The bizarre effects of Christmas bazaars

In case you haven’t reached your quota of reflections on the disappearing season of Advent, here’s another one, brought to you by the parish Christmas bazaar. Why would this matter with regard to the liturgical season of Advent? Like many events based in both community and consumerism, a parish Christmas bazaar can be an event of community building designed to reach across potential divisions, an act of justice, or an all-consuming step toward obscuring the richness and necessity of Advent.

In the large multicultural parishes in which I spent time in California, an annual bazaar, whether at Christmas, before the beginning of school term, or another time, often meant the sharing of food and crafts from the multiple cultures of the world represented by parishioners. The ‘goods’ became a means of sharing who people were, how they celebrated Christmas in their own cultures, and the event contributed to making diverse groups into a common worshiping body, especially in those parishes which observed separate language-specific liturgies during most of the year. Regardless of the time of year, the sharing of foods and crafts was generally not about raising money, the food items were free, the crafts nominally priced or traded. The point was to communicate identities and share across differences towards commonalities.

The second type of bazaar, generally also advertised as a place to buy Christmas presents, was of a very different order. Here, the items were made by a group of people often far removed geographically from the parish, and the sale was a parish-wide undertaking to support an indigenous or other oppressed group by facilitating the travel and money exchange for homemade crafts which could support families in far-flung places. The Advent associations with justice and mercy, often tinged with penance for the sins of colonialism or other, made these bazaars fit with Advent, especially in English Anglican parishes already conversant with Fair Trade items, and/or Roman Catholic parishes linked to Central American victims of ongoing civil wars.

But, it is the third type of Christmas bazaar, probably present in many places but one I have personally noticed in many Canadian parishes here in Ontario, Canada, that prompted this reflection. Here, the proceeds are not for the support of particular groups, or to create a multicultural market of meeting. Here, the crafts are frequently sold to fellow parishioners in quite homogenous communities, as a parish fundraiser – often to support the building fund. The reality of old buildings and cold winters means a never-ending need to raise money for the church building, in addition to general financial maintenance of the parish. When joined to an, at times, out-and-out desperation to draw in new members, the combination of Christmas, commercialism, parish panic, and financial necessity come together to create a seasonal phenomenon that seems to defy common sense, let alone theological and liturgical sense.

In order to draw people in, the reasoning goes, the whole church needs to be decorated for Christmas by late November. This creates an all-around Christmas feel which is (wrongly) perceived to allow competition with the high temples of Christmas commercialism. And, having completely decorated for Christmas at the beginning of Advent, one might as well add Christmas music instead of Advent music, and with this, the “spirit” of the season maintained in early Christmas pageants, parades, crafts, and more. The effects of the bazaar have shifted the parish toward the auto-fueling cycle of buying things, nostalgic remembrance, and being happy, leaving the church with nothing countercultural to offer for the good of parishioners and those who might be looking for something else at this time of year. Even stranger, in those churches where the liturgy is fixed (and clergy have made vows to follow said liturgy), it means for that hour or so on Sunday morning – following a second half of November and first half of December set of readings on death, judgment, heaven, hell, and what it might mean to stand before God at the ultimate adventus – these liturgies become out of sync with everything around them. In addition, encompassed in musical texts about the baby Jesus, the inescapable fixed texts of the proper prayers and scripture readings become completely unmoored from anything in parish activities or beyond, and often within the liturgical events themselves. The liturgies of Advent are no longer guides for the season, they are instead archaic and out of place oddities.

So, what’s to be done?  The answers are probably different for different ecclesial groups and geographical areas. I suspect here in Canada that climate affects the rush into Christmas, a primal urge toward light and gatherings (parties!) to counter the increasing dark and cold. But why not the fullness of the actual Christmas season through at least its 12 days, if not all the way to Candlemas? This is part of a cultural shift that might very well benefit from the voices of immigrants who bring other patterns of celebration.  In this neck of the woods, the huge growth in Eastern Christian immigrants and the expansion of parishes seems a good place for local communities to start with shared ecumenical Christmas gatherings and projects in January, and learn a different way (and different dates) of observing the season.

The dreaded association of blue with Advent is a tale that has been beaten to death, but yes, I will rail against it one more time. From the best detective work I can do, this is an invention of American Lutheranism in the 1970s, perhaps as part of the preparation for the US 1975 Lutheran book (and if the words “Sarum blue” even cross your mind – wipe them out, it may have a connection to Marian feasts – but, nothing.to.do.with.Advent). Without any traditional and historical roots, blue – especially in its baby blue, or worse, bright perky blue shades, becomes a type of code for many parish communities: we do “hope” instead of “death”. We do “life and the baby Jesus” instead of “sin and judgment”. You may be shaking your head and arguing that blue is better for other reasons – and that this does not reflect your parish. Fair enough, but it is the reality in many places – I’ve been doing an informal survey for the last two years, asking “what does blue at Advent mean to you and your community, what does purple at Advent mean to you and your community?” Even in Roman Catholic parishes, where the colour is ‘dictated’, blue has been added  to – or has replaced – purple in its multiplicity of shades.

It is interesting that the rejection of a “mini” Lent theology of Advent (almost always without any sense of the history of the season) is growing alongside the tsunami of the retail Christmas. The religion of consuming is a cultural context hard to overcome, and frequently overwhelms any voices of opposition. I think the more striking alignment for observant Christians, however, is the increasing number of parishes offering ‘blue Christmas’ services for those who are not full of joy in the season. So ‘blue’ here takes on a very different meaning; is there any correlation between setting aside the quiet contemplation of the end of time and our faith in the life to come in Advent, and the need for ‘blue Christmas’ reflections – many of which are well attended? In addition, for those of us who live in areas with a substantial Jewish population, the popular Jewish decorating colours of blue and white add another layer of contemporary meaning to blue – how do these fit together?

