Overdoing the Christmas Decorations

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Overdoing the Christmas Decorations

ROME, 12 DEC. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: Are there any liturgical regulations requiring that all poinsettias be removed from the church immediately after the Christmas season ends, after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord? — H.D., Edmonton, Alberta

Q2: [In our parish] there are six Christmas trees on the altar: one about 20 feet tall in the rear left (from the congregation's perspective), covered with white lamps and white blossoms; two about 8 feet tall behind the crèche (which was set up in front of St. Joseph's altar, behind and to the right of the main altar), two smaller trees (about 4 feet tall) staggered on the altar steps to make an "approach" to the main altar from the congregation's left; and another 4-foot tree, lit with red (to symbolize the Gospel, we are told) and white lamps, positioned on a stand next to the ambo, so that it is equal in height to the ambo itself. The walls of the sanctuary are outlined in streams of greens, with a huge wreath in the center, about 25 feet from the floor, and all are woven with strings of white lamps. Poinsettias and red draperies abound. It is all very impressive and thoroughly overwhelms the altar, despite the gold brocade drapery with which it is covered. I would appreciate your thoughts on the propriety of these arrangements. — P.B., Marquette, Michigan

A: First of all, I would reiterate last year's comments (Nov. 29 and Dec. 13, 2005) on Christmas trees in the sanctuary.

I stated: "Christmas trees are preferably located outside the sanctuary and church proper, and are best left in vestibules or church grounds. This has been the practice in St. Peter's Square from the time of Pope John Paul II. ... Within the church proper, apart from the crib, Christmas may be evoked by using, for example, traditional poinsettias, holly and other traditional elements according to the culture."

And again: "I have no difficulty with Christmas trees, but ... I think that placing them in the sanctuary is not a common practice in the Church. It is not advisable because, as a ubiquitous symbol, it no longer has an exclusively religious meaning and can easily evoke the more material and commercial aspect of the holy season."

To this I would add No. 306 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which is one of the few norms respecting decoration of the sanctuary:

"Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar.

"During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions.

"Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa."

The sanctuary decoration described by our U.S. reader would not be an example of "moderation." The overall principle in play for any decorations is that they enhance the sacred places and actions and never overwhelm or obscure them.

One could ask, for example, why we need a special arrangement of lights to symbolize the Gospel only at Christmas. If such an arrangement were really necessary we would also need analogous flower arrangements for all liturgical seasons.

Very often, well-arranged poinsettias and other customary plants can set off the places in the sanctuary very well and set the tone for the season.

At Christmas and Easter there is no great difficulty in having a more liberal and prodigious display of flowers than is usual, but never so much as to distract attention away from the liturgical celebration's central foci of attention: the altar and ambo and the presidential chair.

Finally, in response to our Canadian reader, there is no norm that requires poinsettias to be removed after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. As they are fairly long-lasting plants they may remain for as long as they are worthy of the sanctuary.

Although customs vary from place to place it is not unusual to retain some Christmas decorations until the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2. The nativity scene in St. Peter's Square, for example, is usually not removed until Feb. 3. ZE06121221

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