December 22, 2009

Advent vs. Christmas

It's the big trouble that arises in one way or another every Advent: how, and to what degree, is the integrity of the Advent season to be protected from Christmas?

The question arises from an argument we have with the world. For the world, the Christmas season begins right after Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Day. For us Catholic Christians, on the other hand, the Christmas Season begins with either the Vigil Mass of the Nativity or its Evening Prayer I, whichever comes first, and proceeds through the feasts of the Holy Family, the motherhood of Mary, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord.

While we are trying to observe the season of Advent, the world already has its Christmas songs playing and its trees decorated, and while we are celebrating the Christmas season, the world's songs are silent and its Christmas trees are already drying out in the dumpster.

To me, the critical reason that Advent has to be protected from the world's Christmas is to preserve ourselves from the shallow description of Advent as the 'time to prepare for Christmas.' It is the time to prepare ourselves for Christmas for sure, to our recalling of the Lord's birth, but Advent is equally about our "joyful hope" as we look forward to the Lord's return in glory. Even more it seems to me that the delicate spiritual task of Advent is to wrap our shallow hearts and limited minds around the truth that these are, in fact, the same thing, without one collapsing into the other. Such a spiritual task is surely impossible with eyes and ears filled with all the tackiness of the world's "celebration" of "Christmas."

To this end, each religious community or parish is furnished with zealots who protect Advent with ferocity. They refuse to attend Christmas parties, scheduled as they usually are in days of Advent. They won't put up the tree until Evening Prayer I of the Lord's Nativity has been persolved.

As has been noted in both encouragement and exasperation, I'm usually all for zealotry. But in this case, I've always had a question:

Doesn't the culture of the world we live in train us to see Christmas stuff as anticipatory? And isn't this part of what Advent is supposed to be about? For example, if children get a visit from someone playing Santa Claus, do they not experience this as something looking forward to Christmas? Don't folks feel the same way decorating a Christmas tree?

Could it be that the world's celebration of Christmas, beginning after Thanksgiving and proceeding to Christmas Day, is not, in fact, a misplaced observe of the Christmas season, but actually an incomplete observance of Advent? Are our complaints misplaced? Perhaps the world is trying to observe Advent (though inadequately, of course) through an anticipatory use of Christmas stuff and symbol, and what they really lack is the actual celebration of Christmas.


ben in denver said...

For those who do wish to keep Advent more penitential, as a begining, I'd recommend people keep the traditional fast days for Advent. These are the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following Gaudete Sunday, and Christmas Eve.

I fasted last week for the Advent Ember Days for the first time, and is was tremendously spiritually beneficial.

Warren said...

Your question seems to me an important one. I try to maintain a distinction inwardly, while being outwardly as magnanimous as possible.

1. I think that by arguing too much for the "separateness" of advent, we lose some of the nature of Advent, Advent could no more exist without the feast day of Christmas, and the season liturgically following thereafter, than Lent could exist if there was no Easter coming.

2. To me, Advent means an advent wreath, advent prayers, and advent songs, and the gradual development of a Creche scene on our mantle.

3. I will not personally say "Merry Christmas", until the feast itself is here. I will not point out the futility of saying "Merry Christmas" too early to those who do, but merely respond with a polite smile and maybe "thank you".

4. I like to have my Real Tree up by the second week of advent. I like to leave it up until at least new years, but if I had a fake tree, I think I'd leave it out until Candlemas, just to make some kind of point about my love for Archaism.

5. I like what Ben said, and next advent, I will consider introducing some advent Ember Day fasts into our preparation.


Mark in Spokane said...

What about Candlemas? I always thought the Christmas season continued through until the Feast of the Presentation...

Brother Charles said...

As well it once did, and should!