Don’t Get Your Christmas Tree This Weekend!

Why would you put up a Christmas tree in Ordinary Time?

Thanksgiving is, for most Americans, a long weekend. Almost all children get out of school on Wednesday and don’t return until Monday. Most institutions other than stores and commercial enterprises all take the long weekend. At some point Thanksgiving became something of a segue into the “Christmas season” and — with Thanksgiving’s growing commercialization (“Black Friday” starting ever earlier; “Small Business Saturday”; “Shop Sunday”; “Cyber Monday”; a charitable nod on “Giving Tuesday”; etc.) — its opening volley.

One phenomenon I’ve noticed in the seven years I’ve lived in the Washington, D.C., area is it’s also “get-your-Christmas-tree weekend.”

I guarantee that, if you drive along any of the major roads in the “DMV” (the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, you will be surprised at the numbers of cars with Christmas trees tied to their roofs. Conversely, if you try to go out and buy a Christmas tree the weekend before Christmas, you’ll have to strain. Lots of the “cut your own tree” farms will be “closed for the season” and many of the trees on lots will rightly look dried up — they’ve stood around a month.

So, as we enter Thanksgiving Weekend 2023, I ask readers: Please don’t buy your Christmas tree yet!

Why?

For one thing, Thanksgiving this year is about as early as it can be. A full month stands between the Saturday after Thanksgiving and Christmas. The fall foliage isn’t even finished here in the DMV; if you locals need something to do, take a drive in the Blue Ridge and look at real trees still changing color.

For another, Advent this year is the shortest it can possibly be: 22 days. The Fourth “Week” of Advent is actually just one day long: the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Unlike most years, when the Sunday after Thanksgiving is also the First Sunday of Advent, this year it’s not. It’s the Solemnity of Christ the King, followed by the 34th Week of Ordinary Time.

Which is why I don’t want you to buy that Christmas tree yet. Because our civil customs and our liturgical calendar are increasingly schizophrenic. Why would you put up a Christmas tree in Ordinary Time? We haven’t even started Advent! And that’s telling, because our acceleration of the “Christmas season” warps Advent. Advent ceases to be a distinct time, a time of preparation, of making ready for Christmas. Instead, it becomes a miniature “Christmas,” an extension of the “holiday season” that obliterates the significance of December 25 as the birth of Christ.

Indeed, accelerating “Christmas” flips the season on its head. With no real Advent, rather than being the beginning of Christmastide, in many ways December 25 turns into its end. That many of those same Christmas trees riding down I-66 on the Saturday after Thanksgiving will find themselves at curbsides on December 26 or 27 points to that inversion of time.

Human experience tells us that getting ready for something is usually half the fun. Getting ready for that “big date” is sometimes as important as the date itself. The nine months of pregnancy are a time of growing anticipation. The unifying motif in both instances is preparation. Getting ready for childbirth is not childbirth: we even call it “expecting.” These experiences make us want to anticipate what is coming, but they also teach us patience. It is a good thing to wait.

Premature Christmas decoration spoils that. It is not preparation. It is not making ready — certainly not in terms of the things that really matter, i.e., for receiving Jesus at Christmas. It simply pretends to extend Christmas, which, hiding its identity, masquerades as a drawn-out “holiday season.” Preparation — the preparatory season of Advent — doesn’t even get short shrift. It gets omitted, bypassed.

And, as I observed, it affects the backside of Christmas. While the Church celebrates “Christmastide” through January 8, 2024, the civil celebration of Christmas peters out much earlier. For most Americans, New Year’s Eve closes the “holiday season.” Most will be back at work or school January 2. The Church in the United States bizarrely abets this phenomenon by canonical monkey-business with the liturgical calendar. The bishops destroyed the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and the special significance of Epiphany by detaching it from January 6 and transferring it to a Sunday. (Don’t tell me that this should not affect the “theology” of Epiphany. For most American Catholics, it’s “just another Sunday.”) This year, because of moveable feasts, Catholics in the United States will mark Epiphany on Sunday, January 7, but the bishops’ transferring Epiphany to the Sunday nearest January 1 also means there are years when Epiphany can fall on January 2, truncating Christmastime. Another senseless canonical manipulation is apparent this year: January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and New Year’s Day, will not be a holyday of obligation because of the bishops’ “Saturday-or-Monday-holyday-waiver” rule. So, a non-workday that marks the start of the civil year, which might best be started in church, forfeits its obligatory character (and, from my experience, there will be those pastors who also trim back the Mass schedule).

Our family has long tried to keep the Christmas tree up until Candlemas, i.e., the “Presentation of the Lord” on February 2, 40 days after Christmas. While more a custom than completely grounded even in the older liturgical calendar (though the existence of “Sundays after Epiphany” maintained a clearer nexus to Christmas than “Ordinary Time”), it does prolong the Christmas celebration. Not only that, it lets Advent be Advent. How so?

In most years, Ash Wednesday usually comes sometime in February, i.e., relatively close in the year’s shortest month to Candlemas. (In the old liturgical calendar, the transition was also marked liturgically by shifting from “Sundays after Epiphany” to the “Septuagesima” season, as contrasted to today’s “cold turkey” transition from Ordinary Time to Lent). But between Christmas and, finally, the start of Lent, there was also the “Carnival” season (whose fumes we find in what we call “Mardi Gras”). Carnival was a time for parties, music, and dance. It was valued because (a) Advent was not a time for parties, music, and dance but spiritual preparation for Christmas; (b) in the “dead of winter,” when the usual rhythm of work (especially in agricultural societies) had given way, it was a time for relaxing; and (c) it was also a time to enjoy what had been stored up under the Harvest and Hunter’s Moons (see here) before sweeping out the old yeast (and meat, eggs, and cheese) ahead of Lent.

Celebration becomes more celebratory when it is prepared for. Bookending Christmas and Carnival with Advent and Lent assures there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:1). Each time complements, each enriches the other. But when Advent turns into a front-loaded Christmas that then loses its back end, it’s not surprising that a jaded generation that never learned to prepare to celebrate asks “is that all there is?”

In Poland, Christmas trees are usually obtained and decorated on Christmas Eve or close to it. That way, the atmosphere of a house in December remains an Advent atmosphere (with a break for the kids on St. Nicholas Day, December 6). Christmas starts on Christmas Eve (and not even fully, because the Christmas Eve Wigilia supper is meatless, linking it to penitential Advent. Christmas really starts with Midnight Mass, Pasterka). But Christmas continues, at least through Three Kings, often through Candlemas, certainly through a good part of Karnawał.

This year, why not let your Advent be Advent and your Christmastide Christmastide? It’s not going to be a clean break: The larger society will schedule its “Christmas parties” before Christmas. But why not let your Christmas extend after Christmas, after the rest of the neighborhoods’ colored lights have gone dark?

That means don’t get your Christmas tree on Thanksgiving weekend! Besides, if you do, it ain’t gonna last till Candlemas.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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