It’s not Christmas yet!

A Pray Tell reader writes:

Christmas music on Minnesota Public Radio used to come in on little cat’s feet after Gaudete Sunday and swell to Christmas Eve.  I noticed when I returned from Thanksgiving that we were already getting a full blast of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” etc.  Here’s their quick, helpful reply to my inquiry:

Thank you for contacting Minnesota Public Radio. Every year, we provide holiday music on Classical Minnesota Public Radio. We’ve expanded our holiday music this year because over the past years, listeners have asked us to do this. Your feedback will help us to decide what we do next year.  If you are looking for classical music with a lighter holiday touch, listen to our classical 24 stream which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Go to www.classicalmpr.org to listen.

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Catholic News Service reports that Bishop Wester in Salt Lake City is urging his flock to hold off on celebrating Christmas until December 24. Catholics shouldn’t have early parties in their homes or churches, light up their trees or decorate their schools with more than simple wreaths and boughs of green. Read his entire pastoral letter here.

20 comments

  1. +JMJ+

    Fr. Anthony / Editors, this is a tangential topic (Bishop Wester mentions it in his letter briefly), but I would be interested in hearing the Pray Tell community’s responses:

    What is the history of Advent’s penitential character? To what degree is it penitential, and should it be?

    I’d love to hear from all the faith traditions (and perspectives thereof) represented here.

    I’ve seen references (both before and after Vatican II) to a certain penitential character (cf. Mediator Dei 154; Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy 96), but I have no idea what sorts of disciplines (fasting, abstinence, etc.) were/are practiced by Christians.

    I recognize there is a difference between a penitential character and a character of expectation (restrained joy): the norms — in writing, at least… — on liturgical music during Advent do not seem to me to be about penitence so much as about not jumping the gun.

  2. Jeffrey, I saw where Bp Wester said

    You will notice that this is not a penitential season .

    Did he imply that it was? I know you’ve raised the general question, not asserted that Advent should be penitential or that Bp Wester said that it was.

    A few years ago my son spent part of Advent with a very pious French family who largely abstained from meat until Christmas Day; Sundays were an exception. I don’t think this is a widespread practice, though.

    1. +JMJ+

      No, he didn’t imply that it is penitential, but he mentions specifically that it is not. But I’ve read things that imply Advent does have a penitential character, even if that isn’t the main character of the season.

  3. From the words of John the Baptist himself, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (a man of the dessert, no less). It would seem to me hard to argue that the season of Advent didn’t have some penitential nature, especially these first two weeks (and perhaps including the last few weeks of the church year that still have the vestiges of a longer season of Advent).

    I’ve always struggled with this season personally, first as a child when Advent was simply a series of speed bumps until Christmas, and now as an adult, a church musician, when the business of the season is totally out of hand.

    But then came last year… my wife and I were expecting our first child, due mid-late December. We gave up a lot of the trappings of December, and thanks to the kindness of coworkers and friends, many of our professional obligations were substantially eased. So, basically, we were just waiting, with great anticipation, preparing, taking stock of things, more isolated than normal that time of year. It was a great spiritual blessing for me, as I had never really experienced Advent before. We received our Christmas gift a little early (Dec. 18, sorry Bishop Wester, it was out of our control).

    Unfortunately, it’s typically crazy again this year, but we’re working a bit harder to keep things more under control, and because of our experience last year, I feel like I have a much better grasp on these weeks of hopeful preparation.

    1. The documents, texts, music, decor – all fairly well outlined for us. There is a certain penitential aspect to Advent, but by no means to the degree of Lent.

  4. I don’t know the exact details, but I do believe that parts of the medieval church celebrated something called “St. Martin’s Lent” as a time of fasting and preparation for the Feast of the Nativity. I’m not sure at what point the time was cut back to 4 weeks.

    The Eastern Rites / Churches also have what they call the Nativity Fast (or St. Philip’s Fast, as it starts after the Feast of St. Philip on Nov 14). I believe that this fast is from both oil and meat on at least Mon/Wed/Friday, with Sundays remaining Feast days.

    Perhaps one of our Liturgical historians could chime in?

  5. This little blurb is in the LTP Advent Sourcebook…

    NOBODY knows exactly how Advent started, but the custom is very ancient. In his History of the Franks, St. Gregory of Tours wrote that one of his predecessors, St. Perpetuus, who held the see around 480, decreed a fast three times a week from the feast of St. Martin, November 11, until Christmas. In 567, the Second Council of Tours en-joined monks to fast from the beginning of December until Christmas. This penance was soon extended to the laity and was pushed back to begin on St. Martin’s Day. This 45-day Advent was nicknamed “St. Martin’s Lent.” From France the practice of doing penance during Advent spread to England as is noted in Venerable Bede’s history.
    –Hubert Dunphy

  6. Advent is definitely not a penitential season.

    “We wait in joyful hope…”

    There is an Alleluia right the way through Advent, even though no Gloria.

    Up to the 10th century, the liturgical colour for Advent was white, not violet.

    The problem for us is that is has become perceived as a parallel season to Lent, which was a time of purification for the elect (and all of us) in preparation for Easter. Advent, however, is a season of eager expectation and anticipation of the feast of the Incarnation.

    I repeat, Advent is definitely not a penitential season.

    1. +JMJ+

      What is the source of the “We wait in joyful hope…” quote? (It could be the embolism after the Our Father or some other source; I’d like to know which you have in mind.)

