You would think that stores and merchandisers would consult the Church’s liturgical calendar about when to celebrate Christmas, but apparently they don’t, because most start displaying Christmas decorations sometime in mid-autumn and begin taking them down December 26. By January 2, most stores and other public places are as bereft of anything Christmassy as Whoville after the Grinch passed through. So, for this bucket list challenge, the next time you spot a store putting up a Christmas tree in, say, September, whip out your handy pocket edition of the Church’s liturgical calendar and politely show the manager that, in North America anyway, Christmas doesn’t begin until after sunset on December 24, and lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is the Sunday after Epiphany (in other words, sometime in mid-January)—unless you live in a culture that celebrates Christmas until the Feast of the Presentation, which is in early February. You can console the manager by pointing out that while Christmas in September is a major liturgical faux pas, it is never too early to begin breaking out those Advent decorations!
No, no—just kidding. But while you may not be able to persuade your local retail outlets toward liturgically correct merchandising, you can adopt some practices to celebrate the Christmas season more meaningfully yourself.
First off, you can observe Advent. Here’s your three-paragraph crash course in Adventology:
The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means a coming, approach, or arrival. In the Church, it refers to the period encompassing the four Sundays prior to Christmas. It is a time of penance, of turning away from sin and hopeful, joyous preparation for the coming of the Savior.
Stop and read that last line again, especially the bit about preparing for the coming of the Savior. This is what makes Advent special for Christians: the recognition that Christmas is not just “the birthday of Jesus,” but a celebration of his coming into our world today, here and now. How does he come into the world today? Jesus is “born”—becomes physically tangible—through the celebration of the sacraments. It is by eating the Eucharist, washing in the waters of Baptism, being anointed with the oil of Confirmation and so on, that Jesus’ friends become part of the living Body of Christ (the Church) in the world today. For Catholics, then, every celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments is like a little Christmas.
During Advent, Christians prepare for this here-and-now coming of Christ by remembering the long years during which Israel waited for the coming of the Messiah, and by looking forward to the final coming of Christ at the end of time. (You will hear both themes reflected in the Church’s readings during Advent.)
Here are some practical ways that you can observe Advent and celebrate Christmas; try as many as you can for more points:
- Get an Advent wreath. If your family doesn’t have an Advent wreath, get one or make one, and then light the appropriate candles and have a little Advent prayer service at least once a week during Advent. Your parish will likely provide free Advent materials you can use for the prayer service, or you can find materials online.
- Learn all 25 verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by heart. This ancient Advent hymn doesn’t actually have 25 verses, but there are a lot of them. Because the song is so old, you may need to research the lyrics to figure out what they mean, but they draw heavily on Scriptural imagery anticipating the coming of Emmanuel (a Greek word meaning “God is with us” and a title of Christ). Or, memorize the words to another Advent hymn (you can find a wide selection in the Advent section of your church’s hymnal). You can sing these during your Advent prayer time, or while shopping for presents (be prepared for strange looks).
- Wait to put up Christmas decorations. Some families do not put up their Christmas tree until a day or two before Christmas. Others put it up after Thanksgiving, but refrain from decorating it until Christmas Eve. Another option is to add a string of lights each Sunday of Advent (to mirror the lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath). If your family objects, try keeping your own space (your room, your locker) as free from Christmas decorations as possible. As with the practice of fasting, the idea here is to “make room” for Christ.
- Make a Jesse tree. Another Christmas-tree alternative during Advent is to make a Jesse tree, which is a tree decorated with ornaments based on symbols of Old Testament events preparing for the coming of Christ. It might include an ark or rainbow to depict Noah and the flood, for instance, and a ladder to represent Jacob’s ladder. Different people use different symbols; you can find suggestions online by searching for “Jesse tree.”
- Use a religious Advent calendar. An Advent calendar, as the name implies, marks off the days of Advent. Some elaborate Advent calendars have a door to be opened for each day, with candy or a prize behind each door. If you want to observe the spirit of Advent, though, look for a more spiritually focused Advent calendar. The U.S. Catholic bishops provide such a calendar on their website (usccb.org), with activity suggestions for each day.
- Pray the O Antiphons. The O Antiphons are sung or recited during the last seven days of Advent (from December 17 through December 23) as part of the Liturgy of Hours. Each hymn begins with the interjection “O” followed by a title for Christ, e.g., O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of Nations, O God-with-Us. You can find the O Antiphons online.
- Make up an Advent list. When you make up your Christmas list, make up your Advent list as well—a list of items that you would like donated to a charity in your name. Include one item on your Advent list for every item on your Christmas list.
- Celebrate all the days of Christmas. If you managed to hold back from going all-out celebrating the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord (which is the official Church name for Christmas) until December 24, then by all means, be sure to celebrate Christmas with gusto until it is actually over. Leave up your Christmas decorations. Wear a “Santa” hat to school every day. Sing Christmas carols after January 1 in stores . . . but not too loudly, to avoid being strangled by holiday-music-saturated store clerks.
Points: 25 per challenge from this list
It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you. —Mother Teresa of Calcutta