On Christmas Decorations
Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy
“So, Lizzie has gone beyond recall,” chirped the Liturgiologist, “I can’t say I’m sorry!”
“You ought to be,” was the tart reply of the Antiquary. “You rode as much as I did, and that’s about all the outdoor exercise you got.”
“Exercise enough when we had to walk three miles to the trolley car last week,” snarled the Liturgiologist. “Never again! As a motorist I am now on the shelf! And as for the proposition you were trying to mention at breakfast this morning, I’ll simply say right now that there’s no use discussing it, for I’ll not cough up so much as one cent towards a new car.”
“Then I’ll go over to Fr. Gambetta’s bazaar and take ten chances on the coupe they’re raffling, and if I win it, your Reverence will ask in vain for a lift when you plod along some muddy road seeking outdoor exercise!”
To hear them, one who didn’t know them would have thought the two old priests at the point of an open rupture of the friendship of years. But Mrs. Darcey, who kept house for the Antiquary for twenty years, during ten of which the Liturgiologist had occupied the rooms across the hallway from his friend, knew that this was but a gentle breeze which would soon cease to ruffle the calm waters. Nor was she wrong, for when at breakfast next morning the Antiquary showed five books of tickets from the bazaar at the Italian church the Liturgiologist merely snorted: “You won’t get anything—you never do. Now I won a chocolate cake once, and it only cost me seven dollars in tickets!”
“I must have a car,” replied the Antiquary, “out of consideration for you. You are too fat to walk, and if I don’t ride you around you’ll get no open air exercise whatever.”
“Oh, I don’t need your help, thanks very much,” jeered the Liturgiologist. “Why, this very morning I’m booked to ride out into the country with Fr. Torculus. He’s going after Christmas greens, and he’s kind enough to ask my advice about decorating his church for the Holidays.”
“Which is more than I’d do!” sniffed the Antiquary ruffling his ticket books thoughtfully.
Ensconced in Fr. Torculus’ roomy limousine, the Liturgiologist relaxed somewhat. The going did not seem so bumpy as in the late and unlamented Ford, which had finally expired, not without covert aid from the Antiquary, as the reader may remember. While the altar boys, who had preceded them in a truck, cut small fir trees, and made up bunches of “bittersweet,” the two priests stamped about in the frozen field and talked.
“I suppose this business of bringing evergreens into the church at Christmas can hardly be called a ‘Roman custom,’” said Fr. Torculus.
“Certainly the ‘Approved Authors’ say nothing about it,” replied the Liturgiologist, “but then, they are often strangely silent on the matter of decorations for the altar and the sanctuary. The Ceremonial of Bishops suggests that vases of flowers or ‘odoriferous branches’ be placed on the altar, that is to say, on the ‘gradines’ or reredos, and the Memoriale Rituum requires them. Fortescue says that they are not used in the great churches of Rome, and that they are not necessary, though custom is in favor of their use. This customary usage would seem to cover evergreens, though certainly the ‘vascula cum flosculis’ of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum would not.”
“You think, then, that the use of Christmas greens is governed solely by good taste?” asked Fr. Torculus.
“Certainly,” was the Liturgiologist’s prompt reply. “My friend the Antiquary, if he were here, would doubtless tell us that the use of evergreens derives from Germany and England, and other northern countries, where flowers are rare in winter. In our own country the use of evergreens has become traditional, and there could hardly be any objection to it. Myself, I dislike too much of any sort of decoration about the altar. Fortunately we no longer see so often the turning of the Sanctuary into a florists’ display. Even our enthusiasm for candles is yielding to a more restrained taste, and here and there one finds a priest who has some idea of the dignity and simplicity in the adornment of the altar and sanctuary.”
“I use only a few of these greens around the altar,” said Fr. Torculus, “most of them are arranged at the Crib.”
“Bene, bene,” murmured the Liturgiologist. “Being an entirely extra-liturgical affair, the Crib comes under no regulation, except the general provision against unbecoming statuary, which, fortunately, need hardly ever be invoked nowadays.”
“Anyway,” averred Fr. Torculus, “evergreens are much better than artificial flowers.”
