We’ve all heard it a million times. Christians decry the commercialization of Christmas (and rightly so) then feel offended when “Merry Christmas” is replaced with “Happy Holidays.” I fully understand the reason for this frustration, but at the same time I think while we’re desperately fighting to save a hundred-year old tradition of Christmas shopping, we are missing something much bigger. I’m talking about a Christmas tradition that goes back over a thousand years, and a great opportunity to evangelize. This essay is more than just a Catholic thing. It’s a Christian thing, and it’s directed toward all western Christians (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical, etc.). It’s something we can all benefit from.
Two Parallel Christmas Seasons
There are basically two Christmas seasons. The first is the one we’re all familiar with. It’s the commercialized Christmas season. It starts the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, and continues on to December 24th — Christmas Eve. It’s a fairly recent phenomenon, started just a little over a century ago, in about the 1880s – 90s. It was about this time when homemade Christmas presents and pastries began to morph into shopping sprees at retail stores. By the early 1900s, large department stores featured Santa Clause displays, complete with elves and reindeer. Now we shouldn’t blame these retail stores for cashing in on the celebration. They need to make a profit too, and there is nothing wrong with decorating for Christmas, even if the intent is to increase sales. It wasn’t until recently that many Christians got their nose out of joint when retail management decided to change “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” This was done in recognition that not everyone celebrates Christmas. Jews celebrate Hanukkah. And some people celebrate a new holiday called Kwanzaa. In addition, the rise of Neopaganism and Wicca have brought back the celebration of Yule. The term “Happy Holidays” was simply a catch-all phrase designed to cover all the bases, so to speak. Again, there is nothing really wrong with that.
The problem arose primarily among Christians. “Happy Holidays” was offensive namely because the Commercial Christmas season was the only form of Christmas this generation ever knew. It was seen as an attempt to deprive Christians of their holiday season, but again, that was never the commercial intent. Most retailers simply saw it as a way to acknowledge that other religions have holidays during this time of year as well. Frankly, the whole “Happy Holidays” thing never really bothered me that much and I didn’t find it offensive. I do, however, understand why many Christians did. It’s not the retailers’ fault. It’s actually the fault of Christians, because they forgot their Christmas heritage. Too many Christians (especially in the US, but elsewhere as well) allowed their traditional celebration of Christmas to fade away in generations past. These same generations were content to trade in their Christian celebration of Christmas for the commercialized celebration. Who can blame them really? I mean, look at all those glimmering lights, sparkling displays, parades and pageantry. The commercialized Christmas is really quite amazing when you think about it. But over the course of the 20th century, amid all those twinkling lights and gorgeous decorations, too many Christians forgot their traditional heritage, and failed to pass it on to their children. So, as the generations passed, the commercialized celebration of Christmas came to be the only form of Christmas celebration they knew, starting the day after Thanksgiving, building up to December 25 for a great big blowout of Christmas gifts under the tree. Perhaps a Bible story might be read to the children on Christmas Eve, or maybe a visit to a church service (or Catholic mass), but as soon as December 26 rolled by, the decorations were put up and the tree was out to the curb. So when commercial retailers replaced “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” Christians felt slighted. It was as if the only celebration of Christmas they ever knew was being taken away from them. They felt robbed. Who can blame them?
The real robbery wasn’t the change from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” at the retail stores. No. The real robbery happened generations earlier, when the Christian celebration of Christmas was exchanged for the commercialized celebration of Christmas. Too many Christians allowed this to happen, and therein lies the real robbery. Our people were robbed of their heritage.
The second Christmas season is the real Christmas season, meaning the one invented by Christians over a thousand years ago. It starts much later than the commercial Christmas season — a whole month later to be exact, and it lasts exactly twelve days.
I’m not just writing to my regular Catholic readers. This essay is addressed to all Christians of all denominations and affiliations. Most especially however, it is addressed to our Baptist, Pentecostal and Evangelical brethren in Christ. The following will be a simple step-by-step instructional guide for reintroducing the authentic, Christian celebration of Christmas back into your home, and once implemented, all of that commercialization bother won’t be an issue anymore, nor will the phrase “Happy Holidays” even phase you, because you simply won’t care. The richness of a truly authentic Christmas in your home will render these cares obsolete. Are you ready to move on? Are you ready to rediscover the Christian way of celebrating Christmas?
