Last week I said I’d write about my favorite Christmas traditions (plural), but when I started writing about my favorite one it took over this whole post. The tradition: Advent.
Now, I know exploring the religious roots of secularized holidays tends to annoy people. The biggest criticism I get when I talk about these things is that many holidays as we celebrate them today (Halloween, Christmas, Easter) don’t really have roots in Catholicism, but in earlier practices. I have no problem acknowledging that.
I am positive Jesus of Nazareth was not born on December 25th. I can totally get behind the idea that, when the disciples went out into the world to spread the story of the man they believed was the Son of God, they saw people celebrating a winter festival meant to bring light to the darkest part of the year. A critical interpretation would say these disciples co-opted that festival, convincing those people to celebrate the birth of Christ while keeping their evergreens, holly, and mistletoe, none of which grew in Bethlehem. A more positive interpretation would say that those disciples saw this festival and said, “Hey, we believe a man was born, and he was the son of God. And we think that he came to bring light to the world. What better time to celebrate his birthday than at the darkest time of the year? And hey, evergreens really don’t die, so there’s an eternal life metaphor that works, too. We like it!”
Living in Florida for the past twenty years has added yet another dimension to my thinking on this. Here in the south we don’t have snow, evergreens, and holly. The only reason it gets dark much earlier is because of the time change. Sure, there’s less light, but it never gets as dark as early as it did when I was living up north. Florida is called The Sunshine State for a reason; it’s almost always sunny and bright here. Makes it kind of hard to get into the Christmas spirit, actually.
Oh, wait. No. It makes it hard to celebrate the kind of Christmas that they celebrate in the Northern States, and the place those traditions came from–Northern Europe. Because the Catholics may have co-opted many traditions, but the ones that characterize the secular “Christmas Season” are ones spread by European colonists. In Australia, this is not the darkest time of the year. This is summer. I imagine if the apostles had gone down under, and met with the aborigines there, and Australians had colonized half the world, Christmas might look very different. It might even be celebrated in July.
With all those complications in mind, I choose to focus on the religious roots of this season, whether it is the “right” season or not, whether it was “originally” Catholic or not. And after years of trying to do the secular thing–with Christmas trees and elves on shelves and baubles and bows, I find the traditions of my faith make this season much easier and less stressful.
First, while everyone calls this “The Christmas Season,” that is not true from a Catholic point of view. For us, this is the season of Advent–four weeks of watchful preparation for the birth of Christ. It is also Catholic New Year. We begin our liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas, and the readings at mass during these four weeks are not holly or jolly.
As a matter of fact, the colors of the candles on the wreath itself are primarily purple–and in our faith, purple signifies penitence, sorrow for our sins. The one pink candle is always lit on the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudete (Joyful) Sunday, to signify a break from the sadness and sorrow as we look forward to joy. It’s always great to see priests garbed in pink robes that day, when they normally wear purple during these weeks.
Catholics see Advent as a season of waiting and preparing the way of the Lord. We focus on the coming of Christ, but not the birth of the baby Jesus. We don’t read Jesus’ birth story, but the parts of the Bible that deal with the second coming–the end of days. We don’t sing “Joy to the World” or “Away in a Manger” until Christmas itself. The closest we come to what others consider a Christmas song during Advent is “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and that always sounds like kind of a dirge.
It gives this time of year an entirely new feeling if we view the lead-up to Christmas as a time of preparing for the end of our lives (or the end of all life). It makes us examine who we are right now and who we want to be. If we really throw ourselves into that sort of thinking, it makes us a little less likely to cut folks off in traffic or aggressively drive to get to that vacated parking spot at the mall. It makes us a little more likely to buy a coffee for the person behind us in the drive-thru, or donate a toy to Toys for Tots, or just take a deep breath and try to be a nicer person. It makes us less likely to want and buy and more likely to give. Which is, after all, the point, right?
Second, for Catholics, Christmas season starts on December 25th. It doesn’t end that day. A friend of mine from New York City used to post Instagram photos of Christmas trees thrown out on the curb around his neighborhood. Some were thrown out on December 25th. Realistically, those with live trees who put them up the day after Thanksgiving will be awash in dead pine needles by Christmas. Yet the trees discarded on Christmas Day always made me incredibly sad, because it meant someone was finished with Christmas when I was just beginning to celebrate.
In Catholic tradition, Christmas starts on December 25th and ends on January 6th with the Feast of the Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas (thus the song, The 12 Days of Christmas–not the 25 Days Before Christmas). The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem looking for Jesus. They were a little late. And if three kings can be late, why can’t we?
The best part of Christmas season starting on December 25th is that if I get my Christmas cards out late, I technically have until January 6th for them to arrive. The second best part is that I don’t have to have my house fully decorated by the weekend after Thanksgiving. I have until Christmas Eve. As a matter of fact, if you watch movies about olden times or read books set as late as Victorian England, you’ll read stories of people decorating their tree on Christmas Eve–because they were steeped in the traditions of Advent. My mom wouldn’t let us put up our tree before December 17th. Granted, I never put it off that long now, because the family loves Christmas decorations, but it certainly takes the pressure off.
Treating December 25th as the start of the season also takes off the constant but often unacknowledged pressure of having to celebrate something at the same time as I prepare for it. Think of it this way: we don’t ask a bride and groom to celebrate their wedding while they’re sending out the invitations and choosing the menu, right? They celebrate the wedding on the wedding day. Yet our secular culture, by renaming the season of Advent as the season of Christmas, requires that we simultaneously celebrate and prepare. I think that’s terribly unfair.
When I focus on this season as Advent, I don’t feel the pressure to enjoy and celebrate during the preparations–though of course they can be enjoyable, too. But if they’re not, I don’t mope. I know I will give myself time to celebrate and enjoy myself during the actual Christmas season–the time between December 25th and January 6th. The shopping is over, the food is made, the Christmas cards are out, and I have twelve days to just enjoy my life. Yes, there’s often work to be done and end-of-year tasks to do, but I feel this overwhelming sense of peace during that time, as if I really am reaping the rewards of all the hard work I did before the 25th. I didn’t have to celebrate in the midst of all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, party-going, and wrapping. I get to do that when there’s actually time to breathe.
So, if Christmas season has you all stressed out, think of it this way: It’s not Christmas season yet. It’s Advent. It’s not a time of joy, fun, and celebration. It’s a time of work, preparation, and trying to become a better person. Then, after the gifts are open and dinner is prepared on Christmas Day, put your feet up and celebrate a job well done. You’ll have run the race, and you will finally have time to rest and soak in the real joy of the season.
P.S. This is my last post of 2019. To all my readers, thank you for indulging me. It has been a pleasure to share my thoughts with you, and I have been delighted by those of you who have responded, whether here or on Facebook. I’ll be back again in 2020. Until then, Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, Happy Holidays to those who celebrate in other traditions, and Happy New Year to all!