So… they’ve taken Christmas out of Christmas and put it in Advent, and they’ve taken Christ out of Advent, except it’s not really Advent anymore, it’s Shopping Season, and then when the real Christmas comes, Christ is still in Christmas but Christmas is over. And who has done it is not who everybody thinks it is. (Are you still with me?) That is where modern American society is. The true Advent and Christmas are still here in the Church, but is anybody paying any attention?
Orthodox Advent and Christmas
Here’s how the Church intends us to keep this time of year: On November 15 our Orthodox Advent (Christmas) Fast begins. The calendars all say it should be kept like Great Lent. In parish use (outside the monasteries) I think it is usually just meatless. All Christians once kept an Advent Fast; now we Orthodox alone are left to tell you, and I’m not sure how many of us keep it. All the liturgical churches, east and west, follow approximately the same pattern. Advent is intended to be a time of quiet patient waiting, hope, prayer, repentance, reflection on the mystery of the Virgin and the coming of the Maker of all to our earth, as we move towards The Nativity of Christ – rather like Great Lent as we prepare for Pascha. Western Advent is shorter than ours but “fuller”, with many hymns and Scripture eadings leading up to Christ’s birth. We Orthodox don’t have as much “verbal” preparation for Christmas. Some readings speak generally of darkness and light. On November 26, this year, we get our first Advent hymn, the lovely Kontakion “The Virgin Comes Today” – often sung slowly as we wait patiently.
Those who come to Sunday Matins/Orthros hear the Christmas Canon. The two Sundays before the Nativity of Christ are dedicated to Christ’s Ancestors and to those in his Genealogy. For us, that’s about it until a few days before Christmas. Hardly a celebration. The Christmas feast begins (surprise!) on Christmas and continues, with us Orthodox, for 8 days. Westerners get “The 12 Days of Christmas”. Our Fast goes off on Christmas and remains so till the great feast of the Epiphany, which originally was considered more important than Christmas.
How our culture has totally messed up Advent and Christmas
However today in popular secular practice the “Christmas” season now begins… when? Well, one Milwaukee radio station has played wall to wall 24 hours a day pop “Christmas” music since late October. As I write this on November 21, the White House has announced that “the Christmas season has begun”. The White House press corps are skeptical of many things, but they didn’t question that. In stores where once they played Christmas carols, now they play pop winter songs. (This I think is a good thing. They no longer use songs about Jesus to sell merchandise.) Santa Claus now arrives, sometimes by helicopter (and sometimes accompanied by whoever this is!), in mid November to sell merchandise. (This is a very bad thing. In 3 weeks we’ll talk here about “The Real Santa Claus” and how commercialism has turned our beloved Saint Nicholas into a car salesman.) Even many churches now schedule their Christmas concerts and activities before Christmas. Then after the Christian Christmas season actually arrives on December 25, it all stops. Just try to go to “The Nutcracker” or “The Christmas Carol” after Christmas Day. Sorry, it’s all over. Our neighbor lady across the street acts this out perfectly. Usually she puts her “Christmas” tree up on November 1 and takes it down on the day after Christmas. And as for poor Epiphany, after the holiday Shopping Season from Thanksgiving to Christmas, followed by civil New Years Day parties and a gazillion bowl games (there used to be 4), everybody is wiped out, and Epiphany is ignored.
To summarize: 1) In our culture there has been a War on Advent, and we have lost it. Advent has been almost completely secularized, and most Christians go right along with it. When I was a boy, at least in our part of Ohio, Christmas trees were not put up and decorated until Christmas Eve. No more. 2) Nobody has attempted to take Christ out of Christian Christmas. December 25 is still ours! But most Christians ignore the Christmas season and the Epiphany.
Now, I’m not trying to sound like Scrooge. But look: even Scrooge repented during Advent and then celebrated with the Cratchit family on Christmas Day. I’m only saying that the secular world around us has got it all backwards. And if we follow the secularists, we miss the joy of both seasons. One can hardly blame non-liturgical Christians who have no Church guide to the seasons. But we Orthodox and Roman Catholics and Anglicans and Lutherans have no excuse. We are living double lives at this time of year, and we really should know better.
Does this make any difference? Yes! Of course, sin and death are worse problems – keep it in perspective. But consider what a difference it would (will?) make if the commercial interests turned our Great Lent into a season of parties and shopping leading up the visit of the Easter Bunny, and if Christians just went along with it. What would we lose in our prayer life and spiritual growth and devotion to Christ? and if at the end of Lent we were so exhausted and our stomachs so full that the joy of the Paschal feast and Paschal season meant little to us? Think of what we would lose. Well, that’s what has already happened to Advent and Christmas. And by losing the Epiphany we have lost its theme of “Christ for the world”, the mission of the Church.
The War on Advent: How we lost it and who was behind it
Some television and political personalities say there’s a “War on Christmas”, that evil atheists are taking Christ out of Christmas. They’re onto something, but they haven’t got it straight. As I said, it’s really a War on Advent. And who’s behind it is not the atheists but the commercial interests, the very people who sponsor the television shows and the political campaigns of those who complain there’s a “War on Christmas”!
How did all this happen? Let’s do some history.
The feast of the Nativity of Christ dates back only to about the fourth century. Believe it or not, Christians did not celebrate Christmas for the first 3 centuries of the Christian era. Since we don’t know the date of Christ’s birth, Christians borrowed the date of the ancient pagan winter solstice festival of “Sol Invictus”, the return of the “Unconquered Sun” – since Christ is indeed the true Light that came into the world, that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.
Most of the rest of what we think of as “traditional Christmas” is in fact modern. Most popular Christmas carols go back only to the 19th century. Christmas gift-giving as we know it seems to have begun a couple of centuries ago. At first gifts were given to the poor. Then in the mid 19th century, about the time the lovely and bizarre poem “’Twas the Night before Christmas” became popular, people began to give Christmas gifts to children. In the late 19th century the commercial interests saw a marketing opportunity, and they promoted Christmas gift giving for all. Not surprisingly this caught on – for Jesus said “it is more blessed to give than to receive”, and after all who doesn’t also like getting presents?