Remnants still exist in folk memory back to when it was done right by those who understood it. Think of the song, “…on the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…,” which starts with the first day and recounts the gifts on each day. True, some of the gifts are a bit over the top, clearly intended for the person who already has everything, and receiving things like a partridge in a pear tree in today’s urban setting would be a mixed blessing.
But it reflects a celebration of Christmas which goes full throttle. Christmas, which most people, even most Christians, think is now past for the year, is not a festival to be easily concluded. There are three great events in the Church Year: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. At least among western Christians, Christmas receives the most comprehensive attention and emotional attachment. Easter tends to be more of a specifically “religious” observance (the poor bunny just can’t compete with Santa Claus). Pentecost is largely ignored. So why am I complaining about the lack of enthusiasm for Christmas when it is the biggest of the events?
It is not a wish to detract from Easter. Pascha is the pivotal happening in all of history, the center of the life of the world. Without Resurrection, Christianity is pointless, as is Christmas. The tepid celebration of Easter in western Christianity, a celebration which also tends to conclude at sunset on Easter Day, makes me wonder if people feel they don’t need the resurrection, if they expect God to simply “like” them and let them pass. This is reflected in the failure to understand Easter as a package starting with Palm Sunday (which the lessons for that day recognize) and requiring the passage to Easter morn through the Friday Way of the Cross. If you see yourself as having little or no sin, or of having a God who is a nice guy and isn’t bothered by your sin, then the Cross becomes the story of some bad men who didn’t want Jesus around, but isn’t something involving me. Only when I see my own total system failure as an icon of God, do I realize my absolute need for God’s grace. And only then do I comprehend that the Cross is my only hope. Easter is a unit, the bitter with the sweet. But when it hits you that this Holy Week cycle describes the act of God which gives you salvation and meaning, and in its cosmic significance reverses the damage done by mankind’s disobedience and self-idolatry, the celebration surpasses all other parties ever thrown.
In the Church Year, the Easter celebration lasts forty days. Christmas, being of somewhat lessor impact, is granted only twelve days. In modern practice, the party is over by about noon on both days for all but a handful. Yet it was not always so, which is why the Church Year provides so much more time to party than modern man appears willing or able to handle.
The dynamics of a modern Christmas are at least as likely to be cause for depression rather than celebration. Current popular wisdom is full of advice on dealing with the stress factors of the season. Those who do not accept the truth of the event, which is to say, the Incarnation, Jesus as both God and man, arrived according to a long-prepared plan to conquer sin and death and restore the world to Paradise, have nothing here to celebrate. Their desperate attempts at “happy holidays” ring hollow, the tinsel cannot obliterate the time of darkness and cold, the fate of a life out of sync with the purpose of creation, leading to dead end nothingness and outer darkness. All the drink and drugs in the world cannot make that into a celebration, and at best can only dull the consciousness of it for a brief span.
But what about those who are with the program, understand Christmas has happened to bring us peace and goodwill, the messianic arrival leading to our salvation? To understand the lack of enthusiasm among so many, some history may be helpful. Even in the Middle Ages, the Church had ceased to be about celebration. The thought was that I must earn my salvation, best done through separation from God’s earth into exclusively spiritual realms, penitential scourging and a Platonic contempt for all material elements, which of course includes Incarnation, the process of the Divine becoming carnal/flesh. The Lutheran Reformation refuted these notions and even restored a sense of celebration to people. The English Reformation was more mixed, drawing partly on Luther but also on the more dour Continental reformers, who ultimately changed little of the basic Platonic theology, but did conform the Church Year to it better, getting rid of the more ancient celebratory facets, trashing the Mass and most liturgy in general, abolishing most or all of the Church Year and knocking out or greatly reducing the material, sacramental aspects of worship.
America was heavily influenced by the Puritans, those English who could not accept even the Church of England compromise among the various movements spawned by the Reformation. They had no Church Year, they had no church festivals, only the Sabbath, hardly a celebration. There was no Christmas.This is, in fact, the American religious heritage. Even though there were always people here with a different point of view, the Puritan heritage remained dominant in American religious life. Not until the large numbers of immigrants from non-British origins in the later Nineteenth Century did the worldview slowly begin to change, and Christmas gradually became a major observance. Even today, though, many Protestant churches have no worship on Christmas, but rather have a “Christmas” service on the Sunday before or a “Christmas” program somewhere in the middle of Advent. The emphasis on Christmas as a major factor in American life can be attributed as much to those who saw the retail potential in the event as to any push by churches. The retail tail now so wags the dog of Christmas that some of those churches pout and tell us to “put Christ back into Christmas.” This is an ironic call from those churches whose history includes stifling, in some cases sternly forbidding, the observance of Christmas. They took Christ out of Christmas by taking away the celebration of Christmas itself. They have no one but themselves to blame if others ran with the holiday to make it a retail festival.
Father Alexander Schmemann has been quoted before in this blog: “The Church lost the world when it lost its joy.” How do we who rejoice in the wonderful, still relevant, shared memory of the birth of our Savior deal with those in the Church who have exchanged joy in the Lord for disapproval of the multitudes and those outside the Church who are blocked from seeing the joy of the event by those within the Church? I don’t need a partridge in a pear tree or even a bunch of turtle doves, let alone lords a-leaping. Yet how can I help but celebrate when I understand my Savior has been born? Those who understand how this really works have been busy during Advent doing the internal housecleaning to sweep clear the obstacles and make sure the road is straight, so the joyful news can roll in like a tsunami of joy. Many who were instead trying to use Advent to have “holiday” fun in the midst of spiritual darkness are more than ready to be done by Christmas Day. The good news will remain unheard by them, in their hustle and bustle.
At that point, as we are hit with the happy news once again, we will continue to celebrate, starting with Christmas Eve and going all twelve days. We deal with the unhappy world around us the only way we possibly can, by rejoicing and celebrating. It could be that when the joy comes back, so will the world. Even if not, “how can I keep from singing?” as the song puts it. Christ is born! Wow!