It was usually the last Sunday of Advent, and sometimes even Christmas Eve, that my parents would put up the tree. The familiar crackling sound of the antique record player and Andy Williams crooning Sleigh Ride in the background always filled me with that warm Christmassy feeling. My father was a liturgical musician, and the one thing he was strict about was not listening to or singing Christmas music in the home or even decorating until it was nearly Christmas.
So, we embraced the Advent traditions of the Advent wreath and Jesse Tree. My mother always put up an outdoor Advent wreath complete with pink and purple bows, which got switched to red on Christmas Eve. Some well-meaning neighbor would always stop by the first week of Advent and let her know that three of her candles were burnt out.
When I became an adult I found my Advent Purist leanings turning me into the Advent Grinch or perhaps Scrooge. I would grumble to myself about the music in the stores, the trees in people’s windows and being greeted with “Merry Christmas!” in early December. When Christmas finally did arrive, I found that my heart was in such a habit of being grumpy that I could not be joyful.
Then one year it dawned on me: For most people the Christmas tree, Christmas lights, the music, the parties, the cookies, etc., are actually Advent activities. They call them Christmas decorations, but when they come down right after Christmas Day, they actually are Advent decorations. If they were really for Christmas, then they would stay up for the whole of the Christmas season. And realizing this changed my whole outlook.
I no longer get annoyed when I see Christmas décor in stores in September or hear Christmas music in November. I just remember that the world is getting ready for a baby, the baby, coming in December. Whether, they realize it or not, that is still what Christmas is about. If this is how they want to do Advent, then it is not going to get me upset.
Others will put up their tree, start their holiday “cheer,” play their music and put up all their decorations. This is how they get ready for Christmas. This is their Advent. My Advent looks a little bit different, and my Christmas (which I celebrate until Candlemas on Feb. 2) looks a lot like their Advent. I do feel a little sad still when trees are taken down right away, for people are missing out on a whole month of Christmas celebrating!
I have also noticed that a lot of secular Christmas music (songs not directly about the Christ child) are Advent songs. The songs talk about how Christmas has not happened yet, what they dream of for Christmas, wanting a White Christmas, shopping for Christmas, and so on. They do not really make sense to listen to after Christmas Day, so one should probably stop listening to those on Dec. 24. I am not going to insist upon though, for that would make me a Christmas Purist and then be cranky all Christmas season.
I am, however, excited to note that a lot of the music qualifies as “Winter Music,” which means I can sing Jingle Bells for six months in Minnesota where we have snow from November through April.
These days I find myself telling my children things like, “Oh, those lights, dear? That is how they celebrate Advent,” and, “They are just getting ready for Christmas.” My 3-year-old even pointed out to me a neighbor’s “Advent lights” with great enthusiasm. The family Christmas party at my husband’s work always falls on the first Saturday of December, but we call it the St. Nicholas Day party since St. Nicholas (aka Santa) is always there. My kids think this is a totally normal approach to pre-Christmas decorations, and I am happy to detect no Advent Scrooges among them.
I’ve even bent my Advent purist tendencies a little in favor of honoring liturgical days. My kids put out shoes for a few small treats on St. Nicholas Eve. We like to turn on our outside lights on St. Lucy’s day (Dec. 13) since her name means light. We’ve started putting up our own tree and crèche on Gaudete (Joy) Sunday giving ourselves a little preview of Christmas music, but then I put the music aside again until Christmas Eve. It should feel more joyful than the other Sundays, so why not put up the tree!
But even with these anticipatory decorations we still embrace the waiting spirit of Advent. Our Advent wreath and Jesse Tree are still central. The baby Jesus from our nativity is hidden in some place I will hopefully remember on Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph have not yet made it to Bethlehem, and the Three Wise Men are still stargazing out East.
What our secular culture does to prepare for Christmas looks different from the traditional penitential season of Advent, but it is still a kind of Advent, a waiting for something coming. And perhaps by looking on it with love and understanding, we can bring a little Christmas joy.