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Permission to Drop the Catholic Christmas Guilt

By Jennifer Gregory Miller ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 30, 2021 | In The Liturgical Year

It seems as Catholics we like to pile on extra guilt and stress. Some even label it as “Catholic guilt.” I just want to give you permission to put aside that guilt this Advent. There is no rule regarding decorating for Christmas. Nor is there any guideline regarding listening to Christmas music, or Christmas parties, or Christmas food, etc.

I have had this guilt myself—after reading some inspiring quote from Maria von Trapp years ago, my mother had strict rules about no Christmas decorations or music until after the Third Sunday of Advent. Imagine my uncomfortableness when years later my mother-in-law had us helping her set up her tree and other Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. And then my husband wanted to do it in our very own home!

I had to do some self-examination and reflection. What were the reasons I was putting on these artificial restrictions? Nothing is mentioned in the Catechism or other Church documents regarding personal piety and decorations during Advent. Why was I trying to be more Catholic than the Catholic Church? I realized I was trying to take on a battle with the secular world, but doing this was causing more harm inside myself.

I see this often with Catholics—we have a hard time accepting viewpoints that are perhaps secular as harmless. We put up defense mechanisms and start stabbing at the world, hoping to make a difference. “I’m going to show them—no Christmas until December 25!” We plug our ears at the sound of Christmas carols in the mall, and stick our tongues out at the lights and Christmas trees and yell, “It’s not Christmas yet! Jesus isn’t born yet!”

But all this is a personal interpretation. And what it leaves is anger and frustration, and no room for interior peace.

As a family, we are not a Catholic parish that has to follow liturgical rules about decorating the altar for Advent and Christmas. We are a domestic church, which means we source from the Liturgy to inspire us at home, but we are not bound by the same regulations. We need to do things at home, but in a way that we can have time to celebrate the liturgy with the Church. If I’m too busy since I waited to be “liturgically correct” will I have the room and interior quiet to be able to worship properly? Being a domestic church means supporting the family, both interiorly and exteriorly. Are we providing a “bright and cheerful home” that encourages interior prayer and peace and exterior beauty?

Christmas decorations, carols, baking, and celebrations are externals. Starting decorating or listening early does not make us cooperators of sin or evil accomplices in the world of secularism that is supposedly “stomping out Christmas.” And it doesn’t matter whether or not other Catholics are waiting later to decorate or bake. How we decide to approach Christmas externals in our own home is our decision. And this decision is reached by applying the cardinal virtue prudence:

Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” 65 “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” 66 Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. 67 It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid. (CCC 1806).

Our family needs to make their own prudential judgment regarding Christmas in their home. There is no right or wrong in this area. What I realized is that the message I send home to my family, and through my own personal interior life, is that we are prayerfully celebrating Advent until December 25. We have our different devotions and visual aids that accompany us during Advent. We have Advent in our hearts. My brother Joe a few years ago shared his view on his reasons for decorating early which also echoed some of my reason to change.

Christmas decorations and music do not change us interiorly to celebrate Christmas early. None of us think that it is already Christmas, nor are we acting like it is. Our Christmas decorations are many, and take a long time to decorate. Once the house is completed, the decorations also provide a nice warm peaceful setting to be more interiorly available during Advent. I’m relieved that the work is done rather than waiting closer to Christmas. I’m glad Maria von Trapp’s family could set up a tree or Christmas room all on Christmas Eve, but I can’t add one more physical activity to our busy December, otherwise that will distract me from my spiritual presence and focus at Christmas.

The Christmas music played on the loudspeakers and radio, sung by the Beatles, Mariah Carey, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and so on is pop music. These aren’t the same religious Christmas carols sung together by choir and congregation in the Church. It is no competition—they are in two separate categories. I will admit to playing the Christmas music on the radio in my car just because I enjoy it. It doesn’t mean I think it’s Christmas—I just like hearing the songs.

So, once again, for those who need to hear it, as a Catholic, the Christmas decorations, baking and music all are externals and can be done when you choose. Unless it’s in your heart, these external signs are not ushering in an early Christmas. Examine your reasons and decide prudentially when to begin is best for your family.

And drop the Catholic guilt—I give you permission.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, mother, CGS catechist and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org’s liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jgmiller - Dec. 02, 2021 1:55 PM ET USA

    We traditionally want to say Advent is a season of prayer and fasting and penance, but liturgically it isn’t. There's a different nuance to the Advent season as compared to the season of Lent. "Code of Canon Law" says: "Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.” "The General Norms for Liturgical Year and Calendar" explains Advent as "39. Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ's first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation." And the explanation for Lent: "27. Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices." "Joyful expectation" will look different than the Lenten "penitential practices." And my point is that there can be some of this external Christmas preparation before Christmas that doesn't infringe upon the interior preparation. The externals does not negate that there is prayerful work going on interiorly!

  • Posted by: winnie - Dec. 01, 2021 10:23 PM ET USA

    You and your late brother got me to revisit this topic & to see I need to lighten up. Thanks.