|ROME, 29 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: What would you consider an appropriate time during Advent to put up
Christmas trees, ornaments, lights and other decorations in churches and
B.O., Lewistown, Pennsylvania
A: This question is simple only in appearance because customs
surrounding the celebration of Christmas vary widely among different
From a strictly liturgical standpoint the preparations for receiving the
Christ Child intensify from Dec. 17 onward and this is probably a good
time to set up the parish crib, except for the image of the child, which
is often added just before Midnight Mass in more or less solemn fashion.
Other parishes prefer to set up the crib on Christmas Eve. There are no
official rites regarding this widespread custom.
In those places that use the Advent wreath, it is placed on the first
Sunday of Advent. The Book of Blessings issued by the U.S. bishops'
conference contains a simple rite for blessing the Advent wreath which
may profitably be used.
Dec. 17 or the nearest Sunday might also be a good date to set up
Christmas trees and other decorations in Christian homes, but it really
depends on local custom and tradition. It is unnecessary, however, to
fall under the spell of commercial enterprises which tend to anticipate
the Christmas season, sometimes even before Advent begins.
Because some Christmas decorations have often lost their original
religious meaning, churches should be rather circumspect about employing
them and should do so with great discretion. If used at all, these
decorations are best set up on Christmas Eve so as to respect the
integrity of the Advent season.
Christmas trees are preferably located outside the sanctuary and church
proper, and are best left in vestibules or church grounds. This has been
the practice in St. Peter's Square from the time of Pope John Paul II.
As far as possible, decorations should be religiously themed, leaving
plastic reindeer, sugar canes and Santa Clauses in the local shopping
mall or at least within the confines of the parish hall for children's
Within the church proper, apart from the crib, Christmas may be evoked
by using, for example, traditional poinsettias, holly and other
traditional elements according to the culture.
As I mentioned, different cultures celebrate Christmas in various ways.
In some countries, such as Venezuela, many people live the novena before
Christmas by attending a special "Cockcrow" Mass celebrated at 5 a.m.
In Mexico, during this same period, family and neighbors often take
turns in hosting a "posada," a procession in which the group goes from
house to house singing a traditional song in which St. Joseph and Mary
request, and are refused, hospitality until finally they are festively
welcomed at the last home, which has prepared snacks and traditional
games for all. ZE05112920
* * *
Follow-up: Christmas Decorations [12-13-2005]
Unsurprisingly, given the haziness or inexistence of norms on the
subject, some readers dissented from our opinions regarding the
appropriate arrangement of Christmas decorations (see Nov. 29).
One reader took umbrage with our opinion that Christmas tress (that is,
trees decorated with tinsel, silver balls, etc.) should not be placed in
the sanctuary. He writes: "Christmas trees were always in the sanctuary
since I was a child. Our monsignor was a graduate of the Roman Seminary,
[and] taught there, became our pastor, and had a good idea as to what
was appropriate ... and not ...."
I have no difficulty with Christmas trees. But, with all due respect to
the good monsignor, I think that placing them in the sanctuary is not a
common practice in the Church. It is not advisable because, as a
ubiquitous symbol, it no longer has an exclusively religious meaning and
can easily evoke the more material and commercial aspect of the holy
The recovery of this original religious sense inspired a priest from New
South Wales, Australia, to comment:
"Christmas decorations often have a local history and need explanation
so that their meaning can be universalized and not just seen as
something nice [and belonging] to the secular culture surrounding
"Once the Christmas tree had been introduced to Europe sometime in the
16th century, decorations were made of bread dough, to symbolize Jesus
Bread of Life. Shepherds' crooks
the forerunner to the candy cane
the forerunner to tree lights and stars
were made and then handed out to children on the feast of Christmas.
"Today, in our parish, I get the children to make biscuit dough
decorations and ice them. They are then given out to parishioners the
last Sunday of Advent. On that occasion we also bless the families' crib
figures and other home decorations."
I am happy to pass along these useful pastoral suggestions hoping that
they may help many readers live this Christmas with true spiritual