Pod people: Christmas vs. Christmas in the news

GetReligion readers who have been paying close attention during the last week or so are probably just shocked, shocked to know that the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast is related to Christmas.

Actually, it’s about the reality that there are two different Christmas celebrations going on in this land of ours. Journalists face more than a few challenges these days trying to keep these two celebrations separate, to some degree, while covering the valid news stories that are related to each.

One Christmas is essentially economic, cultural and, alas, legal, while the other is defined by centuries of Christian traditions in both the East and West. (There are now two Hanukkahs, of course, but that’s another story.)

To explore these themes a bit, I called up two very different, but very sharp, individuals to discuss what seems like a simple question: When is Christmas?

This, of course, immediately raises another question: When does Christmas begin?

Ah, you say, but WHICH Christmas are we talking about? The cultural one or the religious one?

Thus, I began this week’s Scripps Howard column (the main hook for the podcast) like this:

For those who follow Christian traditions, Christmas begins when the darkness of Christmas Eve yields to bright midnight candles and the Mass of the Angels or the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Christmas season then lasts 12 days, ending with Epiphany on Jan. 6.

But things aren’t that simple in modern America, the land of the free and the home of the malls. For millions of us, today’s Christmas begins when “Feliz Navidad” beer ads start interrupting National Football League broadcasts and Holiday movies surge into cable-TV schedules previously crowded with Halloween zombie marathons.

I picked that Corona beer ad because of my own personal prejudices. I am a football fan (Go Ravens, go Broncos) and that means putting up with a lot the same beer ads over and over.

Several years ago, I decided that, for me at least, the secular Christmas begins the first time that I see that old Corona ad on television. Yes, I know that it could have aired earlier and I didn’t see it. I get that. This is a personal thing, just cut me some slack.

This year I swear that I saw that twinkling palm tree two weeks before Thanksgiving.

So I ask GetReligion readers this question, which seems rather non-journalistic at first: When does the secular steamroller called “The Holidays” officially arrive for you? When does the “starter’s gun” go off?

The “starter’s gun” image comes from Washington Post scribe Hank Stuever, author of that snarky but fine book called “Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present.” He told me that, while he was researching that book, he decided that big event is the day that the National Retail Federation releases it’s first official forecast of precisely how many billions of dollars Americans will be spend during any particular Holiday marketing season. Once that press release hits reporters’ email in-boxes, he said, “there’s no stopping it. Here comes Christmas, whether you’re ready or not.”

So what’s your “starter’s gun” moment?

And what about the other Christmas, the supposedly religious one?

The problem on the religion side of this equation these days is that the overwhelming majority of American churches — especially the so-called megachurches of evangelicalism — are essentially doing Christmas according to the shopping-mall calendar, not the calendar of the church year.

Stuever thinks that’s the truth, and so does the dean of the School of Theology at the very, very conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Pause and roll that duo over in your mind for a moment.

Moore told me:

Many evangelicals fear the “cold formalism” that they associate with churches that follow the liturgical calendar and the end result, he said, is “no sense of what happens when in the Christian year, at all.” Thus, instead of celebrating ancient feasts such as Epiphany, Pentecost and the Transfiguration, far too many American church calendars are limited to Christmas and Easter, along with cultural festivities such as Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl.

So here is my second question — with two parts — for GetReligion readers who happen to be churchgoers: When does the real Christian season of “Christmas” begin and when does it end?

These clashing realities, in my opinion, affect journalists in several ways.

First of all, nothing turns a reporter into a pillar of salt faster than having a tired, world-weary editor look over in your direction and growl: “&*%$, we need a Christmas story with some art for tomorrow’s paper. Go find one.”

My point is that reporters need to summon up the courage to ask that editor which Christmas he/she is talking about. Are we talking about a glowing-twinkle-lights story about shopping and eggnog? Or are we talking about a local congregation’s plans to reach out to divorced dads and their children on Christmas Eve? Are we talking about the hellish Dec. 24 duties of truck drivers wearing brown jumpsuits or are we talking about a Catholic parish trying to plan its first celebration of El Dia De Los Tres Magos with its rising number of Hispanic families?

