When to call the Liturgy police

Tuesday 6 December 2016 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — St. Nicholas Day

I’m scrupulous about keeping the season of Advent. At any church I pastor, you will find no poinsettia before it’s time — no Nativity scene, no Christmas tree, no wreath, no carol singing. No, no, no. Advent isn’t Christmas. 

But I’m leading a double life. I secretly celebrate Christmas all year. Along with the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, I believe that the Incarnation is cause for never-ending celebration. 

Every year I publicly avoid all things Christmas until after the Fourth Sunday of Advent, as any good Liturgist would do. There is no trace of Christmas in the Sanctuary, mind you, but it’s quite another matter in my personal living space. 

Back in early November, I happened to be in Mike’s Craft Store. Christmas was the farthest thing from my mind. As I made my way to the checkout, I happened to walk down the Christmas merchandise aisle. “Tsk!” I muttered to myself, “It’s not even Thanksgiving!” (Or “Thanksgathering” as some are now calling the holiday). And then, quite unexpectedly, I beheld a vision of loveliness. Among the rows of fake trees, there was one that glistened gloriously in the LED lighting; one that stood out among all the rest. It was the usual run-of-the-mill fake green tree, but this stunning specimen was flocked with fake white snow. I uttered an ancient prayer of exorcism: “Lead me not into temptation! Away with thee, vile tannenbaum.” And then I rushed from the store and back to the safety of the rectory. Phew! That was close. 

But the specter of the sparkling tree haunted my thoughts. What if it was no longer on sale when I returned? What if I waited until Christmas Eve only to find that particular model had sold-out? What if the display sample was the only one? It wasn’t even Thanksgiving and I was already obsessed with thoughts of a Christmas tree. St. Nicholas, deliver me!

Yes, dear readers, I must confess. I succumbed to temptation — something that hasn’t happened since 1962, I think it was.

Early next morning, after celebrating Mass, I clandestinely changed from my clerical garb into civilian clothes. I had made up my mind. It would be a covert operation. I didn’t want some parishioner to recognize their pastor dragging a Christmas tree into the rectory before Thanksgiving. The town gossips would have a field day. 

I recruited an accomplice — Father Ray Cambra — for my devious plan. We snuck off to get the tree. We paced nonchalantly up and down the aisle, with our hands clasped behind our backs, whistling “Amazing Grace” softly and looking up at the ceiling. Then, in a flash, I scooped up one of those “take this to the cashier” cards and strolled innocently to the counter to pay for the tree. 

Father Cambra lugged the loot out of the store. I drove the getaway car. The black op was successful.

Now I had another problem: where to stash the booty? I decided to store it in my personal space. 

Oh. Wait. Father Francis Wallace comes into my sitting room several times a day to chat. What if he noticed the Christmas tree carton in my room so early? He would be scandalized by my flippant disregard of standard Advent operating procedures. It would ruin his 95th Advent. Then I would have that, too, on my conscience. I covered the carton with a blanket. That should take care of it, thought I. But it didn’t. 

I’m pretty sure I heard the unassembled tree asking me questions from the box. “Where will I be displayed this year? When will you set me up? Why am I still in the box?” Wouldn’t you know, of all the trees in all the world I would get a talking Christmas tree. I ignored it, sat down at my desk, and went about reading the latest chancery memorandum (all 69 pages). 

And there it was on page 17 — the annual Advent reminder from the Office of Divine Worship. The regulations are decades old, but lest we forget: The Christmas season begins on the evening of December 24 with the celebration of first Vespers. Christmas hymns during Advent are inappropriate. Liturgical music should be restrained and reflective. During the celebration of Holy Mass (even at so-called “children’s Liturgies”) costumes, theater props, puppets, and tableaux are never permitted under any circumstances. Christmas pageants can be scheduled outside of Mass, but never during Advent. Ideally, symbols of the Christmas season should not be used in church decorations until Christmas Eve. My thoughts exactly!

But you know in your heart when the time has come. It was time. I have defiantly set up my Christmas tree. Please don’t report me to the Liturgy police. 

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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