreciation of Christmas may seem like trying to turn around a Mack truck on a single-lane highway, but it is do-able and worth trying to do because it can be the first sally in the much-needed effort to return our nation to its religious and Christian roots. Such an effort would gladden the Heart of the Christ-Child.

Speaking of the roll of the liturgical seasons, Cardinal Newman said this: “They are times when we may humbly expect a larger grace, because they invite us especially to the means of grace.” And specifically in regard to Advent, he notes: “This in particular is a time for purification of every kind.”


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 167 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

8 Comments

  1. I saw the first Christmas lights driving home on Halloween night. The following night my neighbor put up their Christmas tree.
    I understand people wanting to celebrate something towards the end of a dreadful year but Christmas lights on Halloween is just wrong.
    I follow the same tradition my daddy did and wait until Christmas eve to decorate my tree. I do put candles in the windows for Advent though.

  2. Some cultures have deeply celebrated Christmas while changing the traditional outlines well explained in this article. For example, the traditional German Advent is a celebrative anticipation of Christmas that begins on the first Sunday of Advent and culminates on Christmas Eve, when the Child is born and the tree is first erected and illuminated with candles. This is beautifully illustrated in their Advent calendars, beginning in the early 20th century, which culminate on the 24th with the largest window of all. Hispanics, by contrast, extend the Christmas season far in the other direction, all the way to Presentation-Candlemas in early February, when they bring the Christ Child to church to be blessed. Our family has always done both. We put up our (still Childless) crèche on the first Sunday of Advent and do not take it (now with the Child) down until Candlemas. There are many good ways to and from the Child.

  3. For over 20 years my husband and I have refused invitations to “Christmas parties” during Advent, from our friends and parish committees. It’s not easy swimming up stream. For the 12 days we continue to use the greeting Blessed Christmas. On the 6th of January there is a party at our home.

    • It IS difficult to swim upstream. I am regarded as an eccentric Scrooge when I refuse to celebrate Christmas during Advent—by avoiding parties and changing the channel when Christmas music plays in early December. I’ve had to explain to numerous people that “the twelve days of Christmas” does not mean the last twelve shopping days before Dec 25.

      The Catholic Church could be more helpful with this—as they used to be. I remember Christmas vacation in my parochial school extending to Jan 7, even if that fell in the middle of the week. Now there is a tendency to follow weekends, returning to school on Monday, wherever that falls after New Year. Sometimes
      Epiphany is moved off Jan 6 to the nearest Sunday. Thus one more bulwark against the routinization/secularization of time is withdrawn.
      Perhaps the Latin American “Dia De los Reyes” might help revive Epiphany, as it may seem more congenial to “the Woke”.

  4. Ain’t gonna happen in the United States. The secularization of Christmas is too entrenched. Capitalism demands that entrenchment. The economy depends on the long Christmas season, and in this country, for right or wrong, the needs of the economy take precedence.

    And by the way, do not construe this comment as an endorsement of either side of the issue. This is just an observation.

  5. It is most certainly hard to keep the religious aspect of Christmas in this commercial society. One tradition I had when my children were small is that I would count the number of pieces in my porcelain Nativity set, and then counted backwards from Christmas. Lets say 14 pieces in the set, from sheep and shepherds to wise men, to Mary and Joseph. Then, starting with the 14 days prior to Christmas, my sons took turns each day selecting a piece of the nativity to place in the manger. They watched it grow bigger and more complete day by day. The only rule was that Baby Jesus must be placed last, in order to keep the sense of anticipation. This was fun for them and enabled them to keep the religious aspect of the weeks prior to Christmas in their heads. We would also sign up for the Christmas “adopt a family” project at our parish,donating either the meal or gifts. I would ask my sons to “help” me shop for the items for the meal, selecting and placing the appropriate type items in the shopping cart. I would also open the Christmas cards we received from family and friends as we sat at the dinner table each night and passed them around so they could see who was sending us Christmas wishes. With children, hands on things are best.

  6. Along with the suggestions in the article, I provide advice on how to bring the secular and the sacred together. Some includes: reclaiming Saint Nicholas, Christmas music since Halloween? Have children state which songs (secular and sacred) are Advent or Christmas. I.e.: “Home for the Holidays” and “White Christmas” are Advent theme. Explaining the 12 Days and how you can use those days to celebrate fully with family and friends instead of cramming it all in one day. Usually the second year after I share this many adopted it (they planned well ahead) and they share it with others.

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