Having recently celebrated the November feasts of All Saints and All Souls (or was it Halloween we were celebrating last week?) It seems that Christmas has already started. Living in Ireland, we do not even have the fig leaf of Thanksgiving to camouflage the start of the commercial observance of Christmas.
I used to consider certain Christians’ condemnation of the early start of the Christmas season to be a little exaggerated. What’s the problem, I thought, if people want to play music celebrating the Birth of Christ before the canonical December 17 start of the liturgical preparation for Christmas. In so many areas the secular world is at odds with the Christian message, so if people want to sing songs about “the little Lord Jesus” in early December, then this can only be a positive thing and those who criticize it are only sour grapes.
However today I saw an advert on my computer for a particular type of whiskey-based Irish Cream Christmas cake (which incidentally is no more Irish than a particular type of US breakfast cereal that has a leprechaun as its mascot). The advert screamed “Why Wait for Christmas?”
Why, indeed? I thought. Today we can’t bear to wait. Christmas is celebrated whenever we want and we seem incapable of waiting for anything. The proliferation of Advent Calendars in our stores catechizes us that the best way to prepare for Christmas is to indulge ourselves every day. Tiffany & Co. recently unveiled a $112,000 Advent Calendar . The Advent themes of eschatology and preparation for our own end is obviously ignored.
But perhaps there is something in the traditional season of Advent and some value to waiting. For many in the First World, there is no material need to wait for Christmas. We can afford to have a nice meal whenever we want. Our credit cards can buy a nice gift whenever we desire. What our grandparents spent months saving for is too close to our daily reach. But this only means that we have lost the grace of waiting. There is a real danger that Christmas will no longer be special.
Reflecting further I remembered a poem that I learned as a child. Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967). This poem, entitled Advent, is a lament for those who “have tested and tasted too much,” those who have lost their “wonder” The image of Advent as a penitential time when all that was available was “dry black bread and the sugarless tea” brings back memories of my own grandfather who was born a few parishes over from Kavanagh and who I remember doing such penance in my own childhood.
May all of us receive the gift of “wonder” and a renewed spirit of “waiting,” so that we can avoid the spirit of excess in these weeks of the pre-Christmas time so that we can truly be ready to go out to meet Christ who comes at Christmas “with a January flower.”
We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.
Sadly, there are numerous parishes where the manger scene goes back into storage on New Year’s Day and they are back to the hymns of Ordinary as early as Epiphany Sunday. Have we lost the great 12 days of Christmas in it’s entirety? What about Christmas all the way to Candlemas in February? What about the day before the feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8th) as a fast and abstinence day. The week before Christmas there is Ember Wednesday (no meat), Friday and Saturday (no meat and some fasting). Christmas Eve is supposed to be a day of fast and abstinence too, isn’t it?
Has our current Catholic “traditions” really bottled us and wrapped all up with the commercial season? If so, why would we even raise an eyebrow when we can simply celebrate a secular “Christmas and Sales Season” and a sacred “Christ Mass.” Afterall, aren’t we “both-and?”
I am confident that our Three Kings will stay in the cupboard until January 4th*, and then stay adoring the Lord until Candlemas. And that applies both to the expansive version in the Lady Chapel and to the reduced version outside the church door (restricted by the size of the weatherproof box).
* When we will start Epiphany with the evening Mass, a sad concession but required by our bishops .