Alden Swan, who does some interesting blogging about Christianity and culture, posted a piece called “The Joy of Christmas Insanity.” Here’s an excerpt:
I was speaking with someone a week or so ago about how fast Christmas seems to be coming; it always seems to catch me by surprise, which just adds to the stress. […] Christmas now begins in late October or early November, and by December it’s in full swing, with parties, decorations, music, movies, concerts, shopping and food. It is an all-out celebration, involving all aspects of our lives. Those who are of other religions (or no religion) have by now realized that “the train, it won’t stop going…” and they either join in ignoring the religious aspects, or live in misery.
Eating, drinking, singing, spending lots of money buying gifts, giving to charity, all can be expressions of joy, even if we don’t realize it.
For those of us who are Christians, I don’t think we need to detract at all from the secular aspects of the holiday; I think that joy, even the non-spiritual version, is something that humans need to express for their emotional health. In America, we’re a pretty joy-constipated bunch. So, let everyone celebrate. But, Christians indeed have a joy which is of a different nature than that of the world (I think it’s okay to have both), and we get to express that, too.
Think about all that for a moment. Christmas gets going in October—I was noticing a few Christmas decorations out shortly before Halloween, as I recall—and “is an all-out celebration” basically until the shopping season wears off, sometime shortly after New Year’s.
As Mr. Swan also puts it, “It seems that there are two ways to deal with the oncoming train: either we live in denial (and get creamed), or we run headlong into it.” For purposes of contrast, let me offer the following as a possible third way.
On 15 November, Orthodox Christians (those following Byzantine practice, anyway, since Western Rite does things a little differently) begin to observe the Nativity Fast, or Advent. It is a forty day period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. Much like Great Lent before Easter, ideally we abstain from animal products (although often, in practice, this fast is not as severe as the Lenten period), hopefully our parish situation is such that we are able to attend additional services throughout the week to make up for spiritually what we are denying ourselves physically, and we look for ways to be Christ to those who need it.
Some understand this period to be penitential, for the purpose of self-examination; it is also often explained as a time where the faithful prepare themselves for the coming of Christ into the world. However it is understood, on 25 December, the faithful participate liturgically in the moment where eternal reality and historical reality intersected, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observe this, as we observe all major feasts, with a Divine Liturgy; Christmas is the “Christ Mass,” after all. Just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood and dwell within us.
Then, after all this preparation, the party starts. Remember “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Well, that’s what we actually do. Maybe not with lords a-leaping in a pear tree, but after the forty days of fasting, we’re ready to celebrate in body and soul. Gifts and singing and dancing and rich food and sweets and so on now have a spiritual context, and we’re thankful for it. The Bridegroom is now with us, and we feast. It is truly “a joy which is of a different nature than that of the world.”
For us, feasting and fasting must be understood in terms of each other—fasting prepares for feasting, feasting has been prepared for by fasting. Great Lent and Easter are the same idea on an even bigger scale. On a smaller, day-to-day level, this plays out even in how we receive Holy Communion: if we intend to commune on a Sunday, we prepare for that feast with prayer and by fasting starting the night before.
Without intending to offer judgment, compare this to our cultural mindset where we extend Christmas in both directions, starting the party in the October and going on for two and half months or so (by which point we’ve probably gained twenty pounds).
One more wrinkle—if you’re following the Julian Calendar, you celebrate on 7 January, by which point the secular party has completely stopped and everybody has moved on. I’m told there’s a real spiritual peace in observing the Nativity at a time when the world has finally quieted down; I can only imagine.
Not that Mr. Swan has asked my opinion, but it seems to me that we need not convince ourselves that our only options are to grumpily swim against the tide or to surf the wave.