Merry Christmas! (This is not a joke)

12daysof-christmasWhile my recent thread about rites on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rolls on and on, please allow me to raise another seasonal issue that is dear to my heart.

As I mentioned the other day, it is hard for journalists to write fresh, newsy stories and columns about the major religious seasons to roll around year after year after year. It’s hard not to write about the same topics over and over.

Well folks, several years ago I decided to quit trying to do something new this time of year.

Why? Because there is a topic that I think is so important that I have decided not to dodge it. I refer, of course, to the whole upside down nature of how most modern Christians celebrate Christmas. This is to say, they do not celebrate Christmas. Instead, they join in the cultural train wreck called “The Holidays,” which turns a quiet, reflective season, penitential season called Advent — Nativity Lent in the Eastern Churches — into a free for all. Then, when the real 12-day festival of Christmas arrives, starting on Dec. 25th, almost everyone ignores it and moves on to the NFL playoffs.

So I write about this almost every year for the Scripps Howard News Service, either focusing on Advent, St. Nicholas, the Christmas calendar wars or the forgotten 12 days. Go ahead! Sue me. I think that it’s an important topic, involving thousands of churches, millions of people and billions of dollars.

This year’s offering opens like this, hooked into an online effort by one of the nation’s most powerful Christian groups:

Merry Christmas.

No, honest, as in “the 12 days of” you know what between Dec. 25 and Jan. 5.

If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, you can head over to the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There you will find an interactive calendar that bravely documents the fact that, according to centuries of Christian tradition, the quiet season called Advent has just ended and the 12-day Christmas season has just begun.

So cease stripping the decorations off your tree and postpone its premature trip to the curb. There is still time to prepare for a Twelfth Night party and then the grand finale on Jan. 6, when the feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi.

Click here to see that website, which wasn’t all that easy to put together, according to Joe Larson, the USCCB’s director of digital media. He was stunned how few resources there were online to, as he put it, “help tell Catholics what we believe about these seasons and why we do what we do — or what we are supposed to do — during Advent and Christmas.” They ended up with a rough draft that they hope to expand in future years.

I was stuck by the fact that many liturgical and mainline Protestant churches are trying to place more of an emphasis on Advent — only without the penitential themes that were at the heart of the ancient traditions. Why? Well, stop and think about it. It’s all about the cultural calendar, not the Christian calendar.

Here’s the end of the column:

While many Christians still observe Advent — especially Anglicans, Lutherans and other mainline Protestants — some older Roman Catholics may remember when the guidelines for the season were stricter. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the season is still observed by many as “Nativity Lent.”

“In a pre-Vatican II context, Advent looked a lot like Lent,” noted Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Divine Worship. “It was the season you used to prepare for Christmas, the way Lent helps you prepare for Easter.”

Today, it’s even hard for priests to follow the rhythms of the church’s prayers, hymns and rites, he said. Hilgartner said he tries to stay away from Christmas tree lots and shopping malls until at least halfway through Advent. He accepts invitations to some Christmas parties, even though they are held in Advent.

Now that it’s finally Christmas, he feels a pang of frustration when he turns on a radio or television and finds that — after being bombarded with “holiday” stuff for weeks — the true season is missing in action.

“It would be different, of course, if we all lived in a monastic community and the liturgical calendar totally dominated our lives,” said Hilgartner. “Then we could get away with celebrating the true seasons and we wouldn’t even whisper the word ‘Christmas’ until the start of the Christmas Mass. But the church doesn’t exist in a vacuum and we can’t live in a cultural bubble. …

“But it’s good to try to be reasonable. It’s good to slow down and it’s good to celebrate Christmas, at least a little, during Christmas. It’s good to try.”

It’s good to try.

So here is the next question: Did your church try?

Did your parish celebrate Advent or Nativity Lent as a penitential season? Did anyone try to avoid a few parties? Did anyone fast or take part in extra services of prayer and meditation? And, now that Christmas is here, the real Christmas, are any of your churches doing anything to keep celebrating? Is anyone planning, for example, 12th Night parties? Three Kings processionals?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Pamela

    For some reason I just got notified about this article overnight:) I have never been a member of a denomination that celebrates Lent, Advent and the like. However when I was a girl the church I attended had an early morning service on Christmas Day. I do not know if they do that these days.