Colour only has meanings by association and some psychological assumptions – neither blue or purple ‘mean’ anything transculturally. But purple does have historical associations through Christian tradition not just with penance but with royalty. If we look at another 20th century invention, the Feast of Christ the King, how does purple flowing through Advent help keep the focus on the adventus of the reign of God, and on Christ in majesty, rather than the domesticated infant in stable (or cave, or back room…)? Perhaps no colour in Advent is the solution, or maybe white, or the European domestic tradition of red, or turning to other markers of delineating Advent as both a distinct time and as part of the rhythm of the year. I suspect that none of these are a perfect solution to the disappearing season of Advent. That needs to be addressed not with first cancelling bazaars and Christmas decorations or arguing about colours, but with catechesis on the wisdom of the liturgical year alternating waiting and fulfilment, preparation and celebration, the ‘already’ as well as the ‘not yet’ of eschatological faith, inculturation and countercultural practices. Is it that we simply cannot wait for Christmas, or is it that we do not want to dwell on the images of our Advent prayers and scriptures? That will take much more work in living the rhythm of a liturgical season that so embodies the tension of Christian spirituality between having already risen from the dead in the waters of baptism and awaiting the fulness of the reign of God.

8 comments

  1. If we could just meet the people where they are: in the USofA Halloween would be the last day before Advent, which would culminate on Thanksgiving Day, and the next day would commence the 30 Days of Christmas – the greatest and final day of which would be celebrated on the fourth Saturday of December, with the ensuing New Year (Amurkan) Football Post-Season (aka the USA’s cognate to Carnivale) culminating on the first Sunday of February (followed in turn by the decidedly non-purificatory February Valentine Rites).

    (And, yes, I am quite familiar with how modern Christmas seasonal traditions evolved over recent centuries at least in the Anglosphere, including how the “Christmas shopping season comes earlier every year” meme is now just over a century old, as it dates at least to World War I. So this is not coming from a Good Old Days perspective.)

    I can still remember the Macy’s advertisement in the late 1980s that heralded (pun intended) this purer detachment from any historical developmental arc by counting down the Twelve Days of Christmas as the last 12 shopping days *before* Christmas. And last week, I just saw another merchant use the exact same meme.

    The blue Christmas thing: I certainly can recall, a generation ago, in communities haunted by a surge of death in the non-elderly, shall we say, that homilists and musicians made some effort to avoid a “Joy To The World, Dammit!” forcefeeding of joy for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses, but to instead build over the liturgical season towards Epiphany, which felt less haunted by recent loss in these largely non-Hispanic communities. But the best approach that I personally witness (so, yes, this is a subjective anecdote) was by a now-deceased priest, whose Christmas homilies always engaged the sense of profound darkness into which the Light of the Incarnate Son pierced into history through time and space. I can understand the impulse to avoid the topic, thinking (with some reason) that engaging it may hurt more than help, and perhaps leave children wondering in unhelpful ways. That said, many children experience deep darkness, and hardly always of the obvious kind (well-meaning homilists talking to groups of children may forget that if they can’t see any clues), and doesn’t necessarily help them to elide that reality.

  2. The colour blue for Advent and Lent (not for Our Lady) is mentioned as far back at the mid nineteenth century in collections of texts for ‘high church’ Anglican clergy. I have two examples of this in my library. I can’t remember whether Percy Dearmer also mentions it in ‘The Parson’s Handbook,’ but I am aware of blue vestments being worn in many churches of his tradition (including St. Mary’s Primrose Hill) in the last century. Westminster Abbey, much influenced by Dearmer (He was a Canon of the Abbey) has a set of blue copes presented by Queen Elizabeth II at her Coronation. These are still (I think) often worn for memorial services.

    As to Lutheran use, I am also aware of blue as an Advent colour in Swedish Lutheran Practice. Whether this is an indigenous tradition or whether it is Anglican influenced I don’t know.

    I did a study once of the many inventories of church goods compiled at the behest of Royal Commissioners in 1552/1553. These tend to mention blue vestments far more than violet, blue and red being the most common colours.

    AG.

    1. Yes Percy Dearmer has Advent Blue on page 116 of the 1907 edition (6th twice revised) of the Parson’s Handbook.
      “There is good English authority for the use of blue in Advent and Septuagesima, and even the first 4 Sundays (not weekdays) in Lent …” Not supported by a footnote though.

    2. Thanks Alan, I didn’t know that (I was only aware of the long standing English association of blue with Marian feasts) I will hunt this down…appreciate it!

  3. After years of doing battle to preserve Advent and separate it from Christmas music and decorations, I am willing, finally, to concede that the secular world has taken over trees, lights, decorations, greens, and even carols as elements of the “holiday season” that runs from Thanksgiving Day (in the USA) through New Year’s Day. Rather than continue to do battle over these issues, I would prefer to make the Advent and Christmas liturgies as well-celebrated as possible and deliberately counter-cultural. Let them be the reminder to believers and to the world that there are other values out there proclaimed by the church, that the celebration of the incarnation is not bound to one day, and surrender things that are essentially northern European winter symbolism adopted bu the churches and blessed with Christian interpretation. I do not know and am unable to comment on Hispanic and other non-northern European Christmas practices, but certainly those worthy of expressing Christian meaning should continue.

  4. I have never been to a parish that played Christmas songs during Advent. (During Mass – I know extra-liturgical Christmas concerts are a thing.) If I were a priest or a liturgist, I might be tempted to slip in “Joy to the World” on Gaudete Sunday – it is about joy and never explicitly mentions Christmas! – but I have never even seen that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *