Some deck the halls earlier, others check the calendar

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 12:02 AM

'Tis the season! Or 'tis it?

Amy Barker, for one, has no doubt that these first days of December are a fine time to start decking the halls. In fact, her halls are decked. Her Christmas season started in November.

"I get so excited about decorating for Christmas, it just seems like a month isn't enough," said Barker, an Alexandria mother of three who had two trees up and decorated and the family stockings hung within 48 hours of clearing away the turkey bones. "I figure after Thanksgiving, it's fair game."

But her husband, Brian, is in less of a hurry. He loves Christmas, too, he said - just not quite so many weeks of it.

"In her opinion, November is fine," said Brian, a real estate developer. "In mine, mid-December is better. Besides laziness, it's that I kind of like to focus on the actual day of Christ's birth."

For many families, this is a time of some tinsel tension over a perennial question: Just when should Christmas begin? Some celebrants stretch the season across as many weekends as possible to gain more pleasure and more time for all the gift-buying, box-wrapping, card-writing and gay apparel-donning.

But others - sometimes within the same family - would rather hold back the flood tide of yuletide to avoid holiday burnout and keep things special around the Big Day itself.

"We already had our argument about it yesterday," Amy said. "It's an annual event."

Long gone for most American Christians are the Old World norms of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve and backloading much of the holiday into the last half of December. When the retail blizzard starts in September and FM radio's jingles ring before Halloween on some stations, it's little wonder that houses all over the region light up on the night after Thanksgiving.

"Over the years, it's gotten earlier and earlier," said Alex Dencker, manager of Behnke Nurseries in Potomac, where they sold about 40 trees on the last weekend in November. "One lady must have bought 25 strings of 100 lights. People are already all over it."

In Utah last week, the bishop of Salt Lake City sparked an online debate when he issued a pastoral letter urging Catholics to hold off on celebrations until the official liturgical start of the season: Christmas Eve. On the church calendar, Advent fills the first 24 days of December and Christmas starts at midnight. (Those 12 days of Christmas don't culminate on the 25th; they start then.)

"What is the rush? Are we really so eager to get all the decorations up, celebrate the event, and quickly dismantle all the decorations so we can move on to the next event?" asked Bishop John C. Wester in a letter read Sunday from Utah pulpits. "By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out. . . . Christmas has become anticlimactic."

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