I’m writing this article on July 25, realizing that Christmas is only 5 months away! I know that it’s not Christmas yet, but having recently gone to our local Hobby Lobby, I feel that “Christmas is in the air!”
In the middle of summer, assuming that many of us don’t have a lot of plans in place for the upcoming holiday season, I feel the need to share with you about how we should prepare for Christmas — and a closer walk with Jesus.
When I was growing up, in a strict Polish Roman Catholic environment, “Christmas” didn’t occur until after the Midnight Mass on Christmas Day. The day before Christmas – Christmas Eve – did not have any services scheduled, as people were expected to take part in one of the many services offered on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve, in fact, was a “semi-fast day.” As Roman Catholics, we were supposed to refrain from eating meat (except seafood) until midnight on Christmas Day. A Polish family tradition for the Christmas Eve meal called “Wigilia” (or “Vigil”) came about, partly because extended family or friends were invited to that meal, and also due to the restriction on eating meat before Christmas Day. The Wigilia was a seven-course “meatless” meal that included fish, soup, pierogi (ravioli-like stuffed pasta), and other dishes. But what was missing? –the meat! Eating a traditional Christmas dinner had to wait until Christmas Day, December 25.
In my childhood, “Advent” was “Advent,” and not “Christmas.” We didn’t even think of having “Christmas parties” until on or after Christmas Day, or during the “12 Days of Christmas” (Dec. 25—Jan. 5). As a boy, I remember going to various relatives’ homes on Christmas evening and the week following, for holiday fellowship and (of course!) delicious food. Having a “Christmas Dinner” during Advent would be like having Easter Dinner on Good Friday!
In the secular world, the first “official” sighting of Santa Claus was on Thanksgiving Day, at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We never saw Santa before then, even in our local department stores. And it seemed that “Santa” never advertised or promoted products in TV commercials. Stores would sell seasonal items in a timely manner, and after the holidays, they would have “after-Christmas sales.”
I don’t need to tell you that things have changed over the years! In the secular world we live in, Santa is “all over the place,” advertising a variety of products as well as appearing in stores after Halloween. “Christmas in July” is an advertiser’s opportunity to get a jump-start on enticing people to shop early for that special Christmas gift. Many businesses have Christmas parties for their employees in November or early December, so they can “get it over with” before the holidays actually occur. And forget about “post-Christmas sales!” In mid-December of last year, when I was shopping for some Christmas candles at Lowe’s, most of those items weren’t available, because they were already on sale!
How about us? Are we so taken by the secular world’s early celebration of Christmas that we push everything forward into Advent, and sometimes can’t wait for the holiday to be over so that we can put the decorations away?
I’m sorry that I’m sounding like the late Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes fame! I’m not meaning to bemoan the departure of former holiday traditions. I do mean to share with you about our Anglican sense of time: A time of preparation, celebration, and extended celebration! For the Advent-Christmas cycle, the four Sundays of Advent and the weekdays in between, leading up to Christmas Eve, are our days of preparation for the celebration of our Savior’s birth. The Services on Christmas Eve and Day are our celebration of Jesus’ birth and his continued life within us, and we extend that celebration for 12 days (e.g., “The Twelve Days of Christmas”).
So, what am I saying to you and me? I’m not advocating a “meatless” Advent or Christmas Eve, but I’m asking us to reflect on the meaning of these seasons, as we live out the Christian Church Year. Here are some thoughts for us to pray about before we plan our holiday celebrations this fall:
- If we are offering a Christmas party or get-together, can we do this (as individuals or as a church) during the “12 Days of Christmas”?
- If we need to have a holiday get-together during Advent, can we plan it so that “something is missing” (e.g., not having a lot of desserts, or planning a more frugal meal)?
- If you have children or grandchildren, light the Advent Wreath for them. Although there are a lot of Advent Wreath prayers on the Internet, they are not necessary. Here’s a song in the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that we can sing while lighting the various candles of the wreath: “See the candles burning bright; One by one each week we light. Advent is a time to wait; not quite time to celebrate. When our waiting time is through, it’s Christmas joy for me and you.”
- Make holy the practice of sending and receiving Christmas cards! If you send someone a Christmas card, say a prayer for that person or persons before you mail it out. When you receive a holiday card, after you open it up, offer a prayer for the sender. Sandy and I hang up our Christmas cards on a door, and when we take them down, we offer a prayer for each sender.
- When you greet someone during the 12 days of Christmas, wish them a “Merry ___ Day of Christmas!” I used to just say “Merry Christmas!” to a cashier at our Food Lion on Dec. 29th, but when I did, I got the “deer in the headlight” look! So, now I plan to say, “Merry 4th Day of Christmas,” which doesn’t sound so bad!
- If you have a Christmas tree, don’t decorate it all at once, especially if it’s an artificial tree. If you set it up on Thanksgiving Day or the First Sunday of Advent, perhaps leave it bare for a couple of days, and then gradually put up the decorations until it’s fully decorated and lit by Christmas Eve. Try to keep your artificial tree up until the Sunday after Epiphany (Jan. 6th).
- Celebrate Epiphany as a household and as part of the Church! All Saints’ has some special activities for that day, including a meal, service, and a bonfire with discarded real Christmas trees. Circle Jan. 6th on your calendar and write down “All Saints’!”
Why do I write down all these suggestions? It’s to help us be aware that there are TWO Christmas Seasons – secular and religious. For us who are Christians, as followers of Jesus, we need to LIVE OUT THESE SEASONS to more closely identify with the One who loves us and was born for us to set us free from sin and the power of death.
Please don’t discard this message! Please copy it, and read it again before you start your holiday plans. Secular holidays and their traditions come and go, but Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever! This Advent and Christmas, with The Holy Spirit’s help, let’s plan to PREPARE, CELEBRATE, and CONTINUE CELEBRATING JESUS and thank our Abba/Father for that great Gift in our hearts!
-Fr. Jim Bernacki