Churches scramble to make a swift switch from sedate Advent decor to joyous Christmas trappings

A rush to deck the halls

December 25, 2006|By Chris Emery and Liz F. Kay | Chris Emery and Liz F. Kay,sun reporters

The Rev. Dennis P. Diehl made an unusual plea at the end of yesterday's morning Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church in Howard County.

"If any of you have time, we would appreciate your help switching from the season of Advent to Christmas," the pastor told his flock. "We have to unload a lot of poinsettias."

Minutes later, as many parishioners were still making their way out of the chapel, a crack team of about 30 volunteers went to work giving the inside of the church a speedy yuletide makeover. The job had to be finished before the first Christmas Mass that afternoon.

Blame the rush at the church in Fulton -- and across the world -- on a vagary of the religious calendar, which last occurred in 2000 and will not happen again until 2017: The Advent season, which begins four Sundays before Christmas, lasted only about three weeks this year because Dec. 25 falls on a Monday.

With the fourth and final Sunday of Advent falling on Christmas Eve, the result was a liturgical traffic jam, decoratively speaking.

"The fourth week of Advent is going to last four hours," Bishop W. Francis Malooly, vicar general and western vicar of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, noted last week.

Advent is a time of hopeful anticipation for the celebration of Christmas. Some churches light one candle on an Advent wreath each Sunday before Christmas and refrain from singing Christmas carols in church during the period.

"What we are supposed to be doing is preparing the perfect gift for Christ," said Diehl, contrasting Advent to the kinds of preparation that make the holiday such a commercial affair. "The best thing we can give him is to be kinder and more thankful."

Malooly said Catholic churches were expected to celebrate Advent Mass yesterday morning, then hold the first Christmas services beginning at 4 p.m. In the time between, churches had to quickly replace the purple or blue trappings of Advent with the more elaborate and festive decorations of Christmas.

St. Francis of Assisi opted to cut back on morning services for the whirlwind changeover.

"It's still Advent for us," Diehl explained yesterday morning. "It's a season of preparation. It's not really supposed to be a celebratory season. So we don't want to put up the Christmas decorations until we finish."

Other denominations, however, decided to take care of some of the Christmas preparations ahead of time.

Christ Lutheran Church in Baltimore put up its evergreens but waited to add poinsettias and other more festive decor until after its final Advent Mass, according to Robert M. Brown, the church sexton.

The church condensed the three sessions it typically holds into one morning Mass to make room for Christmas services later in the day, he said.

"As soon as the service was over, we started. Everything was here already, except the poinsettias and the altar decorations," said Brown, standing in the church chapel after making those additions. He'd also replaced the Advent banner in front of the altar with one that read, "Nativity of Our Lord."

The Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore also placed its evergreen decorations ahead of time, because they were deemed appropriate for Advent, according to Mary Grace Dudley, the parish administrator. She said the poinsettias were to be added before the afternoon and evening Masses.

The only concession St. Francis of Assisi made to Christmas during Advent was to set up an elaborate nativity scene in a corner of the chapel.

Based on a nativity scene Father Diehl once saw in Italy, its mock desert landscape included a variety of figurines and buildings, including an elephant, a Roman soldier in a tower, a bakery shop, and, of course, the Three Wise Men astride camels. Wire-mounted angels hovered above the display, and a dark blue cloth backdrop covered in silver stars served as the night sky.

But Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus were conspicuously absent from the animal-filled manger -- at least until the start of yesterday's decorating rush.

A van delivered about 200 red and white poinsettias to the church soon after the volunteers had finished packing up from the Advent.

Christmas music played over the chapel's loudspeakers as parishioners lined the altar with the bright flowers and placed them on a 10-foot-tall metal frame to create a poinsettia Christmas tree.

Evergreen garlands were hung on the walls and red candles mounted on banisters around the chapel. Two Christmas trees at the back of the altar were strung with white lights.

Matthew W. Costa busied himself placing wreaths with tied red ribbons in the chapel's windows.

"I don't get to church very often, because I'm in school," said Costa, a student at James Madison University in Virginia who was visiting his parents in Scaggsville for the holidays. This was his second year helping with the decorations.

"I just wanted to give back to the church a little bit," he said, climbing off a stool.

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