I have been wondering this week whether some of us Catholics need to lighten up a little bit, when it comes to enjoying the pleasures of the season.
The other day I was watching an old Christmas broadcast from Mother Angelica, the redoubtable foundress of EWTN, in which as usual she made a number of very salient points. She then went on and criticized those who attend Midnight Mass, but then go out and get drunk. Then just yesterday, a fellow Catholic of my acquaintance commented to me that they could not go to a Christmas party they had been invited to, because it is still Advent and they do not feel it would be appropriate to drink alcohol or have treats until Christmas actually arrives. As I myself was on my way to a Christmas party with other Catholics at the time, where I had plenty of both, I did not say anything.
Now to be honest, and with all due respect to Mother, I genuinely don’t know anyone who would go out with the intention of getting drunk after Mass, whether at Midnight Mass or at any other time; I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who has done so. Perhaps that was once a problem back in the day, as the saying goes. Nor, for that matter, have I ever eschewed attending a party during Advent due to the presence of wine and marzipan – indeed, quite the reverse. However these comments did get me thinking.
In my family it is a tradition to come home from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and celebrate together before going to bed. This usually involves a selection of treats from Catalonia, since my mother hails from Barcelona, including cava (the Catalan version of champagne), hors d’oeuvres, pastries like torró (an almond-nougat mixture), Christmas cookies we elaborately decorated the day before, and so on. My mother’s parents had the same tradition, when they would return from Midnight Mass at the – ironically enough – Poor Clares monastery next door, as did their parents before them, and so on. It’s a way for the family to informally mark the beginning of the Christmas season together, at home, after formally doing so at church.
In a somewhat related vein, on many Sundays here in the Nation’s Capital my closest friends and I will go to Mass together, and then head out to brunch afterwards. It is not a regular event by any means, but rather something that comes together based on who is around and whether they are free after Mass for a couple of hours. We usually discuss the Mass we just attended, including the homily, the readings, etc. We talk about news from the parish or the Church in general, we share what each of us has coming up in the week ahead, and so on. And yes, this usually involves having a cocktail or two as we linger over our eggs and bacon.
There is at times a regrettable tendency among some American Catholics toward a kind of self-denial which is not actually based in the Christian asceticism of the Desert Fathers, but rather is a legacy of this country’s original Puritanism. It is why I have heard and read many times about Americans going to Catholic countries like Spain or Italy for the first time and being shocked by how Catholics in other countries behave. They see not only a more overt form of Christian devotional life than they are used to back in the States, but also a more widespread public celebration of religious holidays like Christmas, wherein religious elements coexist happily alongside material pleasures such as feasting, music, dancing, etc.
And of course the irony is, much of the good food and drink to be had at such celebrations is in fact made not only by Catholics, but some of the most stripped-down, silent Catholic religious orders there are. The best pastries in Spain for example – including “Yemas de Santa Teresa”, about a dozen of which I could inhale right now – come from the no-room-for-wimps nuns at the Descalced Carmelite monasteries. And of course ales brewed by the super-strict Trappist monks of countries like Austria and Belgium are legendary for a reason.
Now this is not to say that throwing oneself with abandon into the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure on Christmas or a regular Sunday is a good thing, by any means. However it often strikes me as odd how Catholics in this country can seem to be almost embarrassed about not only embracing their Catholicism publicly, but about being human beings with tastes and preferences which, in moderation, are perfectly fine to fulfill. This attitude seems particularly strange during times of year such as this, when we ought to be rejoicing over the Advent of Our Lord both in history and at the end of time.
God created this world out of love, and loved us in particular so much that He sent His Son to save us. Yes, there is a great deal of sin which we must avoid in this world, but there is also so much in His Creation that is good that it would be a great pity to miss it. If even nuns and monks who live far more intense lives of prayer than you do take pleasure in producing good things for you to eat and drink, it hardly seems appropriate to pretend that you know better than they how to enjoy the fruits of Creation.
My advice to you, fellow fisheater, is to crack open the champagne when you have something to celebrate, and break out the bourbon when you want to relax before Christmas dinner. Don’t say no to that cheese tray, and don’t turn up your nose at that platter of cured meats, either. Though of course, if you choose not to follow my advice that’s fine too – more cookies and cocktails for me.