Don’t touch that tree


You might be tempted to pull out your Rubbermaid boxes and start packing away your decorations. Don’t do it. Christmas might be over, but the Christmas season is just starting.

After fasting and doing penance for the four weeks of Advent (right?), I am not going to be content with one day of feasting. The church, in her wisdom, understands that the birth of Jesus merits a prolonged celebration, and, thus, the Christmas season lasts until the Sunday after the Epiphany, marking the Baptism of the Jesus. In the old calendar, the Christmas season lasted even longer until the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple or Candlemas on February 2. One, therefore, does not need to rush to tear down the decorations, stop the music, or start the diet.

Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas ran from Christmas to the Epiphany, and these days were filled with gatherings and festivities. Most people today would guess that the twelve days of Christmas precede the holiday, with the countless parties leading up to Christmas. With the secular Christmas season, which is tied to shopping, starting earlier and earlier, it is no wonder that people are exhausted on December 26. This year, I noticed Christmas displays up immediately after Halloween.

The Catholic Church has a reputation as being purely penitential, and suspect of celebrations and having fun. Nothing could be further from the truth.  The church is not puritanical and teaches that God has created many good things, which we should enjoy. Now is the time to celebrate and enjoy all the wonderful things – family, food, music, snow, dance, and the like.

The liturgical year is actually a wonderful balance of feasting and fasting: Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and so on. The church and my own writings, perhaps, emphasize the penitential periods because mortification needs a little more encouragement and reinforcement than celebrating. This emphasis, then, is distorted by some who see Catholics as only fasting, neglecting the feasting.

Additionally, the world has become so centered on indulgence that any message which advocates moderation attracts a great deal of attention. Therefore, the church’s countercultural call for penance creates a more lasting memory than its message to celebrate the great feasts. The church also seeks to place celebrations in their proper context. In the Catholic perspective, a true festival is joyous and fulfilling, not hedonistic. We can enjoy a great meal and good drinks, but not to the point of overindulgence. This limitation actually makes the feast more enjoyable, but some see this view as restrictive.

Beyond the Christmas season, the Catholic calendar is full of feasts. In fact, every Sunday is a day to rest, eat, and gather with family. The penitential days, meant to remove worldly items to focus more closely on our relationship with God, surprisingly make the celebratory days more enjoyable.

I am Catholic because I believe it’s the true faith, but it’s also enjoyable to be Catholic. I love the traditions, the feasts, the liturgies, and the celebrations. It’s not cold, stiff, or boring. We pray hard, but we also know how to have fun.

So, enjoy the twelve days of Christmas. Revel in the company of family and good friends. Don’t even think about diets or new resolutions. At least, wait until after the Epiphany to dust of the treadmill, purge the leftover cookies, and take down that tree.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.