An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
Given the time and season, I've not taken time to proofread...please forgive the unusual quantity of errors that no doubt exist here...but some thoughts on the time of the year I've pieced together over the last few days
Christmas is bigger than Easter in this neck of the woods. While it’s not unusual or terribly unexpected to see most businesses closed on Christmas Day, not so for western Easter. I did notice a few stores closed, but all three of the major grocery stores here in Poulsbo kept their normal hours last Sunday. Also, during the Christmas season, at least one major radio station in this, the greater Seattle area, switches to all holiday music starting the day after Thanksgiving, which is something that can hardly be imagined possible for Easter. Think about all the “secular” and “seasonal” songs we have for Christmas such as “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snow Man” and yet we have no secular equivalents for the Spring born Easter. What about this winter holiday makes it so much more appealing to our celebratory senses?
This actually calls to mind a different gripe of mine: what on earth is intended by offering someone “Season’s Greetings!” And why isn’t it applicable at pretty much ANY day of the year? Easter has no such equivalent. I wonder if prime time TV still bothers to play some of those traditional Easter specials for kids? I know Rudolph and the Peanut’s Christmas special still gets airtime – now alongside the Shrek special. As far as I know, Shrek doesn’t celebrate Easter.
Okay, back to the task at hand: What is it about Christmas that wins the “American Idol” contest over and above Easter? In talking with some people about this, some have suggested that Easter is a little too somber. Indeed, the birth of a baby coupled with “Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men” is one thing, but the brutal beating and crucifixion of a man even if coupled with His “rising from the dead” (remember “zombies”) is just too much and speaks too personally to people. In essence then, Christmas is easier on the conscience. Others suggested that the gift-giving emphasis of Christmas and the natural marketing and consumerism that would then feed upon one another like gluttonous cannibalistic swine and thereby rendering the holiday morbidly obese – far too big to miss!
Several years ago I can recall being shocked that there was a news article reporting on the fact that there was presented to many churches a “dilemma” because Christmas happened to fall on a Sunday. According to it, there was a good deal of debate about what to do and not a few churches opted to forgo Sunday services in favor of the more traditional means of celebrating Christmas. Well, logically this “dilemma” ought to repeat itself every 7 years, but I strangely have no recollection (actually not surprising) of it happening in the past while I attended churches that might have debated the issue. But, in my particular context now, it would be unthinkable not to gather to share the common cup. More than that: it would be unthinkable not to gather together as the Church on Christmas morning no matter which day of the week it happens to fall upon! Many of us converts to Orthodoxy can probably still recall our personal dilemmas of breaking the tradition of sitting about sleepily in our pj’s drinking coffee while the kids bathe in the furious and insatiable green and red aura of materialism around the Christmas tree.
This time of Holy Week often has me reflecting on my life in many different ways – some good (prescribed) and some not so good (dangerously self-medicated). But one which is perhaps neither, is contemplating how much my life has changed since adopting (to some degree, returning to) what is to me a new context, but in an of itself quite ancient.
Have I abandoned American traditions in favor of Slavic customs? No, I think not…at least I would not phrase it as such. But, clearly I do do things differently than most Americans – many of whom no doubt think it strange that I take so much time off during Holy Week and that I go to services so much, or that my kids actually have to wait until AFTER a lengthy Church service to open their Christmas gifts. Or that Pascha (Easter) is a HUGE deal to us, very much acting like an anchor or a touch point in our communal lives. Sometimes it is difficult to mesh an Orthodox life with a culture that has enjoyed little or nothing of its influence…but more and more I think American culture is suffering the influence of a mishmash of various religious and non-religious lives and the results of such diversity celebrating seems to be an over-arching agnosticism about it all. Let’s be logical folks, you cannot really believe EVERYTHING! So, one could say that I am simply choosing one tradition amongst many that coexist here – it just so happens that the one I’ve chosen sometimes bumps into others that are more common.
That being said, the customs we keep, varied though they may be to some degree throughout the Orthodox world, are decidedly Christian before they are Russian, Greek, Arabic, Romanian, Ukrainian, Slovak, etc etc. Yes, some of the specifics such as special foods and such are local and regional specific, but the massive emphasis on the “Feast of Feasts” is unmistakably Christian...as we would say: “it is meet and right.”
A final thought about why it might be that Christmas ranks Easter in the west: theology. Lacking the notion of the Blessed Sabbath, which is that astonishing service that links and transitions the brutality of Holy or Good Friday to the glory of Pascha or Easter Sunday. Take that transitions away and build the whole of your salvation into the events of Good Friday and then the Day of resurrection becomes merely a footnote. But if everything in Holy Week points toward the glorious Resurrection and that Resurrection is perceived as not being an exclamation point on an event, but THE event itself, then suddenly our perspective radically changes. “Death is trampled down by death”...and as such suddenly Holy or Good Friday isn't the same anymore. One man being punished for our sins...yes...but there's far more going on. FAR MORE! And it renders this the most wonderful time of the year!
Your analysis of the emphasis in the West on the Nativity in comparison with the Orthodox emphasis on Pascha strikes me as being spot-on, both with respect to the difference between the western and eastern Churches, and to the sacred-secular divide. Not as much to market at Easter as at Christmas! However, there are at least two secular songs for Easter that you have overlooked: Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade" (from the movie of the same name), and "Here Comes Peter Cottontail." ;-)
Good to hear from you...I hope and pray all is well with you and yours.
Yes, I suppose there are a few "secular" Eastern songs out there...I'd clear forgotten about "Cottontail." None-the-less...a radio station could hardly fill a couple hours of programming for Easter, let alone days.
It's interesting to ponder the difference of emphasis I see between Orthodoxy and our culture popularly influenced by western Christianity. Each Pascha I grow to appreciate more and more the traditions and Traditions I have made my own.
It's ol' man Yule, he can tolerate just so much religiosity and he gets his fill at mid-winter. Modern humankind has little or nothing of its own but in its bones is the celebration of “sun return”, we have done that for millenia even if today we sate ourselves with what our ancestors could only dream of. Easter is different though, by Easter the biological clock in the depths of our being tells us we are safe and if we don't love Christ why should we care that He is risen from the dead? You're right – everyone can identify with a baby being born but no-one can casually imagine the Beloved returning from the grave.
The answer lies in the fact that American Christmas is NOT a continuation of European Christmas. The fact is that the American colonies did not observe Christmas. It was seen as "papish." It was actually illegal in Massachussetts for a number of years. It was much later, in the romantic 1800s, that writers in America and England, tried to resurrect a "victorian Christmas", mostly consisting of sentimental songs, foods, stories (night before christmas), Santa Claus, etc. Dickens contributed to this odd resurrection of a holiday that had never existed with his "Christmas Carol" which is nothing more than a morality play. Many of our christmas carols, even the ones that seem "hymnlike", were never sung in churches; they were, like the rest of it, expostfacto creations. In America, we live with a myth (counter-myth?) that Christmas has been slowly "secularized." This simply is not true. American Christians never wanted to observe Christmas. Easter is a lesser "feast" because the secular establishment hasn't tried (yet), or hasnt' succeeded in making it a bunny/candy day, but they will. And I think one thing that frustrates their efforts is the fact that it falls on a different day every year. It simply doesn't behave like a civil holiday. That's why they're trying to make it a fixed day.
Your comparison, and Fr. John's contribution, are right, but the American emphasis on Christmas is a coincidence; it has nothing to do with the Roman observance, as Maria von Trap once observed in her biography.