The stores are decorated, all of the Christmas fare has been out for purchase since shortly after Labor Day, trees are being snatched up at lots all over Atlanta, and lights will soon be going on, that is, in the homes that bothered to wait until after the Fourth of July to decorate.
In all seriousness, the Christmas blitz has begun. Two weeks ago, I started preaching about keeping Christmas simple and keeping the season of Advent intact. And in doing so, I have joined a chorus of voices from the Church that have exhorted the faithful to be on guard regarding the nearly blasphemous materialism that has so often shrouded the true meaning of Christmas.
Christmas, now more a material than spiritual event, is celebrated earlier and earlier each year. Not surprisingly, the rapid ascendency of the secular material Christmas has corresponded to the secularization of the faithful and the increasing assaults from both within and outside of the Church on her fundamental mission, which is to proclaim the saving message of Christ in the world. Unfortunately, these days Christ has less and less to do with Christmas.
But, I believe in Christmas. I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe that it is possible to salvage the true meaning of Christmas, though I think it will require some serious sacrifices. The purpose of this column is to assist you with some ideas on how to make Christmas truly special while keeping Advent intact. I recognize that our culture has progressed to an extraordinary level of false celebration that will be very difficult to overcome, so I am not expecting the complete and full reversal of the troubling remnants of the secular trends in Christmas; rather, I would like to make some suggestions that can help you and your families to make strong steps towards a deeply Christian and less material experience of Christmas.
First, some principles:
1) We assume that the most joyful Christmas ever celebrated was the one in Bethlehem when Jesus entered into the world. This Christmas was a notable mixture of poverty and splendor. Christ was born in a less than glorious place, but the entire magnificence of the heavenly host appeared to a poor shepherd in the middle of a field singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and indicating the coming of the savior.
2) To the extent that we can approach the fundamental truths present in that first Christmas, our personal experience of Christmas should approach the joy experienced by Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the angels. Those truths are simplicity, glory, family, and a fundamental orientation to the incarnation of Christ in our lives.
Keeping these principles in mind, if we can devise even small strategies designed to emphasize simplicity, glory, family and the personalization of the Incarnation in our lives, we should be able to help our own families to experience Christmas more deeply.
To this end, I recommend considering the following:
1) Decoration. For many families with strong family traditions, the expectation that Christmas decoration would be delayed until Christmas Eve is unattainable…at least not as a first step. To be clear: I think that is the ideal. But ideals are not always easy to attain. Many families keep the wonderful tradition of slowly filling the family Manger scene with figures on the Sundays of Advent. On the first Sunday, the stable or structure itself is put out. On the second Sunday, the animals can be put in the scene. On the third Sunday, the shepherds can be placed in the field, and other figures inserted. The fourth Sunday brings Mary and Joseph, and then Christmas brings the baby Jesus and the Angel proclaiming the “Gloria.”
But, I recommend something further: the central figure in secular Christmas decoration is the Christmas Tree. I recommend that you go ahead and decorate the whole house as you normally would, but don’t turn on any of the lights. Put up your tree, but don’t decorate it. If you like, place some purple and pink ribbons on the tree to indicate that we are still in Advent. Make the Nativity Scene the focus of the decorations.
On Christmas Eve, in the morning, decorate the tree with your family. But don’t turn on the lights yet. Only once the sun goes down (or, if you attend a Vigil Mass or Midnight Mass, after Mass) do you light up the tree and the house and place the Baby Jesus in the manger. Then keep your decorations up and lit until January 6, the Epiphany.
What will the neighbors say? They’ll think you’re crazy. And they will ask you what you’re doing. And then you’ll have the opportunity to explain what Christmas is really about. And they’ll still think you’re crazy. But hey: we’re Catholics. We can all be crazy together. What I can assure you is that if you do this, your family will experience a holier and happier Christmas than otherwise.
2) Gift Giving. You’ll notice that in the first Christmas, there was no gift-giving until the Epiphany. I am a big fan of waiting to give gifts until after Christmas…letting Christmas Day be about Jesus Christ, and then letting the gifts come later. However, I recognize the difficulty of this proposition.
But, what can you do? Keep one gift for each member of your family for Epiphany. Your tree is going to be lit for the next 12 days anyway…it might as well have gifts under it! Make the Epiphany gift the best one, and make sure that you discuss with your family the mystery of the Epiphany…the coming of the Wise Men and the fulfillment of the aspirations of all the world in the coming of Jesus as savior…before you give your gifts.
I promise you this: you and your family will stay in the Christmas spirit if there are gifts yet to come, and this small act will dramatically increase the religiosity of your Christmas season.
3) Parties. It’s probably too late for this year, but consider next year having your Christmas party after Christmas Day. First of all, everyone is available, as long as you don’t have it on the 26th, because then all of your friends will be busy taking down their decorations. Have your party on one of the days in the Octave of Christmas! Secondly, everything you offer at the party will be cheaper, because you can benefit from the after-Christmas sales!
4) Prayer. Ask yourself this question: do you spend as much time praying about the true meaning of Christmas as you spend decorating and shopping and preparing for the material aspect of the holiday? If not, it’s time to change. Consider taking your family to Mass every morning the kids are off from school during Christmas. The Mass readings are awesome…we literally celebrate Christmas for 8 days! Pray the Rosary with your family during Christmas…even if you never do it. Yes, the kids get restless. Maybe it doesn’t even seem like prayer. Jesus understands. Mary understands…she once had a little munchkin running around too.
5) Almsgiving. Consider setting aside ten percent of your Christmas budget to assist the poor. Will this make things tighter? Yes. But, if we accept that there has never been a more joyful Christmas than the first, we should discover that simplicity is something that makes us happy.
Also, ask your kids to choose something that they really love (and you do the same), and to offer that very thing to someone less fortunate than them, even if it is something they have just received for Christmas. This can be easily accomplished through the St. Vincent de Paul society. And do this on the Epiphany, which will truly help your family to understand the greatness of sacrificial giving.
Now if you’ve actually made it this far in the column, you think I’m crazy and out of touch and asking the impossible. But here’s the thing: I know families who do each of these things, and more. And they are the happiest families I know. They are the families that are not constantly stressed at Christmas.
We have to be honest, to look at our culture, and to ask ourselves whether what is going on is really something we want in our families? Then, we have to recognize that it is already in our families! This is not the work of prevention, but the work of correction. If we believe in our hearts that Jesus Christ actually has something to offer to this world, we should live as if we believe it, even to the point of making sacrifices.
Whether these suggestions are the right thing for you or not, I encourage you to consider them and to come to some resolutions about how best to celebrate the holiness of Christmas in your families. God Bless, and Happy Advent!