So I’ll end this highly personal rant with my third question for our readers and listeners: What are some valid news stories that you would enjoy seeing covered that are related to Christmas No. 1 and Christmas No. 2? Care to share any URLs with us for the good and the bad that you have seen this year, as we count down the last few days until the start of the 12-day Christmas season?

Enjoy the podcast.

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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.

  • http://www.lathefamily.org Trey

    My husband and I are from Episcopal-Lutheran-Mormon backgrounds, though we attend a UCC church with our 2 daughters (5 and 9) :D.

    Our Christmas II season begins with the first Sunday of Advent and ends with Epiphany following my Episcopal upbringing. We start with the Advent wreath and candle lighting every sunday, and an advent calendar (with a mix of treats and charitable to-do items), it reaches it’s height with Christmas Eve night with the lighting of the tree candles (nod to my paternal Germanic heritage and living in Germany for 4 years), signing of carols, reading of Christmas stories (both a children’s and Luke). It continues with the normal opening of presents on Christmas morning (Santa brings our kids just 1 gift, parents hand make gifts), some more singing and then dinner at the grandparents’ home. We light the tree one more time that evening. Epiphany is a day of church and visiting friends, eating fruit cake, and taking down the tree.

    Christmas 1 we try hard to minimize, LOL, but I guess it starts the day after Thanksgiving (I have a strict rule of no Christmas music or celebrations before Thanksgiving) when we sit around complaining about black friday :D and continues till just after Christmas day and the after-christmas sales. We of course participate (and love) in a lot of the cultural things… watching Grinch, seeing a Christmas Carol play, going to a Christmas concert or two, sending out Christmas cards, etc.

    Christmas I and II seem to overlap a lot, but we try to make it more II than I.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    So you observe Advent in Advent and then celebrate Christmas in Christmas.


    Advent is PRE-Christmas. In the East, it’s a Lenten observance.

  • http://www.academyofpreachers.net Dwight A Moody

    For many Christians, Christmas #2 begins with the first advent candle. In this simple, public ceremony our minds and imaginations are drawn to the birth of Christ. It comes after Halloween and Thanksgiving, two celebrations tinged with spirituality and religion. From the first advent candle to Christmas Eve worship: this is the Christian celebration.

    Of course, musicians who have been working on Christmas music for weeks are already on that holiday highway.

    Christmas #1 begins when we pull out the decorations and put up the tree. For some this date varies from year to year; for others it is a strictly calanderized event. From the time we put them up until we take them down: that is the secular celebration.

    Stories on the advent candles and their growth among Evangelicals would be good; stories on decorations: history, meaning, purpose, practices, etc. would also be good.

    Merry Christmas!!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    So Advent and Christmas overlap? They are the same season?

  • Dave

    For me there is no clear starting gun for Christmas because they all run together — Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s. It starts with drug store and supermarket shelves laden with trick-or-treat distribution sized candies. Thence it’s just one big blur of commerce until we wake up with a fresh year number to memorize.

  • Andrea

    My friend calls them Christmas and Xmas.

    Christmas is prefigured by Advent and lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (although the tree typically gives up the ghost earlier).

    Xmas ends abruptly at midnight on 12/25. I do love the fact that secular Christmas music also stops then. I love Christmas hymns, but dread Christmas music.

  • Bill Rose

    Xmas shopping season begins the day after Tgiving, sadly. For me, the religious celebration starts with the traditional start of Advent and ends on Christmas itself. I’d love to see stories that celebrate Christian love – the otherwise miserly exec who gives time and money so orphans can be helped; churches caroling and running manger scenes and helping the poor and widows. Even stories that, like Christ, reveal modern Scrooges and Grinches. And stories that reveal the unChristmasy actions of cold govmt. Agencies.

  • Rachel

    For me, I def. enjoy both the secular and Christian Christmases. My starting gun for the first is Thanksgiving week, during which I collect my thoughts, plan the “season” (at least mentally), and get ready to get started. The next few weeks for me are all about getting the secular DONE and out of the way (all presents bought and wrapped, all cards sent, Christmas tree decorated and light accoutrements up, cheesy Christmas movies watched, etc.). I get as stressed as anyone getting all this done “early,” so that as the real and Christian Christmas approaches, I can quiet and settle my heart and soul, soak in the “true” meaning of Christmas, go to church services and relax with the family. For me, the secular Christmas ends Christmas morning after the gift bonanza, overlapping with the real Christmas which started several days before Christmas and lasts until the church says it does and their Christmas vestments/decorations are put away. As far as stories, I REALLY enjoy a series the Miami Herald does on different families who were in true need in some way and generous people gave of their time or money to make a big difference.

