It's the big trouble that arises in one way or another every Advent: how, and to what degree, is the integrity of the Advent season to be protected from Christmas?
The question arises from an argument we have with the world. For the world, the Christmas season begins right after Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Day. For us Catholic Christians, on the other hand, the Christmas Season begins with either the Vigil Mass of the Nativity or its Evening Prayer I, whichever comes first, and proceeds through the feasts of the Holy Family, the motherhood of Mary, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord.
While we are trying to observe the season of Advent, the world already has its Christmas songs playing and its trees decorated, and while we are celebrating the Christmas season, the world's songs are silent and its Christmas trees are already drying out in the dumpster.
To me, the critical reason that Advent has to be protected from the world's Christmas is to preserve ourselves from the shallow description of Advent as the 'time to prepare for Christmas.' It is the time to prepare ourselves for Christmas for sure, to our recalling of the Lord's birth, but Advent is equally about our "joyful hope" as we look forward to the Lord's return in glory. Even more it seems to me that the delicate spiritual task of Advent is to wrap our shallow hearts and limited minds around the truth that these are, in fact, the same thing, without one collapsing into the other. Such a spiritual task is surely impossible with eyes and ears filled with all the tackiness of the world's "celebration" of "Christmas."
To this end, each religious community or parish is furnished with zealots who protect Advent with ferocity. They refuse to attend Christmas parties, scheduled as they usually are in days of Advent. They won't put up the tree until Evening Prayer I of the Lord's Nativity has been persolved.
As has been noted in both encouragement and exasperation, I'm usually all for zealotry. But in this case, I've always had a question:
Doesn't the culture of the world we live in train us to see Christmas stuff as anticipatory? And isn't this part of what Advent is supposed to be about? For example, if children get a visit from someone playing Santa Claus, do they not experience this as something looking forward to Christmas? Don't folks feel the same way decorating a Christmas tree?
Could it be that the world's celebration of Christmas, beginning after Thanksgiving and proceeding to Christmas Day, is not, in fact, a misplaced observe of the Christmas season, but actually an incomplete observance of Advent? Are our complaints misplaced? Perhaps the world is trying to observe Advent (though inadequately, of course) through an anticipatory use of Christmas stuff and symbol, and what they really lack is the actual celebration of Christmas.