In the secular world, the Christmas season started the day after Halloween. For the retail world, the Christmas season began on Black Friday. As for Catholics around the world, the Christmastime season begins at the Vigil on December 24 with the Solemnity of the Incarnation. What we usually think of as the Christmas season is actually two different and distinct seasons with their own celebratory expressions. These two seasons include: Advent, Christmastide or Christmastime. So, does it really matter when we are jolly? Of course it does! The reasoning is wrapped up very much in what we call the Principle of Progressive Solemnity.
This principle says that not all liturgical days have the same weight of importance as others. Therefore, the celebration of our liturgies should reflect a progression from a lesser to greater solemnity in song, action and ritual. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) in its consideration of liturgical music, the Liturgy of the Hours and overall liturgies, discusses this principle in paragraphs 271-273:
273. A celebration with singing throughout is commendable, provided it has artistic and spiritual excellence; but it may be useful on occasion to apply the principle of “progressive solemnity.” There are practical reasons for this, as well as the fact that in this way the various elements of liturgical celebration are not treated indiscriminately, but each can again be given its connatural meaning and genuine function. The liturgy of the hours is then not seen as a beautiful memorial of the past demanding intact preservation as an object of admiration; rather it is seen as open to constantly new forms of life and growth and to being the unmistakable sign of a community’s vibrant vitality.
The principle of “progressive solemnity” therefore is one that recognizes several intermediate stages between singing the office in full and just reciting all the parts. Its application offers the possibility of a rich and pleasing variety. The criteria are the particular day or hour being celebrated, the character of the individual elements comprising the office, the size and composition of the community, as well as the number of singers available in the circumstances.
With this increased range of variation, it is possible for the public praise of the Church to be sung more frequently than formerly and to be adapted in a variety of ways to different circumstances. There is also great hope that new ways and expressions of public worship may be found for our own age, as has clearly always happened in the life of the Church.
By way of practical example, we understand that while Fridays during the year are days of penance (CCC 1438), Good Friday holds a pride of place, not only in notoriety but in the solemnity of its celebration. To that end, we celebrate Advent differently than Christmastime.
Advent in the Latin Rite (sometimes erroneously known as Roman Catholics), begins on the first Sunday of the new liturgical year. It continues until the Vigil Mass of the Solemnity of the Incarnation or Nativity on December 24. This season is notably different from the preceding season, Ordinary time, and the season that follows it, Christmastime. The vestments during Advent become more subdued with the use of violet and the Gloria is no longer sung during the Sunday liturgies. Decorations are sparse. Sound familiar? Well, that’s because Advent is also called a “little lent.”
As we get closer to the Solemnity of the Incarnation, things pick up. The third Sunday of Advent, Guadete Sunday,we take a brief respite from the penance with a liturgy of “joyful” expectation. Beginning on December 17th the O Antiphons begin. Each day recounts the various titles of the Christ within the Economy of Salvation. Each title and correlating Scripture reading builds on the one before it. I know you are very familiar with the O Antiphons because I know you have sung O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. As a sidebar, this popular seasonal song is really only suppose to be used during the period of time designated for the O Antiphons e.g. December 17-24 but alas, it is sung almost every Sunday in Advent (In the great scheme of things there are bigger fish to fry).
At this point, December 24: O Emmanuel, the season changes to Christmastime or Christmastide. This season by contrast is ablaze with color, singing, exuberance and joy. Within the Church, the Christ child is present in the manager, the Christmas trees are lit, the vestments are white, the Gloria is part of the liturgy…there is a glorious beauty in the festivities.
Christmas is so important that it is celebrated for eight days straight…as if every day was Christmas morning. That being said, the Church raises the stakes and celebrates a trinitarian festival of love through the feasts of the martyrs:
- 26th: St. Stephen – martyr (red) by will, love and blood
- 27th: St. John the Divine – martyr (white) by will and love
- 28th: Holy Innocents – martyrs (red) by blood
We should also mention the first two Sundays after Christmas. The first celebrates the Holy Family. The Church provides for us the model for a family: father, mother and the child. This day also recognizes our human brokenness and that all families do not resemble the prefect family. So, she provides extra grace through her liturgical blessings and offers the Holy Family itself to make up where we lack.
The following Sunday is the Solemnity of the Epiphany. This theophany celebrates the Lord revealing Himself for the first time to the Gentiles. Even from the beginning, Jesus desires the entire human race to draw into communion with Him.
The Christmas season concludes with the Baptism of our Lord. This feast celebrates His revelation to the world through His ministry. And so the next day begins Ordinal or Ordinary time.
The fact remains that most people are tired of Christmas by the time December 25 comes around. Maybe if we celebrated in the pattern the Church has laid out for us we would enjoy it more. Enjoy the seasons!