  • Jim

    This year I saw decorations and heard Christmas music in a big-box retailer on Oct. 29, the Saturday before Halloween; I think it was the music that really registered. So to answer tmatt’s question: I’ll say Christmas 1 (AKA Xmas — thanks, Andrea) begins on the first day I hear “seasonal” music piped into a retail setting.
    My head (and heart?) turns toward Christmas on Advent 1, when I set up our home’s Advent wreath, and precisely when the first candle is lit either at home or in church worship that morning. But Christmas lasts from our church’s Christmas Eve service to Epiphany. (I take down my decorations as close to Jan. 6 as possible.)
    NPR aired a couple of pleasant Christmas 1 stories tonight, one about last-minute shipping at a FedEx center in DC, and the other about traveling seasonal workers for Amazon.
    I’m curious: Any Christmas 2 stories about the “conflict” of Dec. 25 landing on Sunday and how many churches are cancelling services? (I know of at least five in my region, upper east Tennessee, one of the buckles of the Bible Belt.)

  • Ron

    I’ve never really thought about when Christmas “begins.” Thanksgiving weekend is when I traditionally have written the annual Christmas letter and decorated the house, because I’ve normally had that time off. I Christmas shop throughout the year – I see something my wife would like, but it’s in February, and I buy it and hold onto it until Christmas. After T’giving, we sort of integrate the various celebratory trappings (e.g. wrapping gifts, loading Christmas music into the CD jukebox, getting the tree) as we have time throughout December.

    On the sacred front, I grew up in a non-denominational evangelical household – not real big on specific methods for sacred celebrations or the importance of certain dates. Never observed advent dates or had an advent calendar, etc. We always read the Bible prior to digging into packages, took time at Christmas dinner grace to celebrate the Lord’s birth, had nativity scenes up, etc. But everything we did to remember the real Reason for Christmas was based on what was meaningful for our family – not what a particular church or denomination said was the way or the date we should do certain celebrations.

    Today, with a five-year-old, and family spread all over the world, we have stayed non-traditional. So many packages that opening them all Christmas morning is overwhelming to my daughter? We can open them throughout the week. Friends in town? They come over Christmas eve. Grandma is with my brother in CO for Christmas? We celebrate with her on Little Christmas 1/6, which is also her birthday. Whatever works for our schedules and helps us as we navigate a busy season and always try to keep Christ’s birth in the forefront of what we do.

  • Drjoan

    For us Christmas starts only slightly before Dec.22 or 23, depending on how long we can “hold off!”. We do celebrate Advent as separate from Christmas; our home has candles in it’s windows in anticipation of the Christ child’s birth. But Christmas does last for the 12 days afterward.

    As far as “Christmas1″, I thought it was confined to the retail/commercial world. But this year the church where I do Bible Study Fellowship ( by definition a traditional Christian Evangelical congregation) to have it’s CHRISTMAS decorations (“greens,” Christmas music in the background, notices of Christmas services) up in full bloom on the Wednesday BEFORE Thanksgiving–the week before the first Sunday of Advent. What was REALLY sad was that no one who after da that church had any idea of the significance of the early trimming; they just enjoyed the music.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Christmas starts in October when Costco starts to drag out the Xmas junk that they didn’t sell last year.

  • Lynette

    In my family, of the Christians, we run the gamut of some who are totally gift-crazed before Christmas, to others who don’t even celebrate Christmas…or Easter, for that matter. There is such a Bi-Polar flavor to this season. We’re either frenzied with excitement, or down in the dumps. This is my first year in a long time that I had a full time job and money to buy presents; I empathize those who can’t join in the commercial aspect. I just consider this time of year a great, organized excuse to buy everybody some stuff they might need/want. And I enjoy the pre-Christmas sermons/music. I’m just glad Jesus did come, and I can enjoy that all year.

  • Jerry

    Jimmy Mac says:

    Christmas starts in October when Costco starts to drag out the Xmas junk that they didn’t sell last year.

