Catholic liturgies avoid Christmas decorations, carols in Advent

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemit

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — During the weeks before Christmas,
Catholic churches stand out for what they are missing.

stores, malls, public buildings and homes that start gearing up for Christmas
at least by Thanksgiving, churches appear almost stark save for Advent wreaths
and maybe some greenery or white lights.

chance for us to be a little out of sync or a little countercultural is not a
bad thing,” said Paulist Father Larry Rice, director of the University
Catholic Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

By the
same token, he is not about to completely avoid listening to Christmas music until
Dec. 24 either. The key is to experience that “being out of sync feeling
in a way that is helpful and teaches us something about our faith,” he told Catholic News Service.

find with the frenetic pace of the Christmas season it is calming to go into an
undecorated church and sing more somber hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
But that shouldn’t be the only draw, noted Jesuit Father Bruce Morrill, who is the
Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University
Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.

He said
the dissonance between how the church and society at large celebrate Christmas
is that the church celebration begins, not ends, Dec. 25. The shopping season
and Christian church calendar overlap, but don’t connect, he added.

And even
though Catholic churches — in liturgies at least — steer clear of Christmas
carols during Advent and keep their decorations to a minimum, Father Morrill
said he isn’t about to advise Catholic families to do the same.

hard to tell people what to do with their rituals and symbols,” he said, adding,
“that horse is out of the barn.”

remembers a family on the street in Maine where he grew up who didn’t put their
Christmas decorations up until Dec. 24 and didn’t take them down until Candlemas,
commemorating the presentation of Jesus in the temple, which is the 40th day of the Christmas season.

He is
pretty sure that family’s children or grandchildren aren’t keeping up that

Rice similarly doesn’t give families a lot of advice on when to do Christmas
decorating, but when he has been pressed on it, he said, he has advised families
to do it in stages — such as put up the tree and have simple decorations on it and
then add to this on Christmas Eve.

It’s a
joyful time, he said, which Catholics should tap into.

Advent is a little tricky in campus ministry, he noted, since the church’s
quiet, reflective period comes at the same time as students are frantic over
exams, papers and Christmas preparations.

year, the day before the start of Advent, he said students planned to gather to
decorate the Catholic center with purple altar cloths, pine garlands and some white

Father Morrill sees it, decorating churches with white lights or greenery almost
bridges the secular and religious celebrations of Christmas and that’s OK by
him. It beats using blue instead of purple for Advent wreaths or liturgical
vestments, which he was some parishes did in the ’80s, until church leaders
came down on it.

notes for Advent posted online by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops —
— points out that the liturgical color for Advent is purple, just like Lent —
as both are seasons that prepare us for great feast days.

It says
Advent “includes an element of penance in the sense of preparing, quieting
and disciplining our hearts for the full joy of Christmas. This penitential
dimension is expressed through the color purple, but also through the
restrained manner of decorating the church and altar.”

It also
points out that floral decorations should be “marked by a moderation”
as should the use of the organ and other musical instruments during Advent

The way
the church celebrates Advent is nothing new. Timothy Brunk, a Villanova
University associate professor in theology and religious studies, said it began in the fourth century in Europe but has never had the history or significance of Easter for the

But even
though Advent doesn’t have the penitential pull of Lent — where people give
something up for 40 days or do something extra — that doesn’t mean the season should
slip by without opportunities for spiritual growth.

Rice said it’s important for Catholics to engage in spiritual preparation for Christmas
even in the middle of all the other preparations.

advice: when you write a Christmas card, say a prayer for that person; while
shopping, try to go about it in slow and thoughtful way not frantically running
around and let someone take that parking space you were eyeing.

Those actions,
he said, are modern works of mercy on a simple and immediate level.

also don’t require batteries or store coupons.

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Zimmermann on Twitter:@carolmaczim.

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