Skip to comments.That incredible shrinking Advent-Christmas season
Posted on 11/30/2005 12:38:20 PM PST by A.A. Cunningham
That incredible shrinking Advent-Christmas season
Twenty-one years in Washington, D.C., should have rendered me impervious to the bizarre. But I confess to having been taken aback in mid-October when, inside a grocery where I was vainly searching for some decent Peccorino Romano, I saw an enormous Christmas display with ersatz snow and all the trimmings. It was bad enough when stores started putting out the Christmas decorations (or, as they now say, holiday decorations) a nanosecond after sweeping their shelves of leftover candy corn and other Halloween goodies beloved of dentists with medical school bills to pay. But Santa and the elves two weeks before Halloween?
It works the same way at the other end, so to speak. The estimable Father John Jay Hughes reports that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a feature article last December 26 on how to disassemble and store Christmas decorations. As Father Hughes commented, In my childhood, thanks to my Anglican priest-father, we were never permitted to put up the tree or any Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve. And once up, they stayed there until at least the Octave of Epiphany (which, Id perhaps better note, would be January 13 if, that is, the bishops hadnt moved Epiphany from its proper date to a nearby Sunday, a folly surpassed only by the biblical absurdity of Ascension Thursday Sunday).
Fifteen years of intense involvement with Poles and Poland has given me an even more capacious view of the Christmas season. In Poland, the decorations stay up, the Christmas carols are sung, and the celebration of the Incarnation continues until February 2, the Feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas. Thats the way it was in the papal apartment in Rome between 1978 and 2004. And thats the way it will be in Polands intact Catholic culture this year.
Railing against secular Americas calendrical translation of the Christmas season into a period between mid-October and 8 a.m. December 26 (or whenever the post-Christmas sales start at the malls) is of less importance, though, than trying to ensure that the Churchs Advent and Christmas seasons are not temporally hijacked by the surrounding culture. If memory serves, Advent got exceedingly short shrift last year, being essentially just three weeks long: which meant twenty-five percent less time to reflect on the two great themes of that wonderful time the Second Coming and the Incarnation. Worse yet, more and more Catholic churches seemed to be succumbing to the secular redefinition of the seasons by putting up Christmas decorations during the third or even second week of Advent. The truncation was just as bad at the far end, what with the transfer of Epiphany to Sunday, January 2.
We need more Advent and Christmas, not less but we need them at the proper time, which is the Churchs time, not Macys time or Wal-Marts time. Taking Advent seriously would be a good beginning. The widespread use of Advent wreathes in churches is a welcome development. Even more welcome would be pastors actively encouraging every Catholic family to have an Advent wreath in their home, to learn the rituals of lighting it, and to pray together at the nightly lighting of the wreath during one of the most spiritually rich seasons of the Churchs year of grace.
Reconstituting the liturgical calendar would also help. The Solemnity of the Epiphany belongs on January 6, period. Restoring Epiphany to its proper place would do justice to a generally neglected feast; in a nifty countercultural move, it would also stretch the Christmas season back to its proper length. And while were on the Epiphany, why not stretch it out, too? Bringing back, say, three Sundays After Epiphany would give the Church a greater opportunity to pray over the mission-to-the-nations, one of the great themes embedded in the Lords epiphany. Whats the rush to get to Ordinary Time (an ill-advised moniker if ever there was one)? Wouldnt it be spiritually beneficial to spend more time in that extraordinary time marked by Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany?
Lets be different. Lets let liturgical time define this unique time of the year.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Weigels column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3215.
Good article. Thank you.
An interesting article...when I was growing up, the Christmas tree went up the week before Christmas, and came down on Jan. 2nd or 3rd or so...that was my moms way...
When I first married, we put the tree up usually about the second week of Dec. and my husband, said that we should leave the tree up until Jan. 8th or so, relying on his grandmothers Catholic tradition...
Nowdays, we put our many Christmas trees up beginning the first week in Dec. and leave them up through all of January...thats just the way we like to do it...