“Which, incidentally, are not forbidden by any ‘Approved Author,’” remarked the Liturgiologist, slyly. “They come under canons of taste, and I imagine even the good Fathers who still make use of them would admit readily enough that they are bad taste. Up in Canada one even sees sprays of brass flowers quite overshadowing the liturgical ornaments of the altar. But ‘de gustibus,’ you know.”
“Still,” said Fr. Torculus, mildly, “I do not see why we should lay ourselves open to the change of vulgarity in the decoration of our churches.”
“Nor would we,” rejoined the Liturgiologist, “if only we adhered to the letter of our liturgical laws. An altar, properly constructed and ornamented, according to the decrees of the S.R.C., is a wonderfully impressive thing, and an artistic masterpiece besides, in its elegant simplicity. I sometimes dare to think that if we spent more money on providing what some would call ‘the bare essentials for Holy Mass’ in good materials, and less on the uncalled-for gingerbread work and bric-a-brac, we would be surprised at the effects produced. Why, for example, bedizen the front of a ‘temporary altar’ with a plaster cast of the Last Supper (a decoration my friend, the Antiquary, tells me was seldom if ever used as an altar piece till the Lutherans, for doctrinal reasons, introduced it) when the liturgy of the Church supposes that the front of the altar, apart from rare cases, will always (except after Mass on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday) be concealed by an antependium.
“Concedo,” laughed Fr. Torculus, whose marble altar thus fell under the Liturgiologist’s criticism. “But the boys have the truck loaded, and it’s time to get back to the city. Can I take you anywhere, Father?”
“Drop me off at a Ford agency, if you please,” said the Liturgiologist.
“Not thinking of getting a car, are you?” asked Fr. Torculus.
“Certainly not,” barked the Liturgiologist, “at least, not for myself. But I have a friend, to whom I owe much, who is, at present, without a car, and who needs outdoor exercise. I thought I might get him one for Christmas, if they’re not too expensive.”
“You can get ‘em for a dollar down and the rest when they catch you!” said Fr. Torculus.
“You interest me strangely,” purred the Liturgiologist.
1 The English title for the liturgical book, Caeremoniale Episcoporum, which contains the rubrical foundation for Solemn Mass as well as ceremonies carried out by bishops.
2 In English, A Reminder of the Rites. This small book contained the ceremonies of Candlemas, Ash Wednesday and Holy Week as observed in small churches by a priest without a deacon or subdeacon. Last revised in 1920 (Peregrinus Gasolinus was published in 1928), it was superseded in 1955 for the Holy Week rites by the OHS and in 1962 by the Missale Romanum for Candlemas and Ash Wednesday, nonetheless this book is still used as a reference.
3 The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described.
4 Latin for “vases with flowers”.
5 An abbreviation of the book title referenced above in ff 1.
6 Latin for “good, good”.
7 Interestingly, their use was forbidden in the diocese of Rome in 1932 by the Cardinal Vicar as remarked in The Liturgical Altar, p 95 (and ff 1).
8 This is referring to French-speaking Canada, where such a practice (as in France) was common.
9 This is really a clever contrast as it refers to the French-Canadian practice, with the two words “de gustibus” of the full Latin phrase “de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum”; meaning “there’s no arguing about tastes and colors”, a phrase that originated in France! Literally, the phrase means “there is no arguing about taste” meaning in this particular case, it is not the best.
10 The abbreviation for the Sacred Congregation of Rites.
11 All the points mentioned by the Liturgiologist about the construction of the altar (and spending money where it is actually required) are wonderfully explained in further detail in Geoffrey Webb’s The Liturgical Altar.
12 Meaning literally in Latin “to hang in front of”, this refers to the altar vesture sometimes called the altar frontal.
13 Latin for “conceded” or “agreed”.
14 Sounds like a great deal on a new car.
NB: potted flowers should not be on the altar.
Picture from "Candles in the Roman Rite".
Note also the "altar gong" which is forbidden to be used as the altar bell. See the linked Peregrinus piece below.
Considered by many to be the "bible" on the Catholic altar.
This book includes useful illustrations on how to properly vest the altar, and use extra candles and flowers for festive occasions.
This book complements "The Liturgical Altar" and covers more matters.