In 21st century America, Christmas candy and decorations often appear in stores immediately after Halloween, Christmas tunes come on the radio in mid-November, and Christmas trees are meticulously decorated before Thanksgiving. For Catholics, however, Christmas is still on the horizon, and Advent—the time of preparing for Christmas—has just begun.
The Christmas season as observed by the Church this year begins with a vigil Mass on Christmas Eve, and lasts until the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 11, 2015. Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (this year Nov. 30) and lasts until Christmas Eve, isn’t considered part of the Christmas season but rather as a time to prepare hearts and minds for the coming of Christ.
Swept up in the bustle and commercialism of the holidays, it can be easy to forget the true meaning of Advent, a time whose purpose goes beyond lighting four purple candles on the Advent wreath or marking off days on the Advent calendar. Rather than diving right in to the holiday merriment, Catholics stress the importance of building up the excitement in anticipation of the coming of Christ. This preparation for Christmas mirrors the waiting period that Joseph and Mary experienced while waiting for the birth of Jesus, and Catholics also use this period to anticipate fully welcoming Jesus into their lives.
During Advent, Lesa Truxaw, Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Orange, makes an effort to spend more time in prayer and clear her social calendar—not an easy task during the rush of the holidays. She also attends penance services, which she says are “a wonderful way of preparing for the gift of Jesus and remembering that with Christ’s help, we can be better and start afresh.”
Truxaw acknowledges that it can be difficult not to get co-opted into the modern cultural context of Christmas, but says that Catholics can remain faithful to the message of Advent with prayer, penance and acts of service. “It’s that preparation, that waiting part that I think is a real challenge to keep in focus. When we do, then the celebration of Christmas can be that much richer because there is a contrast,” she says.
While it’s impractical to leave the holiday decorating until the start of the true Christmas season, Truxaw suggests that Catholics mark the passage of time by holding off on some habits. For example: put up decorations but don’t turn on the Christmas lights until Christmas Eve, Christmas trees can be blessed in homes. Families also can engage children in the excitement of the anticipation by waiting to put up certain decorations, such as presents under the Christmas tree or poinsettias on the porch, until Christmas Eve. In nativity scenes, the baby Jesus commonly is not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve, and the three wise men don’t appear until the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day or Little Christmas.
Once the Christmas season begins, many often celebrate by attending Mass more frequently, giving small gifts each day until the Epiphany, and celebrating with holiday foods. It’s important, and countercultural, to celebrate the Christmas season in its entirety. Rather than getting caught up in the holiday craze before Christmas season starts or abandoning the holiday spirit the day after Christmas, revel in the joy and festivities during the period until the Baptism of the Lord (celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany, this year on Jan. 11).
Not all Catholic celebrations look alike, but the themes of prayer, family (related or church family), and service persist. Some Catholics choose a few Christmas cards from family and friends each day and pray for the senders, or celebrate with festive songs such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which includes symbolic Christian lyrics. Nearly everyone decorates a Christmas tree, which symbolizes Jesus and the family: the evergreen needles are a reminder of Christ’s constant presence, the lights represent the light of Christ, and the ornaments are linked to treasured memories.
“[There’s] this pressure to buy and consume when in fact the message of the season is for peace and for love,” says Truxaw. “Of course Christ is a gift to us and we recognize that, but there’s been such a cultural expectation on what the perfect holiday is—it’s this gorgeously set table and an abundance of food and gifts—when in fact what we’re celebrating is a migrant family that had no place to live, but yet found love and a way of existing, that offers life and love to all of us.”