Earlier this evening, when I stepped out of the bookshop where I work, and onto the street, I noticed that many of the Christmas decorations that the city had been putting up were now lit up for the first time. It's quite a striking image, looking down Wisconsin Avenue at night and seeing all the lights, the wreaths, and the stars above the intersections.
Is it liturgically appropriate a week and a half before Advent begins? Of course not. I do believe I would make an issue of such decorations taking place now if we were talking about the inside of a church. And while you and I know that we are about to enter into the season of Advent, which, among other things, is a time of penitence, prayer, and of preparing for the Christmas feast with repentance and fasting, we can also simultaneously admit that we are now, culturally speaking, in what we might call the Christmas Shopping Season.
Okay, it is a bit silly that Milwaukee's Christmas parade is taking place tomorrow morning, that is, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The culture around us does not quite get it. It is off kilter. To all of those who love to complain about this every year, I say, I get it. The point I want to emphasize, however, is that the modern secular culture, in which we must subsist, does know the Church's song, they just no longer know its meaning. It sings the same tune, though on the wrong accents. I am not saying that is enough. In missing the point of Christmas traditions and trappings, the culture goes off track in ultimately disastrous ways. It, the world around us, needs the loving witness of the Church. And one way we can make that witness is by seizing the opportunity afforded by the traditions which are still built into our culture, like the way even some of the most secular minded in our country, and even public institutions, such as local governments, love to out do each other in the trappings of Christmas. (Christopher Hitchens, who can speak from the perspective of having lived in both the English and the American worlds, observes in one of his essays that Americans have an odd love and nostalgia for the classic Christmas, so that we end up embracing a style that is far more Dickensian than one will find in England itself.)
What I find harder to swallow are the complaints of some Christians about how early the secular culture is celebrating Christmas, when these same Christians are often guilty of ending their celebration too early. If we insist that there is a four week preparation for Christmas, then let us keep the festival (once it does officially begin) for a full twelve days, through Twelfth Night, and lead it right into the Epiphany season. (We can do this with various home devotions and traditions, and we can do this by going to Mass, and if our pastor doesn't have daily Mass at Christmas, we can ask him for it.)
But until then, I love seeing the Christmas lights decorating the Avenue. They give me something warm and cheerful to look at as I wait for the bus.