Father Dino Bottino didn't expect to spark a firestorm several years ago when he delivered his sermon about the true meaning of Christmas. Still, it didn't take long for outraged parents to leak one crucial statement -- that Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus, isn't real -- to the Italian press. Headline writers around the world immediately felt a great disturbance in the Holiday Force, as if millions of tiny nonsectarian voices had cried out in terror.
Clearly, this priest had committed blasphemy.
Now, the Catholic shepherd of Salt Lake City has bravely ventured into similar territory. Bishop John C. Wester has asked those in his flock to observe the Advent season during the four weeks before Christmas and then -- readers may need to sit down -- to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th and during the season that follows.
"Few would disagree that we live in a busy and rushed society. ... You may have noticed that in our hurried society many stores have already decorated for Christmas, radio stations are sneaking in a Christmas song here and there and even some of our own parishes have begun preparing for Christmas parties for early December," noted Wester, in a pastoral letter (.pdf) released on Nov. 24.
"What is the rush? ... Advent is a season of preparation, although it has come to be neglected in many places. Too often, the season of Advent is overshadowed by the 'holiday season' as we move too quickly into celebrating Christmas. By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out."
To be perfectly blunt about it, he added, the secular season called "The Holidays" has been hyped to the point that, in the end, "Christmas has become anticlimactic."
The bishop's letter has generated a surprising amount of buzz in a short time, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a veteran journalist who directs the online news programming (NetNY.net) for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. In effect, Wester has issued a call for countercultural revolt against the principalities and powers that shape the American calendar, he said.
For starters, the bishop is trying "to remind people -- through the pulpit and through education -- that just because they are hearing Christmas music doesn't mean that it's really Christmas," said Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who has won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards.
"As everyone knows, most of this is rooted in commercialism. But just because we have Black Friday and people are stampeding through the malls doesn't mean that is what Christmas is really about."
After throwing down his gauntlet, Wester offered practical examples of what he would like to see in the parishes and schools of his diocese.
Rather than leap straight to Christmas trees early in December, the bishop urged Catholic families to embrace Advent prayer wreathes -- with candles marking the Sundays leading up to Christmas. Families could have "Jesse Trees" that are decorated in Advent purple and symbols of the ancestors of Jesus, before adding Christmas decorations at the proper time.
Rather than hold premature Christmas parties, the bishop suggested that Catholic schools plan "Gaudete" parties -- Latin for "rejoice" -- that are linked to the third Sunday in Advent. Facilities could be decorated with simple wreaths and greenery, with the full Christmas decorations in place as students return after New Year's Day. Full Christmas decor should remain in place in churches, schools and homes through the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord on the 9th of January.
By all means, said Wester, Catholics should hold parties throughout this entire Christmas season, which begins -- following centuries of tradition -- with Christmas Day.
The goal is for Advent to be a period of "waiting in joyful hope," a time of preparation, reflection and prayer. At least, that's what the church's calendar says.
"It is so easy to ... decorate our churches and houses for Christmas, to spend more time shopping than in prayer and to host Christmas parties before the season has arrived," said Wester. "I know it is an enormous challenge to remain faithful to the Advent season when we are surrounded by a society which, while claiming to be Christian, does not take the time to reflect and prepare as the church calls us to do."
However, he added, "As Catholics, we must celebrate Advent differently."