In my neighborhood, there are two houses, which put on some very spectacular Christmas decorations in their front yards...they are just across the street from one another...somehow it looks like a friendly little competition...they have so many decorations out front, that we have taken to calling them 'House a'fire 1' and 'House a'fire 2'....because they are so very bright, they do look as if those houses are on fire...they both put their decorations up the week before Thanksgiving, ,and then rip them all down the day after Christmas...
Personally I hate to see the Christmas decorations come out as soon as the Halloween decos and candies are taken of the shelf...I am a senior, so I just remember the times, when the day before Thanksgiving, the stores were all in their fall attire...then on Wed before Thanksgiving, and probably on Thanksgiving itself, the store employees worked overtime, to change their store from its usual look to a Christmas wonderland...it happened overnite, and to a child, it seemed like magic, the magical wonder the comes at Christmastime...
But I see, traditions change, and now the Christmas decorations come out sooner and sooner...I have been to Costco in mid-August, and already see the Christmas decorations...I suppose in time, you will be able to buy your July 4th decos, along with your Christmas decorations...
This liturgical Lutheran pastor also says:
I'm preaching at a midweek Advent Vespers tonight. Many Lutheran churches still have special Wednesday evening services during Advent, which helps.
But it's still a battle, even with faithful church members to let Advent be Advent and Christmas (all 12 days of it) be Christmas.
Services on Christmas Day--one of the three chief festivals of the church year--are usually sparsely attended. Even Christmas Eve, which used to be packed everywhere, now doesn't even bring out all the "twice-a-year Christians."
Epiphany festival services on January 6, which used to be fairly common in Lutheran churches, have, sad to say, fallen on hard times and now are hard to find.
I like the title. I was already planning to use a similar title for my Bible class next week . . .
"Advent: Infrequently Asked Questions about the Squeezed-out Season"
The church, unlike the culture, says don't jump into Christmas quite yet. It is the season of Advent not Christmas. Advent is about getting ready; about patience; about finding God in the most unexpected places. Advent is
counter-cultural. The culture I think treats this time like a fast food restaurant. We want everything instantaneous while the church says Christmas is more like a gourmet meal. It will take time to prepare.
This year I decided that I had to take Advent seriously (in part because the last few years the real impact of the Incarnation has started perculating through my thick head).
This year I made a change. I bought a small tree, table sized, and religious themed ornaments, and only added a few non-religious ornaments that had sentimental value.
Under it's boughs, I have set up a creche. I have Mary and Joseph there now, later I will add some of the other figurines, but the Baby Jesus of course doesn't come til Christmas eve.
Not a reindeer or santa in sight.
And to remind me, I say the Angelus every morning.
The keywords for me are watch, wait, fast and pray.
The question is not how many presents will I get, but how many presents can I give to my Lord?
It makes the season very different.
I do like to get up the outside lights early in Advent - not anything spectacular - but lights of cheer and welcome in the darkness - candles in the windows and a garland along the porch, one star of David. Tomorrow we'll start reading Bible verses from the Advent calendar each night, and we light the candles on the wreath on Sunday.
It would be hard to wait until Christams eve to put up the tree! But I have tried to make it more prayerful - religious ornaments, and everyone in the family has an ornament symbolic of their name - a rock for Petra, or a little abacus for Joseph (he shall add) - all Biblical names or saints' names and I pray for protection and blesing as I put them up. The tree stays through Epiphany and by then I'm sated with the gaudiness of it. The children would have it up until February if they could, but they sure don't want to see Christmas in November.
Also, in the last couple of years I've been noticing that "Midnight Mass" is scheduled for 10 or 11 (not midnight or (shudder) at 5 pm in many of the parishes.
To add insult to injury, it ruins the old joke about people (the bi-annual types) calling in to find out "what time will Midnight Mass be held?".
My wife was reading a women's magazine article about forming "holiday traditions" in families. One of the people quoted went on at great length about how they celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas starting on December 12th, with gifts and the whole works.
