Pod people: Let Xmas be Christmas? (updated)

‘Tis the season for a timely show of hands among GetReligion readers.

How many of you attend churches in which, on Dec. 6th or sometime soon after, there were events linked to the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra? Have many will eventually have a some kind of church event that includes Santa Claus?

How many of you have already installed real or fake evergreen trees in your homes (or your churches), but they are currently decorated in purple and white, as well as with ornaments featuring symbols from the Old Testament?

How many of you have Advent wreathes and candles in your churches or homes?

If you are Eastern Orthodox, how many of you attend parishes that are asking members to fast during Nativity Lent and to go to confession before receiving the Divine Mysteries during the midnight Divine Liturgy that opens the Christmas season?

How many of you attend congregations that have already had a Christmas party and/or concert?

How many of you will be attending a Christmas party and/or concert that will take place in the 12 days following Dec. 25th, which is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? How many of you plan to go caroling during the Christmas season?

These are the kinds of questions that loom in the background during this week’s Crossroads podcast, which you can download right here. For some reason, it is not on the iTunes site yet. Is anyone else having trouble subscribing at iTunes?

This podcast digs a bit deeper into the subject material behind my recent post, the one called, “When is ‘Christmas,’ anyway?” I wrote my Scripps Howard News Service column this week on a related topic, focusing on the quietly stunning pastoral letter by the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City in which he asked his schools and parishes to — gasp — celebrate Christmas during Christmas. I hope you enjoy the paraphrased quote from Obi Wan Kenobi.

However, the key to this whole complex and emotional subject is rooted in this reality: America is not a Christian nation or culture. Sorry ’bout that.

Anyone who has studied the history of American religion (or church-state law) realizes that American is, essentially, a lowest-common-denominator Protestant nation or culture — with no one group holding the reins, from the Unitarians to the Puritans to the Anglicans. Thus, this means that there never has been an “American” way to observe Christmas.

Throw in a few court battles, Seinfeld, shopping malls, rising numbers true secularists and lots of other factors and we now have at least three major forms of Christmas present in the marketplace of ideas.

* The Holidays or Xmas: Begins formally on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, but the advertisements and cable movies keep creeping earlier and earlier. Ends on Dec. 15, with remnants through Dec. 25. Basically, this is the secular season defined by the shopping mall.

* Christmas: Begins on Black Friday or roughly Dec. 1 in most churches. Continues through Dec. 25, with most parties and concerts occurring between Dec. 7 and about Dec. 15, so as not to veer too far away from office parties, school “Holiday” events and complex family travel plans.

* The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: Rarely celebrated. It begins on Dec. 25 and runs for 12 days, ending at Epiphany (there are a few variations on the ending). While traces of this season lingered in some parts of the culture until the early 20th Century, it is now all but extinct.

This is America, so people get to choose.

The key is that the small-t traditions of the one normative Protestant culture overlap with those of the mall. Thus, most of the people who are yearning to “put Christ back in Christmas” are actually following the ever-changing traditions of the shopping mall and whatever is happening in the nation’s courts. That’s an interesting story.

At the same time, some people are getting so fed up with Xmas that — mostly in the context of liturgical churches — they are attempting in a few symbolic, yet important, ways to celebrate the actual season of Christmas. That’s an interesting story, too. Personally, one of the items on my “bucket list” is to be arrested while caroling in a public place during the 12 days of Christmas.

For me, all of this raises journalist issues, as well as liturgical issues. You see, there are all kinds of interesting stories linked to these realities, stories that have little or nothing to do with the waves of “Christmas wars” stories that have been so popular in recent years, especially You Know Where. Perhaps it’s time for a look at some different seasonal stories? Can you say, “Twelfth Night”? I knew that you could.

Enjoy the podcast. And have a blessed Advent or Nativity Fast.

UPDATED: Perhaps I was vague about this “hand raising metaphor” at the top of the post. I simply meant for people to leave comments.

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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.

  • Steve in NYC

    Answering as an Eastern Orthodox Christian: the parish I attend mentions but does not greatly emphasize the Nativity Fast. Confession during Nativity Lent is emphasized. St Nicholaas: yes, but also Santa Claus. But what is this about a Midnight Liturgy? Pascha (Easter) has a midnight Liturgy, but not, as I understand it, Nativity except as an innovation for practical purposes or in imitation of RC practice. I would add questions about services (Vespers and/or Compline) for the five days of the Pre-Feast of Nativity 20-24 December, the beautiful and deeply scriptural Royal Hours on the morning of Christmas Eve day, The Vigil of Nativity, and (for Slavs) the custom of the holy supper after Vigil.

  • Bruce G

    *Someone* at Apple marketing in Europe seems to know when the 12 Days of Christmas are. Quite unusual.


