Catholicism is a religious tradition that lives in a cycle of feasts and seasons. This cycle begins each year four Sundays before Christmas, with the season of Advent. These four or five weeks are a time of prayerful preparation, during which we contemplate the coming reign of God at the end of time, and the Incarnation of Christ which we’ll celebrate at Christmas.
At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. The difficulty is that our celebration of Advent is significantly out of step with the culture around us. I don’t know about where you live, by here in America’s heartland, the Christmas decorations were going up in our local stores before Halloween. All around us, it’s Christmas already for two solid months, while we’re trying to emphasize preparation and calm reflection on Christ’s incarnation. On December 26th, all trace of Christmas vanishes from the world around us, while the Church is celebrating a couple of weeks of the Christmas season.
So our liturgical seasons are seriously out of synch with the rest of our culture. Some people react to this tension by completely giving in, and ignoring Advent. Others steadfastly refuse to compromise, and struggle to hold back all traces of Christmas merry-making until December 24th.
My recommendation is to relax, take a deep breath, and work out a few compromises. One that I like in particular has to do with the whole issue of when to set up the Christmas tree. My plan is to set up the tree on the first Sunday of Advent, and decorate it entirely in Advent colors: purples and silver, maybe adding some pink on the third Sunday of Advent. Then on Christmas Eve, pack away the purple, and decorate the tree with the full rainbow of colors that Christmas deserves.
Advent has become a counter-cultural season for us, as the secular observance of Christmas has grown and emphasized commercial concerns. We may not be able to fight that commercial tide, but we can reclaim the weeks before Christmas as a time of prayer and preparation.