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.
Many of us Christians wring our hands over the ongoing secularization and commercialization of Christmas. We write letters to the editors of our local papers, we wear T-shirts or bumper stickers declaring the real “reason for the season,” and we even contact our elected representatives. For some reason we think we can stem the tide of secularization by explicitly eliminating the process amidst our government, as if to suggest the government is the litmus test for our cultural-religious morality whether it be in the expression of huge government social programs or if the tree in the White House is referred to as a “Christmas” Tree or a “Holiday” Tree. I find myself weary of the process...to some degree it is just another front of the culture war that I used to be willing to fight but will not anymore. In fact, I will protest against that war by suggesting both sides invest too much in government and that if they would STOP doing that no one would care what President Obama chooses to call the tree in his White House. For all I care he can call it “Spanky the Light Conifer!”
But seriously, here's a thought for all of us Christians worried about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas: Don't secularize and commercialize YOUR Christmas. One simple (though not easy) way you can accomplish this is to participate in Advent and the traditional 12 days of Christmas. “Spanky the Light-Holiday” may begin On November 1st, but despite what you may be witnessing at the City Hall, the WalMart, or the Home Depot, Christmas doesn't actually begin until December 25th! I know that's hard to believe, but it's true. Additionally Christmas is not something that lasts a single day! It does not simply end after a furious unwrapping of gifts, a trash run for Dad, and a meal. It’s supposed to last for TWELVE DAYS! How cool is that! (Addendum: As Fr. C notes in the comments: for the Orthodox the Feast of Christmas lasts through the 31st of December, not up until Epiphany/Theophany as in the Western Church. So you westerners get 12, we get 7 days...figures!)
Advent, which begins shortly (November 15th for Orthodox Christians), has always in the past been a time for Christians to prepare - NOT by shopping or cooking but by personal discipline: fasting prayer, and almsgiving. Christians of all breeds, I think, need to return to this venerable tradition – especially if they bemoan what has become of Christmas in America.
Now, let me shut up, and leave you with these words from an unusual source. Maria Von Trapp, after she and her famous singing family escaped the Nazis and landed in America, was taken aback by the lack of Advent in America. I remind you that this would have been in the 1940's.
From “Around the Year with the Trapp Family:
The events that come to mind when we say "Christmas," "Easter," "Pentecost," are so tremendous that their commemoration cannot be celebrated in a single day each. Weeks are needed. First, weeks of preparation, of becoming attuned in body and soul, and then weeks of celebration. This goes back to an age when people still had time--time to live, time to enjoy. In our own day, we face the puzzling fact that the more time-saving gadgets we invent, the more new buttons to push in order to "save hours of work"--the less time we actually have. We have no more time to read books; we can only afford digests. We have no time to walk a quarter of a mile; we have to hop into a car. We have no time to make things by hand; we buy them ready made in the five-and-ten or in the supermarket. This atmosphere of "hurry up, let's go" does not provide the necessary leisure in which to anticipate and celebrate a feast. But as soon as people stop celebrating they really do not live any more--they are being lived, as it were. The alarming question arises: what is being done with all the time that is constantly being saved? We invent more machines and more gadgets, which will relieve us more and more from the work formerly done by our hands, our feet, our brain, and which will carry us in feverishly increasing speed--where? Perhaps to the moon and other planets, but more probably to our final destruction.
Only the Church throws light onto the gloomy prospects of modern man--Holy Mother Church--for she belongs, herself, to a realm that has its past and present in Time, but its future in the World Without End.
It was fall when we arrived in the United States. The first weeks passed rapidly, filled with new discoveries every day, and soon we came across a beautiful feast, which we had never celebrated before: Thanksgiving Day, an exclusively American feast. With great enthusiasm we included it in the calendar of our family feasts.
Who can describe our astonishment, however, when a few days after our first Thanksgiving Day we heard from a loudspeaker in a large department store the unmistakable melody of "Silent Night"! Upon our excited inquiry, someone said, rather surprised: "What is the matter? Nothing is the matter. Time for Christmas shopping!"
It took several Christmas seasons before we understood the connection between Christmas shopping and "Silent Night" and the other carols blaring from loudspeakers in these pre-Christmas weeks. And even now that we do understand, it still disturbs us greatly. These weeks before Christmas, known as the weeks of Advent, are meant to be spent in expectation and waiting. This is the season for Advent songs--those age-old hymns of longing and waiting; "Silent Night" should be sung for the first time on Christmas Eve. We found that hardly anybody knows any Advent songs. And we were startled by something else soon after Christmas, Christmas trees and decorations vanish from the show windows to be replaced by New Year's advertisements. On our concert trips across the country we also saw that the lighted Christmas trees disappear from homes and front yards and no one thinks to sing a carol as late as January 2nd. This was all very strange to us, for we were used to the old-world Christmas, which was altogether different but which we determined to celebrate now in our new country.
I absolutely agree with what you've written about pre-celebrating the feasts, but I have to disagree about the twelve days. Sure, this true on the traditional Western calendar. However, I keep hearing this from Orthodox Christians and it is confusing to me. In the Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Nativity ends on December 31, after which we begin the pre-feast of Theophany, which is different than the feast of the 3 Kings, which in the east is celebrated with the Nativity itself. There is no Eastern tradition of the Twelve Days and the twelfth night, etc. For us the twelfth day is a strict fast, hardly a day of celebration.
I'm not sure how many of us truly were raised with the Twelve days of Christmas, outside of hearing the song. I know I wasn't in any but the most superficial way, and that was in a devout Catholic family. I always knew that it was "still Christmas," but there were no special celebrations. If this isn't part of our experience/inheritance or our liturgical tradition, why adopt it? It has a cafeteria quality to me. Instead, I'd rather see a more thoughtful celebration of all the Great Feasts, rather than adopting customs that don't quite fit with our own Liturgical cycle. I've even heard of priests advocating the use of an advent wreath. To me, it makes no sense since our Nativity Fast is not Advent at all as found in the West. It's longer and has none of the theme Sundays that exist in the West. It seems to me that we should dig deeper into what we have rather than adopting the seemingly familiar.
Where are our songs and carols for other feasts? What customs do we have for those?
I think that we can just as easily fall into the trap of over celebrating Christmas, albeit in a more spiritual way.
Hey James, I just realized that my previous posts were drifting off topic. I know you weren't specifically advocating 12 days or advent wreaths. And, like I said earlier, I though it was good. I'm just working through some of my own thoughts on the subject. Feel free not to post any of them.
Not at all Father...this is all very enlightening. I suppose for those of us grounded in NO tradition...we are just hungry for it. So knowing what has traditionally been done between Christmas-Theophany is really beneficial.
I see though that it is quite universally the tradition to NOT pre-celebrate Christmas! :)
On a different note, since in the Orthodox practice we begin singing the Christmas katavasiae on November 21, I think Christmas carols before Christmas are not out of place. Being Romanian, I occasionally listen to Radio Trinitas (the radio station of the Patriarchate of Romania) , which calls this time 'the fifth season - the season of carols.'