"'Tis the season to be jolly."
Technically, that would be the Christmas season. And that season will not arrive for four weeks.
Technically, we begin the season of Advent the first Sunday of December and observe it right up through Christmas Eve. In Advent, we're invited to carefully prepare our hearts, making room for the "arrival." That's what we'll do if we care to observe ancient church and a deeper cultural tradition.
Commercially, however, it's already "Christmastime in the city." In the stores. With the ads. On TV. Over the radio waves. One cannot avoid or escape it.
THE RHYTHM OF KULTURE KRISMAS
You realize there are two primary rhythms for celebrating Christmas, right? One is what I call Kulture Krismas. This is the rhythm most of us in America know and practice. It begins with Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and finishes on Christmas Day. It's full of frolicking and purchasing and caroling for the month leading up to December 25. But after the "big day, we're partied out. We're spent. Christmas is pretty much over.
Kulture Krismas is a fabrication of 20th century retailers and corporations who realized what a financial bonanza gift-giving at Christmas could become. Trace the ever-earlier sales and decorations and teasing holiday music and holiday extravaganzas from the early 20th-century until now and you find a snowballing cultural evolution driven not by metaphysical meaning or historically-rooted tradition, but by layer upon layer of manufactured hype.
In the rhythm of Kulture Krismas, Christmas Day is the end of the season of purchasing and frolicking. Everything builds toward this orgy of indulgence and gratification. Instead of Christmas Day being the beginning of a season of celebration and meaning, it signals the end of a season of hype. Retailers count their blessings and we settle in for a long, cold, barren slog until spring.
THE RHYTHM OF ADVENT PREPARATION
The rhythm fewer know--and still fewer observe--begins with four weeks of soul-searching preparation in Advent, highlights with Christmas Day communion (the Mass of Christ, i.e., Christ-mas), and extends through Epiphany on January 6th (celebrating the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem). This rhythm gives us the tradition of giving a gift on each of the 12 days of Christmas.
The feeling and mood of Advent is like a home that is anticipating a child to be born to a family. It's wonderful, hopeful and joyful. But it's primarily a time to prepare, to make room for the child. The gift, the child being born, the birth day, is the beginning of the real celebration. That's what brings surpassing joy and cause for real revelry.
There are a few simple yet meaning-giving traditions for the four weeks of Advent. Here are a few:
- The advent wreath, with a candle lit for each week--one symbolizing hope, the next faith, the next love, the last one joy. Some light a fifth candle, called the Christ candle, on Christmas Day.
- The Jesse Tree is another Advent tool children especially enjoy.
- Some households use a Nativity creche with an empty manger and place different characters of the story at the creche as the weeks unfold.
- One can readily find online Lectionary readings for each day of Advent (I use an iPhone app for this).
- Fasting is also part of the ancient Advent practice--it is a partial fast combined with repentance to "make room" for receiving in Christmas what alone can fill the heart's hunger.
CHRISTMAS RUSH MEETS ADVENT HUSH
Most of us who observe the ancient practice accommodate the more secular/commercial holiday, but we do so with mixed feelings. The month-long clash of Advent and Kulture Krismas calls for holding in tensions these two divergent traditions. We cross this border daily during the weeks of December. We're attempting and Advent simmer amid a commercial Christmas combustion. We try to live in the rhythm of Advent, attempting to hold off untimely outbursts of "Joy to the World" until Christmas Eve, only to find ourselves indulging the crowd that can't wait for Santa Claus to come to town.
So, if I seem a bit reticent to dive whole-hog into Christmas frolicking in these weeks, please indulge me this small eccentricity. I'm trying to prepare my heart to make room to fully experience the grace of Incarnation--as if the Child were suddenly, upendingly born in my heart and to our world on Christmas Eve. Then, I'll sing--and keep on singing--with gusto: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill to all!"
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA