This year, around the holiday season, I’ve had a shift in my thinking about Christmas and the period of waiting that comes before. In the past, I’ve thought of the season of Advent as a joyous preparatory time for the a celebration that is Christmas. The onslaught of cheerful Christmas songs, that starts just as the tryptophan induced coma from Thanksgiving wears off, contributes to that way of framing things. Bing lets you know when it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and he doesn’t seem at all concerned that the holiday is almost a month away.
Recently though, I’ve started to view Advent in a more Orthodox way, as more like Lent. As a time of fasting, rather than feasting. A time that starts in the darkness, as we make our way toward the light. It’s a period of quiet contemplation, instead of the exuberant cacophony of bells from a sleigh, furiously driven to the big box stores in search of Black Friday door busters. Advent is to be waited out with patience and solemn hope.
Once the waiting is over, though, Christmastide begins. It’s not a single day, but those mythical 12 days of Christmas of which another song informs us. The time of Christmastide extends from December 25th through January 5th, just before the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th. Each year, I make more of an effort to swim against the tides of culture that push Christmas as a single day. Of course, the day itself is kept well. Garrison Keillor writes in this post about his Christmas ritual (which sounds remarkably like my own).
All I need for Christmas is Christmas Eve in church, holding a candle, singing “Silent Night” a cappella in the dark with the others, walking home through the city, and waking up in the morning with my wife and daughter. Three gifts apiece, one useful, one odd but interesting, one ridiculous. Dinner is nice. We can make it at home or if we go out for a McTurkey sandwich, that’s okay too. Then we get out the board games. A pot of Christmas tea. Nothing more is needed.
My family will no doubt spend the evening of Christmas trying to save the world from a pandemic and failing in disappointing fashion, if history is any indication. We’ll have collected various forms of tea from different sources around the world and will be imbibing heavily throughout the day. We will be glowing from singing “Silent Night,” while keeping candles from dripping wax onto our palms within the cozy confines of our church sanctuary the night before.
We’ll have a cornucopia of presents to open in the morning, despite having cut back with the introduction of Secret Santa a few years back. In doing so, we’ll dutifully engage in the American commercial Christmas tradition. David Warren writes about this aspect of the holiday and ponders giving back the material in return for the mystical.
Though I love Charles Dickens, I like to dismiss him as “a commie,” for reasons that might not seem obvious at first. A Child’s History of England, I once threw against a wall. In his genius he pioneered the commercialization of Christmas, and every advertising agency should thank him. For consider, what this commercialization required. Scrooge is converted by sentimental ghosts, into a character of material generosity. The moral hints are materialist throughout. Joy, while it is still remembered, is subtly converted into happiness. Soon we have food stamps, and cash welfare, and shops full of Xmas presents, to buy lest Tiny Tim have a wrang.
Gentle reader may not be surprised if I try to return this gift, and exchange it once again for the mystical. For while the story of the Nativity is easy enough to sentimentalize, and captures the imagination of small children (Jesus speaks to them, child to child), it is the document of an incredible event; without precedent, without compare.
It would be hard to abandon our annual tradition of watching A Muppet Christmas Carol, and material gifts can be vitally important for those of meager means, I understand what Warren means about redirecting the focus of the holiday. To snatch the lasting joy back from the impermanence of happiness. To hold on to something that carries over, year after year, despite external circumstances.