It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. But shhh! Don’t mention it. You’ll upset the Advent Purists.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, spend a little time on my Facebook page. It’s crawling with Advent Purists. But even if yours isn’t, you may be familiar with the Advent Purist’s close cousin, the War on Christmas Crusader. Together, these dour figures are out to make sure we celebrate Christ’s birthday properly. They’re in no humor for your good humor, especially because they’re pretty sure you’re not even thinking about Jesus right now. You’re just happy about the eggnog that, like an undisciplined rube, you purchased the instant it became available in stores. Disgusting.
Wait…What’s the Problem With My Eggnog?
Okay, let’s back up. I should bring you up to speed, in case you don’t have the skinny on this whole Advent issue. In the Christian liturgical calendar, the Feast of Christmas is preceded by a season called “Advent,” in which we anticipate the coming of the Christ child. It’s meant to be mildly penitential, though not as serious as Lent. Advent ends on Christmas Eve, which on many calendars is marked as a day for fasting and abstaining from meat. Then we feast and celebrate for twelve days (yes! That song means something!) until Epiphany, when the Magi visited the Holy Family. Some calendars extend the feast even longer, allowing the good times to roll on through January, after which we all scramble back into our sackcloth just in time for Lent.
Needless to say, American culture does not respect the rhythm of this traditional calendar. In our country, “the Christmas season” starts sometime in November, and rolls on merrily through Advent, culminating in the big bash on December 25. After that, you can maybe milk a little more seasonal cheer from the week leading up to New Year’s. But that’s it. Starting January 2, carols are verboten until at least next August when the tinsel re-appears in Target.
Advent Purists are determined to swim against the tide and celebrate their liturgical seasons properly. They post messages around this time decrying city decorations and the shopping mall Santa Claus (double offense! It should be St. Nicholas!). They declare piously that they are assiduously avoiding Christmas music, and that their own decorations are staying in the box until the true Christmas season arrives. You’ll not catch them with bells on until that date arrives.
For the record, I am a liturgical purist, when I’m at church. I love traditional church architecture. I avoid like the plague parishes that regard guitars and tambourines as appropriate liturgical instruments. I hate it when the Sharing of Peace becomes a huggy, hand-holdy festival of sappiness. Save it for the coffee hour, people.
Here’s the thing, though. Liturgy and culture are not the same. One is properly subject to rigorous, authoritative, top-down quality control. The other needs flexibility and breathing space if it is to remain vibrant. Ideally the two should mirror and support one another, but culture will never run precisely parallel to a particular liturgical outlook, and if we try too hard to legislate cultural development, we’ll just strangle the life out of it. Advent Purists may not be numerous enough to destroy the American Christmas, but in my view, they’re fighting for the wrong team.
Christmas Wars in America
“People are celebrating Christmas incorrectly,” explained my friend, by way of urging me not to support Christmas concerts that take place in Advent. “It’s easy to be pro-Christmas, but we want more. We want people to celebrate it correctly.”
That sounds pretty noble, and I think a lot of people do pride themselves on foregoing seasonal pleasures in the true spirit of the season. At some point, however, good Christian men may need to ask themselves: do we want the world to rejoice over an almost-universally-beloved holiday? Or would we prefer that a small number of people celebrate it “correctly”? Sometimes you do have to choose.
That’s partly because culture thrives on creative energy, and withers under the glowering gaze of persnickety legalism. If Christians seem too prickly about Christmas-themed festivities, generous non-Christians might reasonably decide that the most respectful thing is to transfer their December cheer to solstice parties, leaving believers free to worship their God as they like. Alone. That solution will certainly win the approval of religion-hating secular militants, for whom the continued cultural relevance of this nauseatingly traditional holiday has long been an irritant. Strange bedfellows though they be, Advent Purists and militant secularists have some common ground.
There’s another piece to this puzzle, however. Culturally speaking, America is to a large extent post-Christian. Christianity isn’t dead of course, but it no longer occupies a vaunted place in mainstream culture, and except for Christmas, most of our liturgical feasts have effectively disappeared from broader culture. Note how often you hear about the “War on Pentecost” or the “War on Ash Wednesday”. (Some people do write about the “War on Advent,” but their real gripe is with liturgically-incorrect celebration of Christmas.)