STEP 1: Understand the Dates
The Christian celebration of Christmas does not start the day after Thanksgiving. It actually starts on Christmas Day (December 25) and runs a full 12-days to January 6. You’ve probably heard the song “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Well, that’s not just a song. The song was supposed to be a comical ballad based on the traditional Christian celebration of Christmas. Though some say it has a hidden meaning related to the Catholic understanding of the gospel during the time of Protestant persecution in England. I honestly don’t know if that’s true, but it doesn’t matter. The song is not an accurate reflection of how the twelve days of Christmas (or “Christmastide”) is celebrated anyway. It’s actually a lot more simple than that.
The time period leading up to Christmastide is called Advent. The way you figure out the starting date for Advent is simple enough. Just look at the calendar and find Christmas Day (December 25). Then count back four Sundays. The first of the four Sundays before Christmas (December 25) is the beginning of Advent.
You now have a proper understanding of the Christian calendar for the Christmas celebration. The four Sundays leading up to Christmas are called Advent, which is Latin for “coming” or “arrival,” and it’s meant to be a time of preparation for Christmastide. Advent overlaps the commercial celebration of Christmas. So that’s convenient to some degree. Think of this period as a time for preparation, and make the commercial celebration of Christmas become a reminder to you that preparations are underway. As for Christmas, you now know it’s a twelve-day celebration that begins on December 25, overlaps the calendar New Year, and ends on January 6.
STEP 2: Celebrating Advent
Advent is pretty easy to celebrate and children love it. Again, the theme is preparation, but we’re not just preparing for the Christmas holiday. No. We are preparing our hearts to receive Christ. It is good to read stories at this time, and by that I mean stories about the preparation of ancient Israel for the coming of the Messiah, and stories about the preparation of Mary to give birth to the Christ child. Devotionals may come in handy during this time as well. Of course, mom and dad are preparing the home with Christmas decorations and gifts, but there is something important that must not be forgotten. SLOW DOWN! Advent is not supposed to be a time of rushing. It’s okay to put that Christmas tree up a little later. It’s okay to schedule the extended family get-togethers after December 25, during the 12-days of Christmastide. Use this Advent time not only to prepare your home, but also to prepare your family’s souls to receive Christ.
The next thing you will need is four candles and a wreath. You can put the candles inside the wreath, outside the wreath, interwoven within the wreath, or however you want. You can also just put four candles in a circle, or line them up on a shelf or hearth. There are no specific rules about the candles. You can do it any way you like, for whatever works in your home. You’ll notice that some people who celebrate Advent use specific colors for the candles. The most popular colors are purple or red. Catholics will often use purple with one pink (rose) candle. Again, this is not really that important. You can imitate the colors if you like, but it’s not necessary. Just do whatever works. Be mindful of fire hazards too. Candles should be lit for an hour or two, then blown out for safety. Or you can get those self-contained candles in a jar which are safer to burn for longer periods of time.
The ritual is to light one candle for each Sunday (or week) leading up to Christmas Day. So on the first Sunday, you would light one candle, and continue lighting that same candle through the rest of that week. On the second Sunday you would light two candles for the remainder of that week. On the third Sunday, light three, and so on. It’s sort of like a countdown to Christmas, and children love it. It is common to sing a preparation song while lighting the candles. The most common preparation song is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Here’s an example…
Naturally, your family can sing as much or as little of this song as you like. The important thing is to keep it simple. Over complicating a family tradition is a sure way to kill it. You want to make things simple and easy to duplicate for your children when they are grown.
Traditionally, in the middle ages, Advent was a time of fasting and abstinence. Some Christians continue this practice today as well. If you decide to do this, remember to keep it simple and fairly easy to keep. You don’t want to turn this time into something you dread.
Some people use Advent calendars. These are wonderful traditions, but keep in mind they don’t really follow the Advent time sequence of four Sundays. They’re actually December calendars that stop on the 25th day.
STEP 3: Celebrating Christmastide
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are celebrated pretty much the same way most Americans do, though there should be a stronger religious component in connection to it. Reading about the Nativity is very appropriate during this time. Catholics are required to go to mass either on Christmas Eve or Day. While this requirement doesn’t always cross over into Protestantism, it would be a wise practice to consider a Church service of some type either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Many Baptist and Evangelical churches hold candlelight services on Christmas Eve.
After Christmas Day has passed, it’s time for the extended family get-togethers. During the following twelve days, make plans to visit family for dinners, gift exchanges, games, music and fun. New Years Eve is part of this ongoing celebration.
After New Years Day, continue with visits and family time. Continue wishing others a “Merry Christmas,” and by all means leave those decorations up, as well as keeping Christmas music playing in the home and car. I recommend soft instrumental Christmas music or Christmas choir music, rather than those holiday jingles that are so common in our society. An extended round of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” might get a little annoying as you move into January.
STEP 4: Celebrate Epiphany
Celebrating Epiphany, on January 6, is fairly simple. When you set up your Nativity scene for Christmas, do it this way. Place Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and animals in one place, but don’t introduce the baby Jesus until Christmas Eve. In my home we pass around the baby Jesus piece of the nativity, giving it a kiss, before we place it in the nativity scene.
The magi are not included in our Christmas Nativity scene. Instead we place their figurines on the other side of the room. Between Christmas Day and Epiphany, we move the magi a little closer to the Nativity scene in small steps, until they arrive at the Nativity scene twelve days later on Epiphany (January 6). We also save one last gift for each other, to exchange on that date. It’s usually not the best gift, but it’s not the worst either. Usually, it’s something that has special meaning to the one receiving the gift. This is why Epiphany is often called the “little Christmas.”
The day after Epiphany we start our Christmas cleanup, but some Christians (Catholics in particular) wait until Candlemas on February 2. I, personally, like to push it out as close to February 2 as possible. I figure, since we went to so much trouble putting them up, we might as well enjoy them a while. When you do your cleanup is up to you, but it should never be before January 6.
The subject of Santa Clause is a touchy one. Some parents feed the myth for as long as possible. Other parents tell their children the truth right away. I’m certainly not going to tell you what to do on this one, but I will tell you how we handled it in my home. My wife and I never did anything to reinforce the myth of Santa Clause. When our children saw him in decorations and asked, we would tell them the mythical story of course, but when they were old enough to ask if it was real, we would always answer with a single question. “What do you think?”
For example: my son would ask how Santa could fit down the chimney since our chimney is so small. I would reply with “What do you think?” He would then come up with some kind of a clever way he thought it might be possible, and my reply would always be the same. “That sounds like a good answer.”
Eventually, he got old enough to ask if the whole myth was real or not. Again, I replied with “What do you think?” One year he answered: “No, it’s not real because reindeer can’t fly, and there is no way he could go around the whole world in one night.” I replied the same as always: “That sounds like a good answer.”
I then proceeded to tell him the true story of the real Saint Nicholas who lived in the late third to early fourth centuries. I then gave him a picture card of St Nicholas to keep in his room, as a sort of “reward” for finally figuring it out himself. Some parents may not agree with how we handled this issue in our family, and that’s okay. This is just how we handled it, and our children seem to have turned out fine.
As for gift exchanges, I strongly discourage giving one gift per day in Christmastide, as modeled in the song “Twelve Days of Christmas.” This could have a backfire effect of actually making the celebration even more commercialized! Stick to the gift exchange on Christmas day, with a smaller (and more meaningful) gift exchange on Epiphany. The time between Christmas Day and Epiphany should be set aside for family, friends, entertainment and recreation.
Extending the Christmas celebration this way changes our understanding of Christmas and gives it a much stronger religious experience for the holidays. The nice thing about celebrating the full 12 days of Christmas is that after December 25 (the date it starts) the commercialization of Christmas ends. There is no more commercialization after December 25. Retailers are winding down their promotionals, and their decorations will be gone by New Year. This leaves Christmas to a 100% religious celebration. This is how our Christian ancestors did it, and we should too. The benefits are immediate for those who give it a try.