Christmas in October

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I hear the grumbling begin: “They’re selling Christmas trees in the stores and its not even Halloween!” But this is nothing new — this has been common practice for at least a decade. It just freshly offends some sensitivities when the leaves haven’t even turned and the Christmas decorations are already front and center. I suspect this is not going to stop in the years to come because apparently people buy Christmas decorations this early.

Personally I’m not offended. Yes, I too think it’s too early to be stocking the shelves with Christmas decorations. But since Christmas is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus who we believe is our Lord and Savior, a few months of thinking of how Jesus came to earth to help and heal, feed and forgive isn’t all that bad. At least that’s what I hope Christmas decorating is all about.

I have a bigger challenge for families than I have for merchants. Would you consider not rushing Christmas in your home? My sensibility about when to start celebrating Christmas (that would be Christmas eve) comes from my upbringing. My parents used the four weeks before Christmas to prepare for Christmas — cleaning the house, writing cards, baking cookies, buying or making presents, preparing decorations, etc. But though the cookies were baked and kept in tins in the unheated vestibule, we never ate them before Christmas. Though my dad put up the strings of lights on the house, we never turned them on before Christmas eve. The tree was bought, but stored on the back porch til just a couple of days before Christmas.

We lit candles on an Advent Wreath and opened the doors on our Advent Calendars during the four weeks leading to Christmas, but Christmas didn’t start til, well, Christmas. The way my mother explained it was while she was pregnant with my siblings, it was a time of preparation. And only when the baby was born was it time for family celebrations. So too, she said, we waited til the feast of the birthday of Jesus before we started celebrating. And then throughout the Christmas season we celebrated with many friends and relatives. The Christmas season traditionally runs from December 24th til January 6th or whenever the Feast of the Epiphany falls.

These days I think we do it backwards. Advent, the four week season of preparation for the feast of the birth of Christ is often considered to be “the Christmas Season,” though it isn’t. Many Christmas parties take place before Christmas. The tree is “done” by the day Christmas night comes. And we’ve had enough of it all. So my challenge is one of pacing the family, the office, the neighborhood. Discover the wisdom of waiting. If the dark days of December are filled with anticipation and longing, it will bring us to a new openness to our longing for God to be closer to us.

If, instead, we fill the days leading to Christmas with sugar and dazzling displays and eggnog and non-stop carols, we’ll have satiated ourselves so that the feasting itself will be our god. There’ll be little room for the God who showed up in humanity, not in the midst of bright lights and festive living, but in a poor stable in an out of the way place. That same God wants to come into the impoverished and dark places in our own lives. There is an amazing joy and peace when we encounter God in the holy darkness.

So if you’re taken aback by the current Christmas displays in stores, why not use that experience to consider pacing your own family’s Christmas in a different way this year? Try it. It might be your new favorite way of celebrating this holiday.

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Pastor of St. Bernard's since 2013 and known for his engaging homilies and community presence, Father Ralph Sommer is also a treasured columnist for the Levittown Tribune.

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