The Rev. Timothy Paul Jones kept hearing one thing when — four weeks before Christmas — he brought a wreath and some purple and pink candles into his Southern Baptist church near Tulsa, Okla.
And all the people said: “Advent? Don’t Catholics do that?”
This prickly response wasn’t all that unusual, in light of the history of Christmas in America, said Jones, who now teaches leadership and church ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
“In the dominant American, Protestant traditions of this country, we’ve never had a Christian calendar that told us anything about Advent and the 12 days of Christmas,” explained Jones, author of “Church History Made Easy.”
“We went from the Puritans, and they hardly celebrated Christmas at all, to this privatized, individualized approach to the season that you see all around us. … If you mention the church calendar many people think you’ve gone Papist or something. They really don’t care what Christians did through the centuries.”
The history of Christmas has always been complicated, he noted, with religious rites colliding with traditions defined by family, community and commerce. However, the basic structure of the Advent and Christmas seasons has — until recently, historically speaking — remained the same.
In a short essay for laypeople, Jones noted that “Advent … comes to us from a Latin term that means ‘toward the coming.’ The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the 4th century A.D., Christians fasted during this season. … By the late Middle Ages, Advent preceded Christmas by 40 days in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by four weeks in western congregations.” Advent was then followed by the 12-day Christmas season.
For centuries, these seasons were shaped by traditions in extended families and small communities, patterns of rural and village life that endured from generation to generation, century after century, until the upheavals of the industrial revolution. During the 18th and 19th centuries, millions of people in Europe and then America pulled up their roots and moved into major cities.
Christmas evolved into a “gigantic party that ended up in the streets” to celebrate that legions of urban laborers were given a day off from work, noted Jones. It was a day for revelry, drinking, carousing and feasting, a holiday best observed in taverns and public houses instead of churches.
This was not a lovely Christmas tableau complete with candle-lit processions, prayers and carols. Something needed to be done.
Thus, Christmas began to change again. The goal was to create a kinder, gentler season, one centered in individual family homes. What emerged, with a big assist from advertising and other forms of mass media, was a “radically new and almost completely secular Christmas myth,” explained Jones. This was Christmas as pictured in the famous poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” popular songs, advertisements and scores of Thomas Nast cartoons.
Santa Claus replaced St. Nicholas and Advent vanished altogether, which was fine with most Americans because they never knew the season existed in the first place.
“What you had then was a holiday that was very appealing and positive, from an American, Protestant perspective,” said Jones. “It was very individualistic and centered on events in the family home, with all of that decorating, cooking, gift-giving and people traveling to be home for Christmas.
“This left you one step away from the full-blown commercialization of Christmas that took over in the 20th Century.”
Jones stressed that he isn’t naive enough to think that churches can turn this around by printing some Advent brochures to help families add another wrinkle to an already complex season. Still, it wouldn’t hurt for pastors and parents to stop and think about ways to let Advent be Advent and then to let Christmas be Christmas.
“Americans don’t like to wait,” he said. “We want what we want and we want it now. … That’s the way that we do Christmas. We mix and we match, taking a little bit of this and a whole lot of that. We rush around trying to create the Christmas we think is going to work for us.
“But Advent asks us to slow down and wait — to wait for Christmas. Most people don’t think that approach will work very well at all.”