For my whole life long — and my life at this point has gone on longer than most — I have taken part in two distinct and overlapping end-of-the-year holiday seasons: the secular and the sacred.
The secular holiday season begins the day after Thanksgiving, dubbed Black Friday in recent decades but a major shopping day long before that. It is a season of consumption: of material objects to be given and received as Christmas presents, of food and drink, of blockbuster holiday movies, of television specials and 24/7 holiday music music music.
The holiday season is also a celebration of winter, which hasn’t been around long enough to oppress our spirits with dirty piles of snow and endless gray skies and yet another snowstorm and two whole months before spring; winter is still a season of austere beauty and cozy indoor comforts, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at our noses, Frosty the Snowman, and of course Rudolph. Santa and his reindeer and his sleigh full of gifts bring these two strands, if you will, of the holiday season together, consumption and the celebration of winter, with a dash of “naughty or nice” morality.
And of course there is the solstice, when the sun resumes its annual long slow journey to the top of the sky, when the period of daylight bottoms out at eight and a half hours and begins to lengthen, though you wouldn’t know it until mid-February (when Lent, the LENgThening of days, begins, but that’s another story). In this dark time of the year, the people who walk in darkness switch on a great many lights, on Christmas trees and eaves and in yards. Some of my neighbors turn their lights on in mid-November, a rushing of the season that I don’t mind at all because, after the return of Standard Time, when the daylight begins to wane in midafternoon for crying out loud, we need all the light we can get.
And then there is the Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men [sic] side of the holiday season. Thanks in large part to Charles Dickens and Dr. Seuss, we are inclined to turn from the Scrooge-y-Grinch-y ways we pursue for the rest of the year and do more donating and community-service volunteering during the holidays than we do the rest of the year (as though, says the Moralist, people are hungry or homeless or lonely only during the holidays. Moralist, be quiet; it’s Christmas.) We hear a great deal about the True Meaning of Christmas, a realization of which is the dramatic turning point of every television Christmas special ever produced: “O that we could always see/Such spirit through the year,” as a song from my favorite Christmas special has it.
This secular season begins, as I said and as we all know, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, reaches its climax on Christmas Eve, frantic last-minute errand-runners and office-party home-goers making this the most dangerous day of the year to be on the road (or, for that matter, in the aisles of a supermarket, where I have been nearly hamstrung on several occasions by the carts of last-minute shoppers in hot pursuit of the Perfect Christmas), enters a period of quiet on Christmas Day, like the eye of the hurricane, when all stores are closed and everyone is home with their families, opening presents and eating too much holiday food — I always have an upset stomach the day after Christmas from having eaten an entire mincemeat pie the day before — and resumes on Dec. 26 with after-Christmas sales and exchanges. During Christmas week, the media are full of past-year reviews and talk of resolutions and parties, while the Christmas music trails off and Auld Lang Syne is more and more frequently heard. Then on the 31st come the parties, the Times Square celebrations, the second-most-dangerous night of the year to be on the roads. Then comes a day of hangovers and endless college football and letdown, and then comes another day of school, work, January white sales, discarded Christmas trees beside the garbage cart, back to normal. The long haul of winter begins.
Thus the secular season. The sacred season begins at about the same time, usually the Sunday after Black Friday, which in the churches that use the ancient traditional liturgy of the Christian church — in the West the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal churches — is known as the First Sunday in Advent. This Sunday is also the first day of the new church year, which in the course of the following months will commemorate the birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth in scripture readings and worship services and devotional practices. It is also the first day of the season of Advent, a period of four weeks that symbolize the 4,000 years that the world waited for the coming of the Savior. Advent is a time of reflection and preparation, self-examination and hope. It is a kind of Lent Light, observed by some Christians by fasting — Advent was, in the Middle Ages, an official fast of the church. Readings in church are from Genesis, the prophets, the gospel accounts of John the Baptist. There are no Christmas hymns and carols, no wreaths or trees or colored lights in these churches until Christmas Eve.
At sundown on Christmas Eve, all Heaven breaks loose in liturgical churches: carols and anthems, candles and bells and incense, angels and shepherds and Wise Men (somewhat ahead of time, as they aren’t really supposed to show up until the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6). The festivity continues through Christmas Day and into the day after Christmas, which is the First Day of Christmas, when he gave her the first of twelve (!) partridges in pear trees, with much else of questionable usefulness to follow. The days of Christmas continue through the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, which commemorates the visit of the Wise Men and the revelation of Jesus to the Gentile world.
Thus ends the liturgical season of Christmas. My families and I observed this season mostly in church, with the prophetic texts and hymns and no decorations until almost Christmas and then lots of Christmas music and decorated trees that stayed up until a week after the new year. Otherwise, we were swept away by the irresistible tide of the secular Christmas, Santa and Rudolph and the little drummer boy, and lots of presents to buy and wrap and wonder at as they sat under the tree, a magical Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then the post-Christmas letdown. In our time, the celebration leads up to Christmas, whereas in centuries past the time leading up to Christmas was an austere time of preparation, the feasting and celebration coming at sundown on Christmas Eve and continuing long after Christmas Day, through the first week in January. These post-Christmas celebrations became so rowdy that the English Puritans, annoyed also by the paganism of the festivities, banned Christmas altogether in the mid-17th century.
When I first started thinking about the War on Christmas, I was inclined to agree with the Puritans, for once, that the real war on the Christian Festival of Christmas was being waged by consumerism and vestiges of paganism, that the birth of the Savior was being upstaged by Santa and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells Rock and buy buy buy. Yet on reflection, I realized that I really like many of the secular aspects of Christmas and that I could easily ignore what I don’t like — it is still a free country, after all. I haven’t had much to do with Rudolph since Rudolph-mania swept the country during the Christmas season of my seventh year, yet I would miss him if he weren’t around, and I love the Latin translation and Gregorian chant setting of his song — Cum miserō Rudolphō/ In ludīs nōn ludēbant, indeed. As for rampant consumerism, my family and I put a $50 limit on gifts for one another and encouraged the purchase of gifts that the receiver would actually use, like a beach towel decorated by a full-length alligator for a daughter about to take a winter vacation in Florida. If other people want to spend thousands of dollars on gifts, that’s their business and their right. A free country, as I said.
And speaking of freedom, we still have freedom of speech in this country, which means that we can greet one another in the Christmas or any other season in any way whatsoever that is not hateful or libelous: “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or “Skol Vikings” or “ ’ey wozzup.” I say “Happy Holidays” during the season of Advent, “Merry Christmas” to my Christian friends from Christmas Eve until the middle of Christmas week, when for a week or so I say “Happy New Year.” I would no more say “Merry Christmas” to a Jewish or Muslim colleague than I would expect them to say “Happy Hanukkah” or “Have a blessed Ramadan” to me.
Let the Wars of Christmas cease. Let peace and good will prevail. And in this dark, cold season, and especially in this divisive era in our country’s history, we need all the light and cheer and goodwill that we can get.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.