Why does Christmas get to stay? Its roots in mainstream culture are deeper. Also, the notion of a holiday dedicated to universal love, joy, and brotherhood is so appealing that it’s startlingly hard to quash. Americans revel in Christmas partly because it’s a nostalgic throwback to a less world-weary age, in which it was possible to embrace these Christian themes non-ironically. Snow starts to fall, and people start yearning for garlands and candy canes. Whether or not they love Jesus, they still have a soft spot for George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge, Santa Claus, and the Chipmunks.
How should the pious respond to this? As I see it, it’s up to us to decide whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. We could protest secular Christmas, insisting that the feast of Nativity is our holy day, which can be celebrated only by those who properly revere the guest of honor. Or, we could cherish the hope that Scrooge and Santa Claus might serve for some as a kind of high window in the rafters of the secular mind, which enables slender rays of divine love to penetrate hardened hearts.
Lighten Up on Advent
I favor the latter approach. As religious touchstones increasingly fade from our visible culture, it’s important to nurture and cultivate those that remain. That doesn’t mean, obviously, that we should accept secular limitations on our public celebration. By all means, put a creche in your front yard to remind people that “Jesus is the reason for the Season.” Go caroling, and sing “Joy to the World” instead of “Santa Baby.” Wish people “Merry Christmas” instead of the anodyne “Happy Holidays.” As a Christian holiday that most everybody loves, Christmas is a gold mine of evangelical opportunities. We should reap the benefits.
How can we do that, though, if we’re standing at the outskirts with our arms folded, glowering about liturgical improprieties? Advent Purists are less likely to remind people of Jesus, more likely to remind them of the Grinch. You can almost imagine them bursting into Fezziwig’s establishment on Christmas Eve, waving their calendars and brandishing their purple Advent candles. “Stop! Stop! This is a day of penance! You’re doing this incorrectly!” I don’t think that’s the best kind of Christian witness we can offer.
Of course, our liturgical seasons should not depend on the whims of the secular world, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that we stop observing Advent. By all means, put out your Advent calendars and wreaths. Erect your Jesse Tree. Enjoy your Advent liturgies, complete with Advent hymns. These are all beautiful customs that should be preserved. Within my own family, I also honor Advent by saving favorite treats and festivities for the Twelve Days. We wait until proper Yuletide to make our gingerbread houses and Christmas cookies, and our tree remains fairly spartan until the full-blown decorations come out on Christmas Eve. There’s a lovely perk to doing things this way. I get all kinds of Christmas supplies at 50 percent off, starting December 26.
Nonetheless, I don’t begrudge myself some enjoyment of public Christmas. I walk through shopping malls and soak in the glitz and glitter. I smile at the poinsettias, and hum along when I hear the strains of my favorite seasonal tunes. Does this really have to be so hard? After all, the contrast between Christmas and Advent was never so stark. I’m as unforgiving as the next heartless moralist when it comes to Easter festivities that are scheduled during Holy Week, when we’re supposed to be fasting and walking the Way of the Cross. That, indeed, is ridiculous. But Advent is about anticipating a birth, and what’s so awful about celebrating a baby before he’s born? If your friends or co-workers invite you to an early-December Christmas party, just think of it as a baby shower for Jesus.
Let’s Capture the True Spirit of the Season
God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. Because of that, the doors of paradise have been opened, and we sinful humans have a real chance of attaining eternal life. For Christians, this beautiful truth stands at the heart of Christmas, and compared to that, the secular façade of tinsel and tin does indeed look tawdry. It’s easy to snicker when our secular compatriots think they can join in the party with nothing more to celebrate than jingle bells and a fairy-story about a red-suited elf.
Instead of sneering, pause to consider. Why, given the apparent silliness, do they still want to join in the feast? Is it possible that the jaded and world-weary can still feel, even from a very great distance, some faint echo of that same gladness that uplifted the shepherds 2,000 years ago? That the tinsel and sleigh bells retain enough cultural vitality to kindle in secular hearts some faint recognition the divine love that suffuses the world, promising healing and forgiveness?
It is my profound hope that this is so. To keep that hope alive, I’m willing to deck the halls a few weeks early, and raise a glass of eggnog with my non-believing friends, even as early as Thanksgiving. For the truly dispirited, it may just be that four weeks of Advent is simply too long to wait.