Christians have not always celebrated the Christmas holiday in this way—with canned music and decorations that begin long before the Thanksgiving turkey is stuffed and that end when the tree gets kicked to the curb on December 26. Christmas as we know it first began when our Christian ancestors in the Middle Ages took a perfectly good pagan observance of the winter solstice and wedged the birth of Jesus into it. And then it was the Victorians who created our modern, sometimes sentimental, version of Christmas. Add a splash of corporate marketing from Coca Cola, Macy’s, and Sears, Roebuck, and Company in the early twentieth century, and we get a sense of how our modern holiday was formed.
By the late twentieth century, of course, an increasingly multifaith and secular society had emerged, and “Christmas” had morphed into “the holidays.” There was a time when the average stranger one met in the West was a Christian—at least nominally so—but now religious pluralism is here to stay, and the diversity of religious expression is likely going to increase. It’s popular and vogue to critique the consumerism of this time of year, but instead, perhaps it’s worth considering the notion of a December holiday season as common ground for a secular society. And as a church, for the love of Jesus, let’s quit acting like this season has anything to do with him or his mother and father.
While I think hearing Christians utter the phrase, “Let’s put the Christ back in Christmas,” is a little sanctimonious, I too resent that somewhere along the line we’ve allowed corporations to co-opt our sacred symbols, steal our big religious day, and dress it up in candy canes and red-nosed reindeer. We seem to have forgotten that even Santa Claus, the primary symbol of this new thing called “the Holiday season” is, in fact, an unflattering caricature of a fourth-century Christian bishop. Bishop Nicholas of Myra, later Saint Nicholas, cared deeply for children, poor people, and those who traveled the world by sea—he didn’t hang out at the mall, posing for pictures with crying kids.
We really can’t have it both ways. We can’t remember and interpret for our own time the coming of Emmanuel, the anointed one, God with us, while at the same time blindly accepting that we have a civic responsibility to buy, buy, buy in order to stimulate the American economy. Let’s stop acting like our trips to the mall have anything to do with our spirituality or God in Christ. To do so is bad economics and bad theology, and it’s a habit that I’m sure would give the prophets of old plenty to rant about.
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When I moved from Atlanta to Seattle in 2008, I soon discovered that in December the Pacific Northwest was a place where you head out for work in the dark and then return home in the dark. And it was in this constant lack of daylight that I realized firsthand why our religious ancestors placed festivals and holy days in December: it was because we need light and diversion and hope. We need to gather in groups and party a little. For our ancestors who lived before electric lights, the dark was the most dangerous time of the day and, in the northern hemisphere at least, this darkness lasted a long time in the bleak midwinter. So whether you are a pagan, a Christian, a Jew, or worship at the high altar of American consumerism, some winter lights and food and parties are an awfully good idea—in some places and times, they are a matter of life and death. Several scientific studies suggest that we eat more in the winter because our DNA contains a directive to store up extra calories for the coming cold, dark days and nights. That high-fat, high-calorie deliciousness at the holiday party serves a purpose buried deep in our evolutionary history. And since Christmas is a high holy feast day for Christians, we have a religious obligation to dig in and drink up!
By anchoring the celebration of Jesus, the Light who had come into the world, to the darkest time of the year, the church gave future Christians a way to resist the darkness in the context of the life of Jesus. But rather than the frenetic four weeks that defines our current cultural celebration of Christmas, the church’s celebration of light and love and peace begins on the evening of December 24 and then lasts up to nine or ten more weeks.
Adhering to the liturgical calendar of the church year gives us a perfect way to resist cultural Christmas and to reclaim it as a Christian festival (albeit one with pagan roots). In this kind of celebration, Christians spend the four weeks leading up to Christmas preparing their hearts in the way of the Lord. Then when Christmas day arrives, it only signals the beginning. We actually get twelve more days just like it—to feast, to celebrate, and to throw a big, beautiful, midwinter party. Yes, there are twelve days of Christmas! All those gifts we sing about in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” recall a time when people gave each other gifts for the entire duration of the Christmas season. And yes, that might require a little time in the mall after Christmas Day, when stuff is a whole lot cheaper, the world is a lot less hectic, and there’s time to be more thoughtful about the things we buy or create for those we love.
But the party doesn’t stop there. Once the twelve days are over, we arrive at the Feast of Epiphany on January 6, when we sing about the coming of the three kings and celebrate that bright star which lit up the world and points the way to Jesus. In Latin cultures, Epiphany Eve (January 5) offers another chance to surprise children with gifts. Instead of St. Nick bringing the gifts, the three kings do, placing presents in children’s shoes left out by the door.
And then the church arrives at the season of Epiphany, which runs from January 6 until the beginning of Lent. This festive Christian season celebrates all the ways the Christ-light is revealed to the world and gives us winterbound folks more color, light, and fun. In Caribbean, Latin, and some European countries, it’s the time known as “Carnival.” And once again, there are more parties, bonfires, and parades to stand against and offset the darkness.
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A long time ago, I grew tired of a holiday season that began with Black Friday and ended when someone finally picked up all the crumpled wrapping paper under the tree. It seems to me that far too much energy and money go into shopping for perfect gifts and creating memories around pre-Christmas busyness like shopping, Nutcracker performances, and social obligations, leaving very little time for the spiritual preparation our religious tradition imagines. And besides, don’t we usually celebrate the birth of a new baby after the big day, not before? So here’s my recommendation for another way to celebrate the coming of Christ: spend next December doing more in preparation, however you do that—perhaps that means cooking, or making gifts, or helping others, or buying small gifts, or decorating the house. Consider spiritual preparation as well—going on a short retreat, taking a class on meditation, or spending time with one of the excellent teachers of Christian mysticism like Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, or Meister Eckhart. And then, by the time December 24 comes, have the lights on and the tree decorated; be ready, be awake, and be prepared to encounter the baby. Then, spend the next twelve days after Christmas celebrating, eating, drinking, and gathering with friends. Let it wind down a bit, and then as Epiphany dawns, begin the celebration again. In fact, let the good times roll from January 6 until midnight on Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras in French) when it all comes to an abrupt and exhausted end. That ought to be enough good times, no?
And by Fat Tuesday, the days will be longer and the nights will be shorter, and you can spend the forty days of Lent preparing for the journey to the cross, the grave, and the empty tomb. By grounding ourselves and our communities in the lifelong seasonal cycles of preparation, encounter and celebration that go against the grain of the wider culture, we just might, over time, and by the mercy of God, be transformed into the “little Christs” that our name “Christian” calls us to be.