Celebrating before Dec. 25? Bah humbug!
Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service
December 20, 2010

Celebrating before Dec. 25? Bah humbug!

Celebrating before Dec. 25? Bah humbug!
Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service
December 20, 2010

It’s beginning to look a lot

like Christmas — earlier and earlier every year. The evergreens at Rockefeller

Center and the White House were decorated in November, radio stations started

playing carols after Halloween, and stores have been promoting Christmas sales

for months.

But at Nick Senger’s house

in Washington state, the carols and blinking lights are not welcome until well

after Thanksgiving. Instead, family traditions include setting the table with

purple placemats and an Advent wreath, and waiting until Dec. 25 to complete

their Nativity display.

“When the kids wake up on

Christmas morning, they always look to make sure Santa has brought baby Jesus,”

Senger joked.

Call it the “Battle for

Advent” — one that, for a few weeks at least, makes traditional Christians

unlikely allies with atheists, secularists and non-Christians in the so-called “War

on Christmas.”

Advent advocates — boosted

this year by a pastoral letter from the Roman Catholic bishop of Utah and a

homily by a media savvy Brooklyn deacon — complain not only about holiday

commercialization, but also about the loss of an important month of prayer in

the rush to prematurely celebrate Christmas.

“Obviously, certain things

have to be done before the end of Advent, but it is realistic to expect that

Americans will want to celebrate both Advent and the season of Christmas,”

Bishop John Wester of Utah explained through a spokesperson. “These are two

different seasons: Advent to prepare for the coming of Christ and Christmas to

celebrate his coming.”

Karen Westerfield Tucker, a

Boston University School of Theology professor, said her Methodist family

always waited until Christmas Eve to decorate its tree, keeping it up for 12

days until Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Advent season, in contrast,

is a time

for Christians to patiently

prepare for the coming of Christ and his baptism, she said.

“It was a time for

repentance and solemn reflection, and certainly not an occasion for festive

preparation,” Tucker said. “In current practice, we’ve got the celebrations

backwards — before the events rather than afterwards.”

RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

The Christmas tree at New York’s Rockefeller Center goes up in late November, but some Advent purists shun all Christmas decorations and celebrations until Dec. 25.

Part of the problem stems from

the Depression-era decision to move Thanksgiving up a week, getting the holiday

shopping season — heralded by Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving

Day parade — started even earlier, said Martin Connell, author of Eternity

Today: On the Liturgical Year.

“I was raised Catholic and

there would be not one decoration in the house on Christmas Eve,” he said. “It

was a way to make Christmas more celebratory, so that the wonder of Jesus’

birth was connected to the sparkling lights and all that.”

Advent advocates say they

understand that merchants depend on the holiday hype to get them through the

end of the year, particularly during an economic downturn; they also

acknowledge that ceremonial Christmas tree lightings have become beloved events

eagerly awaited as soon as the turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie are

polished off.

Even devout Catholics get

into the swing of the season a bit early: The U.S. headquarters of Opus Dei in

New York City has a Christmas tree in its lobby, and the Vatican’s tree in St.

Peter’s Square is lit in mid-December.

But churches, religious

groups and families could benefit by slowing down and savoring the weeks

leading up to Christmas as a unique and special season, Advent advocates say.

They can deck their halls with

purple decorations, Advent calendars, Jesse trees — which show the biblical

lineage of Jesus — and Advent wreaths featuring one candle for each of the four

Sundays before Christmas. That’s three purple candles as signs of penance and

one rose candle for joy. And there are dozens of Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come

Emmanuel” to sing before it’s time for “Joy to the World.”

Observing Advent patiently

would help relieve the stress that has become synonymous with the Christmas

season, added Deacon Greg Kandra of Brooklyn, who writes a blog for Beliefnet

called “The Deacon’s Bench.”

Busy people want to get

their Christmas cards out, decorations up and shopping in, and Kandra doubts

that “you can put the genie back in the bottle.” But a compromise would be to

postpone these kinds of actions until at least mid-December, if not Christmas

Eve, and consider having holiday parties in early January, he said.

Senger, a Catholic school

teacher, has started polling people on his blog, “Catholic School Chronicle,”

about steps they might take to “enter more fully into Advent.” So far, most

respondents say they feel comfortable putting up Advent decorations and

delaying Christmas displays, but the avoiding Christmas carols and parties

before Dec. 25 remain unpopular.

“People are interested in

things that don’t interfere with traditions they already have,” he said. “I

wouldn’t expect society to change, although society would benefit from

Catholics who are more attuned to the Advent season and not so caught up in the

buying and the


His family gradually begins

putting up some Christmas decorations around mid-December, but Senger has

decided to keep the radio dial away from Christmas stations until Dec. 24 this

year. The children love the Advent traditions, but postponing carols has been

surprisingly difficult, he noted.

“I think when we can finally sing them, they will

really appreciate them,” Senger said.

“All this is to commemorate the waiting

that the Israelites went through and to look ahead, that we’re really waiting

for some unknown point in time when Christ will come again.”