When to Set Up Christmas Decorations

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When to Set Up Christmas Decorations

ROME, 29 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)

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

Q: What would you consider an appropriate time during Advent to put up Christmas trees, ornaments, lights and other decorations in churches and Christian homes? — B.O., Lewistown, Pennsylvania

A: This question is simple only in appearance because customs surrounding the celebration of Christmas vary widely among different cultures.

From a strictly liturgical standpoint the preparations for receiving the Christ Child intensify from Dec. 17 onward and this is probably a good time to set up the parish crib, except for the image of the child, which is often added just before Midnight Mass in more or less solemn fashion.

Other parishes prefer to set up the crib on Christmas Eve. There are no official rites regarding this widespread custom.

In those places that use the Advent wreath, it is placed on the first Sunday of Advent. The Book of Blessings issued by the U.S. bishops' conference contains a simple rite for blessing the Advent wreath which may profitably be used.

Dec. 17 or the nearest Sunday might also be a good date to set up Christmas trees and other decorations in Christian homes, but it really depends on local custom and tradition. It is unnecessary, however, to fall under the spell of commercial enterprises which tend to anticipate the Christmas season, sometimes even before Advent begins.

Because some Christmas decorations have often lost their original religious meaning, churches should be rather circumspect about employing them and should do so with great discretion. If used at all, these decorations are best set up on Christmas Eve so as to respect the integrity of the Advent season.

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.

As far as possible, decorations should be religiously themed, leaving plastic reindeer, sugar canes and Santa Clauses in the local shopping mall or at least within the confines of the parish hall for children's events.

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.

As I mentioned, different cultures celebrate Christmas in various ways.

In some countries, such as Venezuela, many people live the novena before Christmas by attending a special "Cockcrow" Mass celebrated at 5 a.m. each day.

In Mexico, during this same period, family and neighbors often take turns in hosting a "posada," a procession in which the group goes from house to house singing a traditional song in which St. Joseph and Mary request, and are refused, hospitality until finally they are festively welcomed at the last home, which has prepared snacks and traditional games for all. ZE05112920

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Follow-up: Christmas Decorations [12-13-2005]

Unsurprisingly, given the haziness or inexistence of norms on the subject, some readers dissented from our opinions regarding the appropriate arrangement of Christmas decorations (see Nov. 29).

One reader took umbrage with our opinion that Christmas tress (that is, trees decorated with tinsel, silver balls, etc.) should not be placed in the sanctuary. He writes: "Christmas trees were always in the sanctuary since I was a child. Our monsignor was a graduate of the Roman Seminary, [and] taught there, became our pastor, and had a good idea as to what was appropriate ... and not ...."

I have no difficulty with Christmas trees. But, with all due respect to the good monsignor, 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.

The recovery of this original religious sense inspired a priest from New South Wales, Australia, to comment:

"Christmas decorations often have a local history and need explanation so that their meaning can be universalized and not just seen as something nice [and belonging] to the secular culture surrounding Christmas.

"Once the Christmas tree had been introduced to Europe sometime in the 16th century, decorations were made of bread dough, to symbolize Jesus Bread of Life. Shepherds' crooks — the forerunner to the candy cane — [and] candles — the forerunner to tree lights and stars — were made and then handed out to children on the feast of Christmas.

"Today, in our parish, I get the children to make biscuit dough decorations and ice them. They are then given out to parishioners the last Sunday of Advent. On that occasion we also bless the families' crib figures and other home decorations."

I am happy to pass along these useful pastoral suggestions hoping that they may help many readers live this Christmas with true spiritual depth. ZE05121321

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