This was reported without a hint of irony. I had to see it to believe it.
Celebrate the Twelve Nights of Christmas and have a 12th Night Epiphany Party!
We are doing that and doing the teaching that goes along with the Wise Men, Bethlehem, frankincense, gold, myrhh, the names of the wise men, gifts to the child Jesus and Lamswool punch and Crown cake!
**we should leave the tree up until Jan. 8th or so, relying on his grandmothers Catholic tradition... **
Absolutely! Until the Epiphany!
When my dad was a kid, folks would right the names of the three Kings over their doors and go visting the houses of relatives and neighbors to share Oplatki. The local Priest would also make the rounds.
**The keywords for me are watch, wait, fast and pray.**
My family kept ours up until the 8th.
We are packed out for Midnight Mass.
Also have a 5:30 Vigil Family Mass.
Then during Christmas Day, 8:15, 10:30 and at 12:30 -- Misa en Espanol.
I expect that only the 8:15 AM will be a little sparse. All the others I think we will have to pull out chairs and chairs and chairs. (Too bad, we don't have the expensive kind with kneelers!)
Wrong timeline for the 12 days of Christmas in that article.
The twelve days of Christmas are from December 25 through January 8, the Epiphany -- arrival of the Three Kings to worship the child King.
That is one of our activities too. With chalk that has been blessed as a sacramental. Then the family will say a blessing for their home.
We are packed as well. We actually have to have 2 masses simultaneously. One in the church itself and the other in the parish hall.
I always wonder if these "holiday Catholics" feel funny about showing up twice a year.
We observe Advent with fasting and prayer. We put our tree up the evening of the 4th Sunday of Advent but don't light it until Christmas Eve. We leave it up through Jan. 6. We celebrate Ephiphany with a party and bless our house.
St. Nicholas leaves chocolate coins on the children's shoes on St. Nicholas' Day.
I do hang a wreath on the door so we don't look too strange to our neighbors.
**I always wonder if these "holiday Catholics" feel funny about showing up twice a year.**
We have experienced great success in putting an invitation to our returning Catholics program (which we do once a year after Easter) in the Christmas bulletin. It is astounding how many phone calls we get about our "Catholics Can Come Home Again" class.
Epiphany falls on January 6th, not the 8th.
December 26th is the 1st day of Christmas, the 27th is the second, etc...
January 6th is thus the 12th day of Christmas.
Hmmm...I always started counting with December 25 = 1st Day so that January 5 = 12th Day; eve of Epiphany therefore Twelfth Night.
You may very well be right. I had thought that 12th Night celebrations happened on the day of Epiphany itself -- the last fling of the feasting before ordinary time again started the next day.
In the West, Epiphany is linked to Christmas thematically, since it commemorates the coming of the Wise Men, so it made sense to me that Epiphany itself would be the 12th day. I may be completely wrong in my memories.
In Orthodoxy, Theophany (Jan 6) is not thematically linked to Christmas in the same way. Since we commemorate the Baptism of Christ, at which the "worship of the Trinity was made manifest," it is not linked to the events surrounding the birth of Christ the way it is in the West.
We actually read the account of the Wise Men at Liturgy on Christmas Day itself, as the culmination of the Christmas story. The Old Testament prophecies of Christ and the other Gospel passages regarding the birth of Christ have already been read by that point (at the Royal Hours in on the morning on the Eve, at the Vesperal Liturgy around mid-day of the Eve, at at Matins of the Vigil of the Nativity.
There is even a delineation between Nativity and Theophany by making the Eve of Theophany a strict fasting day, just as the eve of the Nativity is a strict fasting day. Liturgically, Theophany is actually a higher ranking feast than the Feast of the Nativity in the Orthodox Church.
There is more liturgical hoopla for us at Theophany as well, since that is when we do the Great Blessing of the Waters (both in the Church for the year's supply of holy water at at the nearest large body of water), and when the priest goes around to all the houses of parishioners to bless their homes for the year.
More than you wanted to know. If you find out definitive answers, let me know.