      1. It’s the embolism, which is a timely reminder that we should view the coming of Christ as something to be welcomed, not something to be feared. Maranatha rather than Domine, non sum dignus ut venies, whatever Jeff Rice (below) says.

        I’m interested that no one has commented on the Alleluia and the historical liturgical colour points I made two days — perhaps because there is actually no answer to them.

      2. +JMJ+

        Okay, the reason I asked is because the current English translation of the embolism (“as we wait with joyful hope the coming of our Savior”) is a mistranslation of the Latin, which alludes to Titus 2:13.

        Líbera nos, quaesumus, Dómine,
        ab ómnibus malis,
        da propítius pacem in diébus nostris,
        ut, ope misericórdiae tuae adiúti,
        et a peccáto simus semper líberi
        et ab omni perturbatióne secúri:
        exspectántes beátam spem et advéntum
        Salvatóris nostri Iesu Christi
        .

        “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:11-14)

        I’m not saying that we don’t wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, but that’s not what the prayer says. It says that we await the blessed hope and coming of our Savior.

    2. You can wait in joyful hope if you like… But if you don’t mind, while we wait, I’d like to heed the wisdom of Isaiah and John the Baptist (via Matthew), look inward a bit, and focus on reconciling with God and neighbor.

  7. Happy to see that the bishop referenced Martin Connell of SJU and his book Eternity Today (Volume 1). The book alerted me to the advent homilies of St. Bernard who argues for a three-fold presence of Christ during the season: Past, present and future.

    We’ve done a pretty good job of focusing Advent on Christ’s first and final coming, but many parishes have also done a pretty good job of intentionally absenting Christ from Advent. (So much for the CSL’s four-fold presence of Christ.) We seem to delight in a peculiar “fasting” from Christ during Advent, so that when he appears during Christmas he will be all the sweeter. Sounds like the way we treat chocolate during Lent and Easter. And God forbid we sing anything remotely incarnational during the season, as we love to pretend that Christ is not here yet. (See Alan Hommerding’s article in The Hymn many years ago entitled “Incomplete Incarnation”.) In addition to putting Christ back in Christmas (like the bumper sticker says), let’s put Christ back in Advent. Not suggesting we sing Christmas carols during the season, but let’s stop cultivating the Advent-notion that Christ was/is a “once and future King” who is nowhere to be found right now. This seems to be at the core of our present day penchant to treat Advent as a penitential season: by “abstaining from him” for a few weeks, his coming will be more dear to us.

  8. With the greater prominence of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the coming years, I hope we will increasingly celebrate Advent as the pregnant Mary.

    The Annunciation has been given great prominence in the Byzantine Rite because the Incarnation begins with Mary’s yes. They can carry that off on March 25 because the Byzantine Rite keeps everything together better (Incarnation, Passion, Death, Resurrection, Pentecost) whereas the Roman Rite tends to focus on one thing at a time.

    The Western tradition in some places in the past (perhaps Milan still does) celebrated the Annunciation sometime during the last few weeks of Advent.

    The pregnant Mary has many wonderful possibilities, e.g. as Christ already present in the world, in the church, in our own lives in deeply hidden ways that can only be seen indirectly through the life of another person.

    The local Orthodox Church includes the unborn members of the parish (e.g. the unborn child of Tom and Mary) among its regular petitions.

  9. Does anyone know why the “Blessing and Lighting of a Christmas Tree” formerly listed as to be done on or about December 15 in the old edition of “Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers” has simply become, in the new edition, “Blessing of a Christmas Tree” and now says that “according to custom, the Christmas tree is set up just before Christmas… “? Second question – does ANYONE besides the occasional liturgical purist or bishop expect that real people will observe this in their homes? I thought the December 15th date was far more realistic for an item that is in the home, after all, and not in the church.

    1. I certainly grew up with the Christmas tree being brought by Santa Claus. Yep. German-American. Parents waited until the small children went to bed and then put all the tree (older children past the age of believing in Santa helped with this task), creche and gifts up; parents got to bed at 4AM, napped for 2 hrs and roused the youngest at 6AM and then the older children in reverse chronological order.

      I now put up the tree for my (86 year old parents) on Christmas Eve. In the morning.

      But it’s a lovely tradition. One I particularly commend to people with few monetary resources for gifts for their children: the visual impact of allthat waiting being satisfied on Christmas morning makes up considerably for relatively little loot. It helps to have some food on Christmas morning that is never had on any other morning of the year (in our family, it was, believe it or not, bacon).

      Oh, and the tree stays up well past New Years. Good Germanic folks kept greens up for up to the 40 days of Christmas (I knew a couple of German-American families in the ‘hood that indeed kept things up to 2/2; my family waited until after the middle of January – still, it’s a lot nicer to have a tree up in the middle of January than in the middle of December).

    2. In my parents’ home the tree went up a couple of days before Christmas. They waited as late as possible before putting it up because of it drying and shedding over the following weeks, and, naturally, it had to stay up until the end of the Christmas season!

      In my and my siblings’ families, we put up decorations as a way to start the Christmas vacation: since school is not out before the 22nd or 23rd, that’s when that happens.

      But even if the rest of the creche comes out before Christmas, little baby Jesus never appears before Christmas day. I am used to looking at all the characters around the manger, staring at an empty manger for a few days.

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