    Someone saw that happen on September 7th this year so at least in some places the Xmas season started in early September.

    Then one of my local classical music radio stations started their ramp up to Christmas by playing a few more carols every day so that is another marker.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    My pastor wrote this (about Christmas):


    I liked it, and wanted to share it with you. It’s very short…but very good.


  • http://thesouthernfriedpreacher.com Harold Bales

    Christmas is not mostly about the calendar for me. It happens for me when I meet Jesus in the poor,the wounded,the prisoner, the homeless, the hungry,the sick. I look for Christmas in everyone I meet.

  • Passing By

    C.S. Lewis did an essay on ”Christmas” and ”Xmas”, but I can’t pull it up right now.

    Our Baptist household knew no calendars nor seasons. Christmas was primarily family : a church/family conflict was resolved in favor of family. The last Sunday before December 25 was the church celebration, with carols and maybe a cantata.

    When I discovered the liturgical year as an Episcopalian, it all changed. I will do the family stuff while Mother is alive, and fortunately, there isn’t any conflict. We don’t do family stuff at midnight on Christmas Eve.

    One story idea for each Christmas :

    I decided to put up a tree on Christmas Eve, but when I went to buy it 3-4 days before, the lots were empty and closed. Celebrating a liturgical Christmas takes planning.

    Other Christmas – giving gifts on January 6 allows for great savings in, after-Christmas sales. In fact, I ‘ve known people who buy gifts, wrapping paper, etc. for next year the week between Christmas and New Years.

  • Stephen A.

    I saw that beer ad around Halloween and thought “oh, no!” Too early! The drug store chains did indeed haul out the Xmas stuff just after Halloween. I think there is a great deal of fear about maximizing profits in tough times.

  • Tim B

    A local Baptist church says it well on the sign out front: “Christmas isn’t YOUR birthday.”

    The “little Lent” of the Nativity Fast is definitely a culture clash. In the midst of the madness seeking peace and repentance, to participate in the Incarnation.

    It hit me today – as the aromas from the local greasy spoon (surely a form of marketing) wafted across the office parking lot – how strange it seems that everyone is eating bacon!

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Times have changed, though.

    The Baptist congregation of my youth is around the corner and has a Christmas Eve Communion every year. I just passed a “Bible Church” that is advertising 5 Christmas Eve services, starting at 3pm and having the last at 11pm. In other words, the fundamentalist church is having Midnight Mass. :-)

  • Tim B

    Took a wander downtown in my smalltown, and suddenly all the tinsel wasn’t so terribly offensive. For a lot of retailers, especially the smaller ones, this feeding frenzy is the only way they keep their shops open. “Black Friday” is called that because it’s the first day major retailers are “in the black” (as opposed to in the red).

    Especially in this economy, retailers are scrambling for every dollar they can wrestle to the ground. For some of my friends who own and operate small, locally owned businesses, this Christmas is “make or break.” If they can’t pull it out this week, they’ll be out of business and out of a job early next year.

    So, while I object to the “commercialization of Christmas,” a lot of what I’m seeing is really a symptom of a deeper and more prevalent societal/economic problem. I feel compassion for my friends who can’t operate any other way. And I encourage folks to buy from locally owned, locally operated independent businesses.

  • Kris D

    My Christmas I & II are overlapping this year, mainly due to not having any additional time off work for decorating until this weekend. Our family normally puts the tree up the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), & keeps it up until Epiphany. I think an interesting topic is the amount of advertising & pressure to consume in an American culture that is only willing to give up 1 day for the celebration of Christmas, vs. supposedly secular cultures like England, where people take up to 2 weeks off for the holidays. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2077140/Christmas-shutdown-begins-5m-FORTNIGHT-work.html

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The best thing I’ve read on Christmas “Wars” in awhile.

    Merry Whatever to Whoever. :-)

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

    In my house we finished Advent observances at home on the evening of 12/24, then attended Compline at the parish. Christmas began when the priest announced Christ is Born!. Presents were opened this morning (12/25) after we got home from the Divine Liturgy. The Christmas Season shall continue until we begin the celebration of Theophany on the evening of January 5. But, heck, we might make Christmas last 40 days and go straight through to Presentation!