    My church did a communion service on Christmas Eve. It was where they had the church open for people to serve themselves. That is the only Christmas event that they do each year. In previous years they would have a service where the congregation was served communion together. They changed it up this year. From my understanding they changed it because the formal service was not well attended. I suspect that is why more churches that may have celebrated in the past have stopped.

    I attended a small dinner on Christmas Eve. The reason I did was not so much that it was Christmas Eve but it was also the first gathering that my friend had at her new home. We spent the time talking about how much Christ means to us. That was nice. That is the whole point of Christmas.

    I generally boycott the cultural Christmas madness. I’m lucky to send cards out. If I find one that clearly states the message of Christ’s birth that means something to me I will send it out.

  • Erich Heidenreich, DDS

    Yes, our Lutheran church observes Advent with weekly midweek services and celebrates the liturgical season of Christmas in the traditional manner. As a family, we are gradually moving more and more toward the traditional observance of Advent and Christmas, but it is difficult in the culture we live in. Our pastor’s family serves as a wonderful example to follow. They put their Christmas tree up on Christmas Eve, and don’t take it down until Epiphany. They open one present on each of the 12 days of Christmas.

    Celebrating Advent and Christmas in the traditional way can also help prevent the after-Christmas-blues that are so common. The older I get, the more I see the way our culture instructs families to do things – piling a zillion presents under the tree and scrambling to see how fast all of them can be opened. That is just insane! It’s overwhelming to little kids (and to some parents) and often leads to a huge emotional let-down (or even melt-down) when it’s over – right when the celebration should be beginning.

    It is also potentially very emotionally disruptive to children, however, (and therefore not necessarily advisable) to change family traditions too rapidly. We have been gradually moving toward a more traditional observance of this great Holiday, teaching all the way. I bet the economic conditions we are experiencing are also helping to tone down the commercial aspects of our religious holidays – at least a little.

    Last but not least, I’d like to say that regardless how we celebrate this season, we need to keep Christ at the center of it from beginning to end – teaching our children and contemplating ourselves on the reason for His incarnation.

    It is also of utmost importance to keep the “mass” in Christ-mas. For those who don’t know, the “mass” is the traditional word for the “divine service”, the worship service at which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Christ-mas is a church service at which we partake of the very Body and Blood of our Savior which was made incarnate in the Virgin Mary, born on Christmas, and sacrificed for us on Easter. Christmas is about our Savior being made man (“incarnate” – being made flesh) in order to sacrifice His holy flesh and blood for our sins. Those of us who believe in the true bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament find it impossible to imagine a celebration of Christ-mas Day without participating of the heavenly feast of His Body and Blood – given and shed for the sins of the whole world.

    In Advent, we reflect upon our great need for our incarnate Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ – not just looking forward to celebrating the festival of His nativity, but preparing for (and looking forward to) His coming again – soon – on the last day, at which we will be joined with all our resurrected loved ones who believe in Him Who is THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life – reunited forever in an everlasting feast in Heaven.

    That will be a day on which there won’t be any need for journalists to report on what happens. :-) “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.”

    In the name of Jesus, the only name by which we are saved,

    God bless us everyone!

  • Sabrina

    Mexican and Central American Catholics mark the beginning of the “Christmas season” on Dec. 7, the eve of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Besides the four Sundays of Advent, the period includes two great festal Masses (Immaculate Conception on the 8th, and Our Lady of Guadalupe on the 12th) and the tradition of daily posadas from Dec. 16 to 24 wherein the the faithful reenact Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter before the birth of Jesus. Pastorelas (shepherds’ plays) are also enacted throughout the weeks of Advent. La Noche Buena (literally, The Good Night) is celebrated with Midnight Mass and afterwards, a late (and wonderful) family meal. On Noche Buena, children place a figure of the Christ Child in the nacimiento (nativity scene) that is erected (and sometimes has an entire room of the house devoted to it). They also move the figures of the three kings in the nacimiento, so that their arrival at the heart of the nativity coincides with Epiphany. This is the day children receive their Christmas gifts. A “King’s cake” is also eaten during Epiphany — whomever gets the slice with a token baked in, must host a celebration after Mass on Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation) on Feb. 2. This is popularly considered the conclusion of the “Christmas season.” Many Hispanic Catholic communities in the U.S. incorporate all, or many, of these traditions into their Christmas calendar.