  • Johannes Oesch

    Reading your posts from Germany, I’d like to comment on St. Nicholas: In our town of Waiblingen, East of Stuttgart, there is a church with the name Nikolauskirche, i.e. St. Nicholas. For centuries, it used to be a Lutheran chapel in the old part of town. Since only few members still live in this shopping area, this building was given for 1 € to the Greek-Orthodox bishop for the use of the local Greek-Orthodox parish. They had to refurbish the building and renamed it “Konstantin and Helena”. So the old name of Nikolaus still remains in secular and popular usage only.

  • Suzanne

    In our Catholic parish, kids were told about St. Nicholas Day at PSR. Being kids, they thought it was a great idea — more candy and toys showing up magically in our house overnight!

    We don’t put up a tree until the week before Christmas, primarily because we use a real tree and I want it to stay fresh through Epiphany. But we usually decorate it immediately. And we’ve been listening to Christmas carols all month.

    When we put out our Nativity scene, the kids made a big deal about not putting the Holy Family in there immediately (also learned at PSR). Instead they placed them somewhere distant in the living room from which they are supposed to “travel” to the creche. In fact, I’m not exactly sure where they’ve hidden them.

    I think you hit on an important aspect of this when you mentioned events scheduled around family travel plans. People live a lot farther away from family than they used to, necessitating earlier shopping and sending of gifts. It doesn’t excuse putting out the decorations for sale before Halloween (actually saw this this year, for the first time) but it does start to explain it.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    My hand is up but only 1/2 way.

    We wait until sometime after St. Nicholas Day to put the Christmas Tree up. And the tree is the only decoration we put up until Pre-Feast starts on 12/23. Then, there are the church services: Royal Hours on 12/23, the Vigil for the Nativity of Jesus on 12/24. Then Divine Liturgy on the morning of the 25th. (No one opens presents until we get home from the Divine Liturgy). On the 3rd Day of Christmas we usually have a BIG party. But no party on 12th Night. That night is the Vigil for Theophany.

    Because most of my extended family is Protestant, they always have a Christmas party sometime between the 10th and 15th of December I do go to that. But it is the only pre-Christmas Christmas party I attend.

  • James

    It is my understanding that the twelve-day holiday is called “Christmas” in English. It begins with the Feast of the Nativity on 25 December, is followed by the commemmoration of the Holy Innocents on the 26th, the Feast of Stephen on the 27th, and so on until the Feast of Theophany on 6th January. But the “Nativity” is properly a one-day holiday which marks the beginning of the twelve-day Christmas season.

  • http://anonisnowhere.blogspot.com/ Anon

    “X” actually means Christ. Those who attempt to “take Christ out of Christmas” by using “Xmas” are just using one of His monograms. http://anonisnowhere.blogspot.com/2010/12/merry-xmas.html

    In our home it is Advent…. it will be Advent until it is Christmas Eve… We Celebrate Christ’s Mass and the Feast of His Nativity at Midnight, or the following morning. Celebration continue through the Epiphany. We have no tree at this point (but will probably get one soon before the tree farms close shop for the season). We have an wreath on our table with candles that we light at dinner time.

    Besides celebration of a number of feasts (St. Nick/Shoes, Gaudete Sunday, and St Lucy/Lussekake)it is a penitential season.

    I am strongly missing my pipe and pint while I await the Nativity of our Lord.

  • http://quantumtheology.blogspot.com Michelle

    Tree is in the backyard and will stay there until Christmas Eve. No decorations. I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, so am pretty tuned into the liturgical seasons, but it was fascinating to hear my 13 yr old last year matter of factly explain to a friend why it was that our tree had gone up (Christmas Eve – at sunset, of course) nearly as hers had come down (day after Christmas). “We celebrate Advent first.” Then he explained Advent.

    My parish does nothing “Christmas” until the feast.

    Hand fully up.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    In church, we do Advent readings, advent songs, no tree, no bleeping Santa (our priest calls him “the jolly red demon”} and will do a Festival of Lights and Carols after sunset on Dec. 24. We have a Twelfth Night party at our priest’s home with his wife and kids (did I mention we’re not RCs?) and welcome the Magi. At home, we have a tree and lights. They will stay up until Jan. 6.

  • Jimmy Mac

    “We have a Twelfth Night party at our priest’s home with his wife and kids (did I mention we’re not RCs?)—“

    That’s getting harder to say these days:


  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    If we pit up decorations at all, it’s on Christmas eve.

  • Dave

    While the folks who raise the annual “War on Christmas” fuss irk the heck out of me, I also feel sorry for them. With all the rich spiritual rewards available from Christian observances of the season, they need to make waves about some shopgirl whose bosses, unwilling to offend Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or Wiccans, tell her to say “Happy Holidays.”

    Anyway, Merry Christmas.

  • Kell Brigan

    I’ll chime in…
    Since I reverted to the RCC a couple years ago, I’ve been working on keeping a proper Advent. So far, it’s a bit of a mix of old & new. Last year, I waited until Gaudete Sunday to put up decorations, and didn’t turn the lights on on the tree until the 25th. This year I cheated and put everything up the day after Thanksgiving because it’s been a CRUMMMY year and I needed a little Christmas just like the song says. (I also live alone, and not having up decorations is depressing when you’re the only one “waiting.”) I’ve done daily meditations with an Advent wreath, and weekly fasting, and “abstained” (from chocolate, in my case) daily during Advent (except for Gaudete Sunday). One of our priests mentions the older traditions, and pointed out the feast of St. Nicholas, but we’ve not done much other than hear them mentioned during homilies. I suspect he’d like to bring back some of the older traditions, but he/we’re stuck with the current American calendar, which moves old feast days to Sundays, and combines feast days that used to be separate. For instance, this year, we have Christmas and the Feast of the Holy Family and the Solemnity of Mary and Epiphany all within the same eight days. Personally, I’m comfortable with most of the “Novus Ordo”, but this is too much…

    I really, really hate that Advent has summarily disappeared, along with the Epiphany, and 12 days of celebrations. My birthday’s on the 25th, which doesn’t help either — all my life, I’ve had to deal with less than tactful folks who see my birthday as just another chore, because by the tine the 25th arrives, they’re totally partied/burnt out.

    Merry Advent!

  • Kell Brigan

    P.S. Our Church did have a Reconciliation service at the start of Advent, and offered a few days of extra Confession time, which was quite cool.

  • Austin

    Since I attend a church that has the name of St. Nicholas, we celebrate the day every year. I actually “played” St. Nicholas (as a bishop) this year and had the opportunity to make the distinction or better yet the comparisons between the true St. Nicholas and the American Santa Claus.
    We have tried (as a family) over the years to celebrate Advent as Advent and then Christmas as Christmas then Epiphany (to the point of even waiting to open presents until the “Three Kings” brought them). But it becomes very exhausting, especially with kids, to explain to everyone every year why you still have your decorations up. “Combating” the American culture is nearly impossible. I will continue in vein… and feel guilty when I succumb to the culture pressure.

    God Bless you and Merry Christmas.

  • Jerry N

    @Jimmy Mac

    Interesting article–takes many of the usual tired lines on married priests. I believe it also misses the presence of Ukrainian Catholics in the Sacramento area, among whom there might be a married priest or two already.

  • Gert

    You do realize that “Xmas” thing is because “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word ???????, translated as “Christ”. So calling Xmas a secular holiday is horse hockey. In actuality, it may be more correct than “Christmas”, and you should probably call “Christmas” the secular holiday.

  • Julia

    Our Catholic parish had a Reconciliation service, no decorated trees in church, my choir will sing Vespers this Sunday evening and a Midnight Mass for Christmas that really starts at midnight (after many years of starting at 10:30.)

    There was a tradition to meet for a fun evening at our former choir director’s home on or close to December 6th to do a sing-along of Benjamin Britten’s “St Nicholas Cantata”. Hope the new director will revive it – I love the alto part sung by the mothers of the pickled boys.


    The community choir where I also sing, last Sunday performed Dave Brubeck’s “La Fiesta de la Posada” with mariachi instrumental backing. The audience was puzzled, but it’s really a cool piece. Since it was about Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay, it was appropriate for Advent.

    I noticed that the Pope has some green garlands decorating the walls of the public rooms at the Vatican, but no celebratory lights on the tree in the piazza yet.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Yes, I know that.

    Still Xmas vs. Christmas is a way the debate is often framed, among those who do not GET the X.

  • J

    As a Buddhist, answer no to most of the questions. However, we do have a Christmas tree, decorated, and a manger on the hearth. It’s family tradition. Also usually go sing Christmas carols, too. Not offended if someone says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”-I’d love to experience both. Religion never was a big part of the celebration for me. My dad loved Christmas, wasn’t religiously inclined, nor was his atheist father. The past several years, we have secular Jewish friends who invited us over for latkes and Hannukah activities. Lots of fun.

    I’d take issue with your characterization of the secular season being defined by the shopping mall (though that is part of it). For me, it is a time when I can give a gift for no particular reason, just because someone is special. I’ve had several special relationships that grew closer with thoughtful gifts. It is also a family time-we always got closer to our extended family during Christmas season, and still do. I remember only Christmas where I did not go and see family-and to this day, it is my wife’s least favorite Christmas. Christmas is also about remembering those who are less fortunate. Someone at my office collects blankets for the homeless at this time of year. I often donate to Salvation Army at this time of year. “Xmas”, even as a secular holiday, isn’t as empty as you make it sound (I prefer spelling it out, too.)

    Non-Christians have much to celebrate about Jesus. While I don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, I find much in his purported teachings worth remembering and reflecting upon. I particularly value his emphasis on compassion-the good Samaritan, the Golden Rule.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

  • Kell Brigan

    Dang if I’m not still laughing at “the jolly red demon…”