I grew up in the Philippines where Christmas decorations go up and Christmas music hits the radio airwaves as soon as the first “ber” month comes. Yes, as early as September!
Christmas is perhaps the most anticipated time of year in the Philippines. And in a country that is over 80 percent Catholic, just about everyone starts to really get into the preparation, the decoration, and the jubilation of the season. And so when I moved to the United States, I felt a little short-changed because now I usually have to wait until after Thanksgiving to start decorating for Christmas or listening to Christmas music. Putting up Christmas decorations early seems to even be a hot topic of debate and there are some very vocal critics who will likely let you know that they don’t like that.
But if some retail companies are starting Black Friday sales way before Thanksgiving, and if big box stores are displaying Christmas decor on the sales floor even before November, then why not indulge a little and get into the Christmas spirit earlier as well. It might actually be good for you.
Never Too Early for Joy
Psychologists are now chiming in saying that there are mental health benefits to getting into the Holiday spirit early. Experts suggest that people who put up Christmas decorations earlier appear to be happier. It gives us an extended opportunity to re-live the joy of our childhood. And as adults, we now get to share those happy experiences with our children. By starting early, the period of excitement and joy gets extended. Plus, that short span of festive weeks from Thanksgiving to the Feast of Epiphany feels rushed and quick to climax, leaving us very little time to prepare for that crashing halt at the end of the season when we take the decorations down. By extending the period of jubilation, we’re able to avoid the drastic emotional spikes of Christmas season. We don’t have to feel burnt-out binging on spreading Christmas cheers when we have more months to practice it.
Christmas, however, is a lot more than just the colorful decorations, the twinkling lights, or the scent of fir tree or peppermint. Yes, there are many traditional ways for the short-lived and external manifestations of our Christmas joy. The lights brighten our mood. The music lifts our spirits. The scents remind us of the season. There’s a bidirectional exchange where we draw spiritual energy from them and at the same time express the joy of our faith through them. There is joy coming from and shooting out in all directions. We are, after all, preparing to celebrate and commemorate the birth of our Savior so what could be more joyous than that?
There’s nothing wrong with the exuberant anticipation of that joyous event even if it’s as early as the first ‘ber’ month. Engaging the senses and immersing ourselves in the experience of Christmas can be helpful in nourishing our faith. It also presents us plenty of Catechetical opportunities to teach our children about Advent. Perpetuating these Christmas traditions go hand-in-hand with perpetuating the faith.
Reclaim Christmas and Rediscover True Joy
However, what often gets overlooked in the commotions, in the scents, sights, and sounds of it all, as we prepare the decorations, the food, our travel plans, and the Christmas songs, is our internal preparation. It is a time of year that predisposes the senses to be overwhelmingly drawn outwards to the sights and the sounds. It is easy to get caught up on the externalities and overly rely on them to be the source of our holiday merriment. All these stimuli can also add to the stress, especially when our personal memories of Christmas do not reflect the joyful sounds and twinkling jolly lights.
In a previous article, I wrote about the opportunity that the season of Lent brings for us to dive into the interior life. The season of Advent, despite the festivities and the vibrant sounds, also brings us yet another great opportunity to revisit the interior life and reflect on what the birth of our Savior truly means.
We can learn from what Saint Francis of Assisi did 800 years ago when he thought about how to celebrate Christmas and discover true joy. He reimagined the nativity scene and brought the story of our Savior’s birth to life for the faithful to understand in a deeper sense the reason for the season. In contrast to the bright lights, the vibrant sounds, and the fresh scents that we are accustomed to during the Christmas season, the nativity scene that Saint Francis recreated was to help us meditate on the simplicity and the humility of the birth of our Lord. Because, after all, Jesus Christ, our King, the Son of God, entered into history by way of a manger, a feeding box for animals, in poverty and in desolation, surrounded by that barnyard smell. God, who gave us the gift of Himself, chose to become poor for our sake.
As Saint Francis stood before the manger that night of the first nativity scene, he was so moved that, according to Saint Bonaventure, “he bathed in tears and radiant with joy.” Christmas traditions, rituals, and even decorations do a lot more than just bring back memories of childhood jubilation. They have the power to move the senses, helping us remember the true meaning of Christmas. And so if preparing early for Christmas will yield to a deeper transformative experience, past the fun childhood memories of Christmas mornings, then let the holly hang, let the Christmas lights twinkle, and let the Christmas bells ring early. May that extended time along with the Christmas traditions help us better prepare our hearts. May they help us remember that the true source of our joy lies not in these ephemeral and material manifestations but in the gift of Christ himself to the world.
When Saint Francis meditated on the birth of our Lord, he was overcome with joy. May we, too, make the time to find that same joy this Christmas. “Emmanuel”- God with us!
The Saviour is Born for Us!
I grew up in the era of Saint Pope John Paul II. He was already the Pope when I was a little 7 year old kid whose Christmas joy came from waking up Christmas morning and running to see what Santa had placed under the Christmas tree. He was still the Pope when I was a young adult and the source of my Christmas joy would come from the quiet contemplation of Jesus’ humble birth. Over those years of my youth, Pope John Paul II’s leadership and prayers, particularly this one below, shaped my understanding of the faith and of Christmas:
The Saviour of the world has come down from heaven. Let us rejoice!
This proclamation, filled with deep rejoicing,
echoed in the night of Bethlehem.
Today the Church renews it with unchanged joy:
the Saviour is born for us!
A wave of tenderness and hope fills our hearts,
together with an overpowering need for closeness and peace.
In the crib we contemplate the One
who stripped himself of divine glory
in order to become poor, driven by love for mankind.
Beside the crib the Christmas tree, with its twinkling lights,
reminds us that with the birth of Jesus
the tree of life has blossomed anew in the desert of humanity.
The crib and the tree: precious symbols,
which hand down in time the true meaning of Christmas!
– from the Christmas 2003 Urbi et Orbi Papal Address and Apostolic Blessing.