  • RW

    These are some great posts the last couple of days. We attend an Orthodox parish and yes our Advent is the season to prepare – we participate in the Fast so that the next 12 days of feasting can be enjoyed. It is a challenge with two 13 year olds to be counter cultural… we eliminate the treats – as much as we can…so that when Christmas comes the contrast is there… now we can truly celebrate…

  • Wolf Paul

    As an evangelical Christian in a country still dominated by cultural Catholicism, it is hard to find any evangelical churches which do more than pick out the raisins (Christmas and Easter) from the Church Year; there certainly are few significant observances of either Advent or Lent unless I go visit my R.C. friends.

    In the international Baptist Church I attend, we do light the Advent candles, and hand out a booklet of Advent family devotions; but the preaching on the Advent sundays is not seasonal but just continues the expository preaching series, this year from Philippians.

    But at least the Catholics here still celebrate the Epiphany on Jan 6 instead of transferring it to the nearest Sunday as the “Christmas Calendar” on the USCCB website does, and the “Christmas Season” even in the culture lasts until that date, with trees generally being taken down after Epiphany.

  • Veronica Mitchell

    For only the 2nd time in twelve years, my husband and I are NOT hosting a Twelfth Night party, because we have a 3 month old baby. But most years we do, and the last 3 years I’ve written devotionals on my blog to celebrate each of the Twelve Days.

  • Mollie

    Mollie LCMS Lutheran here.

    Q: Did your parish celebrate Advent as a penitential season?

    A: Big time. We were encouraged to attend our regular mid-week worship services, devote ourselves to prayer and fasting, study Scripture and avoid the party-hardy mentality of the culture.

    Q: Did anyone try to avoid a few parties?
    A: Our pastor mentioned it so much that he joked he would be renamed Scrooge.

    Q: Did anyone fast or take part in extra services of prayer and meditation?
    A: Yes, and this is normal in Lutheran circles.

    Q: And, now that Christmas is here, the real Christmas, are any of your churches doing anything to keep celebrating? Is anyone planning, for example, 12th Night parties? Three Kings processionals?
    A: We mark the Christmas season in our worship with special hymns and prayers and people continue celebrating at home.

  • Margaret

    Thank you for this service! We began married life as Anglicans and celebrating Advent as thoughtful, reserved, and Christmas for 12 days beginning on the 25th!

    Then the blessing of becoming Eastern Orthodox with the Nativity fasting, and including the joyous heart preparation for Christmas to come, beginning on the 25th and lasting for 12 days! We are surely enjoying the blessing of our Saviour’s birth and looking forward to Theophany!

    Christ is born! Glorify Him!

  • Stephanie

    Another Lutheran here whose church did and always does celebrate Advent as a penitential season and where we sang only Advent hymns before Christmas (with the exception of when we went caroling to shut-ins) and are now singing Christmas hymns in church. As is our tradition we had Wednesday night services during Advent and, of course, the accompanying soup suppers. Today’s sermon noted that the 28th is when we remember the Holy Innocents who were killed by Herod, one of the traditional 12-days observances. We’ll have sevices on the 31st/1st for the Circumcision & Name of Jesus and on the 6th for Epiphany. I’ll also be celebrating 12th night with some friends on the 5th. So… yes we tried. But also, yes, it frequently feels like we are way out of synch with the rest of society.

  • Gail F

    Our Catholic parish (I would characterize it as moderately “groovy” in many ways) is always decorated for Advent and we have a giant Advent wreath in front of the altar and sing Advent hymns. We held a parish penance service (I didn’t go — I prefer regular confession) and started Advent with Advent-wreath making brunch for families iwth young children. Every year we have an Epiphany party for the adults of the parish. It’s a free dinner and the parish council serves it. And yes, the priests’ homilies were about Advent and the Christmas season and the songs are now Christmas carols.