Can we give up Christmas this Advent?

It’s time.  Time to join my liturgical compatriots in our annual, tired lament about the proliferation of “Christmas” junk which barrages our senses, as my colleague Timothy Brunk recently noted, nearly three weeks before Thanksgiving. 

What tipped me off this year?  Was it the massive display of blow-up Christmas-y inflatables at our local “home goods” store [find the hidden toddler]?  Was it the most frightening iteration of a Christmas tree I’ve ever seen [see below]?  Was it the neighbor’s display of life-size glitter-bedecked deer, jousted into their front yard?  (And we’re not talking one deer, here.  We’re talking about a herd, accompanied by floodlights, just in case you missed them.)    

Which one of these “things” reminded me of the impending doom of the secularized christmas season doesn’t really matter.  In fact, I don’t think it even matters whether or not we bother with the liturgists’ yearly, ritualized dismay over the loss of Christ’s Nativity or the steamrolling of our patient season of Advent.  The strife is o’er and the battle won…won by the dying mall—the elf on the shelf—and the peppermint mocha-flavored beverage I’m enjoying as I’m writing this. 

I’d like to propose something radically different—that we give up on Christmas.  Give it up completely—give it over hedonism and holiday shoppers.  They already have it anyway. 

See, now don’t you feel better? 

Now, I can’t take complete credit for this glorious suggestion.  I came upon the idea during a recent conversation with my spiritual director (yes, a Benedictine!). When I began to whine about how much I hate Christmas presents, my spiritual director suggested this bold plan: Let “them” have Christmas.  Let’s borrow a leaf from our Orthodox brothers and sisters—let’s celebrate Epiphany instead!!! 

I’m not entirely sure what such a practice would look like in the Western church—would we still have really weird caricatures of St. Nicholas, most of whom vaguely look like the 1930s ad for soda pop?  Would we still watch the best Christmas movie ever [Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, of course!]?  Would we still watch a crazed crowd of “Creasters” show up in parishes on Epiphany Eve but miss the evangelical call to come back in Ordinary time? 

Or, would a Western iteration of “Merry Epiphany” take on centuries of cultural and para-liturgical customs already practiced around the world, with parades, gifts, and beautiful holiday breads?  Those of us exposed to a mainstream, commercialized America may forget that, not only do our Eastern brothers and sisters celebrate with great solemnity the Epiphany, but many Western Christians actually still celebrate the end of the octave of Christmas.

So, maybe instead of the same-old diatribe about Advent getting lost in the shuffle and Christmas getting completely hijacked, we can try something new—something that reminds us of the cleansing waters of baptism and the light of Christ which pierces the darkness.

And so, as our Advent weeks approach, a very Merry Epiphany to you, and a Happy New Church Year.     

10 comments

  1. I propose that the Western Church join the East in celebrating Christas on 6 January and not tell the culture aobut it. Then they can have thheir “Happy Holiday”, “Winter Solstice” an whatnot and we who are Churches with a liturgical lifestyle can simeply celebrate on “their “ old day, our new day, and none will be the worse for wear. That would cut down lots of familial stress, and we can dust-off many of the “quaint tales” of our youth and pass them on.

    Any takers?

    1. Considering that January 5th/6th is typically a work day in the USA, and early in the “benefits year” (calendar year) so that many people haven’t accumulated vacation time (IF they even get vacation time, cough) to take any time off, it think it’s a non-starter here.

      1. PS: One-third of wage and salaried working Americans get 0 paid vacation days off. That percentage reflects improvement over the past decade, but is probably shocking to First World folks outside the USA – or to Americans with paid vacation days as a benefit.

    2. Just a clarification. The East does not celebrate Christmas on January 6 for the simple reason that January 7 (not 6) on our Gregorian calendar is December 25 on the Julian Calendar. The only church that celebrates “Christmas” on January 6 (Gregorian calendar) is the Armenian Apostolic Church, which never accepted the “new” December 25 date. If we were to celebrate on January 6 we would celebrate not Christmas but Epiphany (which the “East” does some twelve days after January 7).

      Thanks

      Max

  2. KLS – thank you for interjecting some *reality* to this opinion piece. So tired of the annual whatever happened to advent/christmas memes and complaints. Served with a pastor in the 1980s who would launch into this same tired meme every 1st Sunday of Advent; go on and on, complain, harangue, etc. The only thing I heard and could see was that he accomplished the exact opposite. More than 50% of our parishioners were more worried about paying the rent and electric/gas bills while being able to join their families for church services and family gatherings.
    Reality – meaning comes from what we do not what we say. This tension between society and deeper meaning of our Christian seasons, symbols, sacraments has been going on for two centuries. Give it a rest.

  3. I would turn the title to say that we cannot lose Advent, at Christmas or at any other time. For years I send my greeting cards with seasonal art/music to arrive at the start of Advent. Although millennia of Nativity-inspired hymns and carols overwhelm resources available for the next four weeks, creativity can make up for this in part. Psalms and hymns are already at hand and others will be devised. What is missing is widespread commitment to a turn toward expectation.

    The mistreated earth is having its say. Our own collective awareness is being directed as much to the medium-range phenomena in nature as to any end-point of it all. Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote: “The soil is bare now, nor can foot feel…” At some point I am sure I will see the color brown in our liturgies, once we come to terms with the utter desolation foreseen by first Isaiah. But then, Hopkins also reminded us to look for regeneration “deep down things” and Isaiah observed that tiny shoots from nearly dead stumps give us grounds for hope.

    In sum, a brown rather than purple Advent can help the church root its Laudato Si’ conversion.

  4. The shopping frenzy that is upon us now has nothing to do with the Saviour’s birth. If stores could supply our desire to get things by saying it was Christmas in July, then they would…oh wait, they do.

    My efforts to smile during this time when Jesus’ birth is recognized by all sorts of people at 5 am on Black Friday is what drives my Advent. If the question were to arise as to why is Christianity smiling during Advent, maybe Believers will bring back the major prayer movement found in these days. Now, if I could just avoid driving by the mall this month.

    1. Or perhaps be grateful that the mall is busy enough to require employees? Many malls are going the way of the retail Main Streets that preceded them.

  5. KLS your reflections call us to a gratitude for commerce.

    Maybe the employment of the faithful brings a greater smile. It does.

    My battle is the sway of an unbelievable push to celebrate a massive exchange of gifts on the day I am trying to come in contact with the Incarnation. My friends talk about buying things for themselves on the Friday after Thanksgiving. There is no room in the Inn now has a secondary image that the reason there is no room in the stable is because all our extra stuff is stored out there.

    I will take your advice of gratitude.

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone! I hope my “tongue in cheek” approach was appreciated–I, too, am quite beyond the regular sad stories we tell about the loss of Advent and the commercialization of Christmas. I think it’s time to talk about constructive solutions (though the specific one I propose is of course fraught with liturgical historical issues!).

    I do think there’s a kernel of truth in making the most of the 12 days of Christmas is understood in the West. Thanks, as always, for reading!

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