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Utah's Catholic bishop is putting the brakes on Christmas.
In his first pastoral letter to Utah's 300,000 Catholics since becoming their shepherd in 2007, Bishop John C. Wester asks that members hold off celebrating Christmas until the season actually begins Dec. 24.
Catholics, Wester says, ought not have early parties in their homes or churches, light up their trees or decorate their schools with more than simple wreaths and boughs of green.
Instead, the bishop writes, Catholics should remain faithful to Advent, a four-week season that began Sunday and focuses on prayer, reflection and the joyful expectation both of Christ's birth and his return at the end of time.
"I know it is an enormous challenge," Wester writes, "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."
His letter published in the diocesan newspaper Intermountain Catholic in Spanish and English was read by priests from some pulpits Sunday and cited by others. It includes suggestions on ways Catholics can observe Advent, such as lighting the candles of an Advent wreath during family prayer each day.
Wester was unavailable for comment Monday. But Timothy Johnston, director of the Office of Liturgy for the Salt Lake City Diocese, said the letter was Wester's first since becoming bishop to Utah Catholics.
A pastoral letter is a teaching tool, Johnston said, and, in this case, the bishop wanted to call Catholics back from a frenzied approach that can leave them burned out by Christmas.
"The basic idea is: If we don't observe sacred time and witness to it," Johnston said, "how is the rest of the world to know who this Christ is?"
The church's Christmas season begins Dec. 24 and ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 9. Christmas decorations should not come down until then, the bishop writes. "There is plenty of time for us to celebrate our joy at Christ's birth, and we should make the most of it."
Pauleen Dolling, a Catholic from Perry in Box Elder County, found the bishop's advice "wonderful."
"We need more direction from our leadership because people are really floundering," she said. "If a bishop says it, it holds a little more weight."
She liked Wester's reminder that Advent is about prayer and thinking about Christ's Second Coming as well as his first but she doubts Catholics will refrain from turning on the lights and decorating the tree before Christmas Eve.
"It's so difficult being countercultural," Dolling said, "especially with the kids."
Two Catholic elementary school principals say they already try to keep children focused on Advent rather than Christmas in early December.
At Monday's prayer service at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Holladay , the children formed a human Advent wreath in the gym, with several kindergartners dressed as candles in the center.
On Tuesday night, several dozen families will be at the school making their own Advent wreaths that can become part of their prayer during the season, said Principal Mark Longe said.
The school doesn't have Christmas parties or a decorated tree, Longe said, and the baby Jesus does not go into the Nativity scene with Mary and Joseph before Christmas.
"My sense is that, as our bishop, he's just reminding our communities that it is one of the holy seasons of the year and that we should focus on the season of Advent."
Sister Karla McKinnie, principal of St. Andrew School in Riverton, said the bishop is calling Catholics back from the secularism that has crept into their celebrations.
"It makes one stand and take notice and think about how they're celebrating and whether they are going overboard with the Christmas thing."
At her school, each student got an Advent activity booklet, which they can take home to share with their families.
The Rev. Sam Dinsdale, pastor of St. Maguerite Parish in Tooele, says many Catholics welcome a return to authentic observances of liturgical seasons such as Advent.
"Any mature adult who has some desire to develop their spirituality would find that to be a wonderful message, to focus on the Advent season, the two comings of Christ," Dinsdale said. "It's not like we're telling people to be sad, but to focus on what's important."
Monsignor Rudolph Daz, pastor of St. Olaf Parish in Bountiful, suggests parishioners take three minutes a day for quiet reflection on the coming of Christ.
"One of the ways to prepare," he said, "is to empty ourselves of the accumulation of material things."
Johnston, the diocesan liturgy director, said the bishop does not expect immediate and radical change. Even the Pastoral Center housing the bishop's office has two Christmas trees undecorated for now. Johnston says some co-workers even accused him of canceling Christmas when he suggested fewer holiday decorations in keeping with the pastoral letter.
"Slowly we'll implement this," Johnston said, "little by little that was the bishop's hope."
To read Wester's letter
O Bishop John C. Wester's pastoral letter (in English and Spanish) can be read on the Salt Lake City Diocese's website at dioslc.org/bishop/pastoral-letters
Advent marks the start of a new liturgical year for many Christian churches in the Western world. It began Sunday and lasts for four weeks, ending on Christmas Eve, when the Christmas season begins. During Advent, the focus of Christians is supposed to be not only Christ's birth but also his prophesied Second Coming. Many people use Advent wreaths in their daily family and private prayers.