I don't understand the problem. The original date for Christmas was chosen to replace a pagan sun-god festival. There's nothing sacred about doing it a certain time of year. If we truly followed the early churches, we would keep on re-Christianizing the seasons.
In our church we used the first 3 weeks of November as a time of fasting and penitence. We started our feasting on Thanksgiving and will continue until Christmas. It honors the pattern of fasting before feasting yet allows us to give new meaning to the festivities. Many have already commented how different it's felt to participate in Christmas festivities this year. There is greater meaning, we enjoy the carols with everyone else, and the fasting created a space that allows us to enter in with true joy.
As a side-note, did you know that Caesar Augustus inaugurated a 12-day celebration called Advent to celebrate his birth? The early church just took that secular party and made it about Jesus.
An interesting tidbit is that the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th is actually quite a bit older than that of the Nativity.
The Nativity of Christ comes exactly 9 months later, on Dec 25th.
Thus, there is a strong case to be made that while Christmas did displace the "sol invictus" pagan feast, and coincides with the general time of the winter solstice, there may be ancient traditions within the Christian world that preserved the memory that the Archangel Gabriel visited the Virgin on or around March 25th.
Not a thing that is likely to be forgotten...
My mother, of blessed memory, always denied that Christmas was on December 25 because it replaced the Saturnalia. She pointed out what you just posted, namely that the Feast of the Annunciation had been celebrated even before Christmas and always on March 25. The calculation is easy to make. She said that her grandmother had told her this and she had heard it from hers and on back through the centuries.
Whether March 25 predates the absorption of pagan holidays doesn't counter the point that I made: That many parts of the liturgical calendar are a result of Christianizing what were pagan celebrations. Why not continue to do the same, and make so that our feasting and fasting days are congruent with the how our cultures holidays have evolved. We can re-Christianize it again.
What is the Angelus? I know it's a prayer, could you send me a link about it?
Very beautiful comments. I especially liked this:
"The question is not how many presents will I get, but how many presents can I give to my Lord?"
And even if we are very poor, we can always give him our heart and our life.
Here you go!
Thank you. I'll bookmark it.
I would describe what happened somewhat differently, namely that the popularity of certain Christian feasts were perhaps greater because they coincidentally fell close to certain pagan festivals.
This is obvious from the fact that in different parts of the Christian world, different feasts take on different levels of popularity, depending on what pre-existing local festivals were there. Old habits die hard, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
I once remarked to our priest that I found it interesting that at our parish, our Wednesday evening vespers service is pretty well attended, often better so than vespers services for higher ranking feasts that occur on other days of the week. He pointed out that in America, Wednesday is traditionally "church night," and that the many converts to Orthodoxy are already used to going to church on Wednesday night.
Likewise, we always have an excellent turnout for liturgies on Thanksgiving Day (regardless of what feast falls on that day), and on New Year's day (for the Feast of the Circumcision/Feast of St. Basil the Great.) This is because people are off work on those days.
These sorts of things, of course, happen naturally.
The question, of course, is whether Christianity transforms culture or whether it follows it and is blown with whatever cultural wind exists.
Modern Christianity in America doesn't seem to transform culture, it seems to follow it. It doesn't displace secular society, it comes up with poor "Christianized" imitations and substitutes. Just look at the drivel that passes for Christian music, especially these days.
At the core of the successful transformation of the pagan world into Christendom was an opportunistic Christianization of paganism, but rather the willingness to have a radical discontinuity with the surrounding society. The earliest feasts were those held on the anniversaries of the martyrdoms of Christians slaughtered by the surrounding culture.
Orthodoxy is not going to change its cycle of feasts and fasts. But if Protestant churches are able to find ways to transform, rather than imitate, the surrounding secular culture, more power to them. I just haven't seen that American Christianity has the strength or aptitude for it.
Very interesting! You are the first person who has confirmed for me what I thought must exist -- a living tradition of why Christmas is celebrated when it is.
Thanks for the corrections.