Every year I hear folks bemoaning the secularization of Christmas and how commercialism has overtaken what used to be a Christian holiday. I read news stories about which retail stores are promoting “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and which groups and organizations are boycotting those stores for choosing to greet their customers in one way or another. People label it the “war on Christmas”—this battle between Santa and Jesus, a battle in which you can score points for your side by firmly replying “Merry CHRISTMAS” to the cashier who has been instructed to say “Happy Holidays” or vice versa.
I get it. Yes, I want to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but I’m really not interested in “fighting” this war by shopping at this retailer instead of that retailer or by petitioning to ban the playing of “Santa Baby” in all public places. (Although someone should. Worst song ever, amirite?!)
The secularization of Christmas is not a new development. Even looking back decades at the portrayal of Christmas in It’s a Wonderful Life! (which, I admittedly adore), Christmas is more of a family and community holiday than a religious one. Go back further and we have A Christmas Carol. The message isn’t a bad one: having a spirit of giving, learning to love people over possessions, the tragic loneliness of greed, and a chance for redemption. I listen to Jim Dale read the audiobook every year and I cry like a baby. I can’t wait to share the Muppet Christmas Carol with my 3-year-old this year. So don’t peg me as a Dickens hater. I’m not. But, if I’m honest, it’s a lot of sentimental secular humanism and very little Christianity.
For most Americans, the holidays are a time to be with family, be thankful for all we have, and give whatever we can to those who need it. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that! And personally, I’m glad for a little distinction between our cultural celebration of holiday cheer and observing the Christmas season as a religious tradition.
I think there is such a simple solution if you really want Christmas to be a religious holiday for your family. Just observe the traditional seasons of the liturgical year. The Church has such a beautiful rhythm to celebrating the various seasons of the Christian story. The four weeks before Christmas (a little after Thanksgiving until December 25th) is the season of Advent.
Advent (not New Years) is the beginning of the Christian year and it’s considered a ‘little Lent.’ It’s quiet. It’s somber. It’s full of waiting and hoping. Just as there can be no real celebration of the Resurrection without the pain of Good Friday, there can be no real Christmas without the expectation of Advent.
St. Charles Borromeo writes, “Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all…The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.”
Isn’t that beautiful? But that kind of preparation doesn’t just happen as we snarf down red and green M&Ms. We have a part to play. We have to offer this time to ready our hearts for Our Lord. If you really commit to observing Advent, your December is going to look very different.
For most American families, by the evening of December 25th, they have been eating, buying, Christmas music listening, gift-giving, gift-receiving, tree trimming, and cookie baking for over a month. They’re sick to death of it. Get the tree out by the road! Take the decorations down the day after Christmas! Turn that blasted music off!
If you observe Advent, before Christmas arrives you might not be tree trimming, you might not be holiday cheering. You’ll know every verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by heart and you’ll be itching to belt out “Joy to the World!” You’ll be reflecting, reading, praying, waiting. And it will be a sacrifice. What will it look like for your family? You might decide to forego all the Christmas parties that happen during Advent. You might avoid the malls blaring Christmas music starting in October. You might decide to keep gifts super simple so that you’re not doing any scrambling during the quiet of Advent and can focus on waiting for Jesus. The practicalities of how you decide to observe Advent will vary from family to family. But if you do set aside this time as a holy preparation, it’s a surefire thing that in comparison to the bustle around you will look quite odd. (Lucky for us, with Chinese Cabbages growing all over our front yard and 21 chickens running about our urban homestead, we’re already the neighborhood weirdos.)
I’m really selling this Advent thing, aren’t I?! Before you label me as the modern Ebenezer Scrooge, let me tell you a secret. I LOVE Christmas. I love cutting down the tree and stringing the lights (Ok, fine, watching my husband string the lights). I get all teary-eyed and heart-warmy when I unwrap our ornaments and tell my kids stories about how we got each one. I giggle with glee when I get to play Sufjan’s Christmas tunes. I love dressing my kids up for Christmas Mass, reading them Christmas stories, and setting up the Nativity scene
Here’s the good news. If you observe Advent, on Christmas Day, it will feel like CHRISTMAS! And then you get to celebrate it for TWELVE DAYS. That twelve days of Christmas song was for real! It’s a liturgical season twelve days long. It’s a Christmas-lover’s dream come true! You’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting. You’ve been lighting candles and watching the wax melt a little lower each night. You’ve been setting up your Jesse Tree and remembering God’s story for the world and how the Incarnation is the point on which it all spins. The tree trimming, the carol singing, the feasting, the celebrating—twelve whole days of it! You wait and wait through the long days of Advent like a pregnant woman in her last month. Then when we celebrate the joyous birth of Our Lord it is time to kick up our heels! And we do. We really do.
I want to share with you soon about what our Advent looks like practically in a future post. For now I’ll leave you with a little more inspiration from St. Charles Borromeo:
“Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. “
For reflections on Advent and practical ways to observe the season through food and traditions, check out our book: Feast! Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year.