Advent Is Not Christmas, Part II
This is part two of a two part series. To read part one click here.
“I hate Christmas.”
I recently read an article in the Washington Post whose title was, “I hate Christmas.” It wasn’t entirely what I expected: an atheist curmudgeon annoyed by the ubiquitous seasonal Christian messaging, wishing that everyone would get off his god-free lawn. While there was a little bit of that in the piece, it was mostly centered around the fact that because the author grew up poor, he could never experience Christmas the way movies, tv shows, pop songs, commercials, catalogs, and even friends and family taught him he was supposed to experience it. His family could never afford the lavish feast, the tree surrounded with all the items on his Christmas wish list, or even a very nice tree. He now shuns Christmas along with its gatherings, festivities, gifts, and cheer, instead spending all the money he can afford buying toys for poor children so they can have the Christmas he never had.
I finished the article thinking that the author hadn’t rejected Christmas, he had rejected what Christmas has become: a commercialized cornucopia of instant gratification. What he had actually offered was a valid critique of Christmas and a call to recenter on its true meaning. After all, what more pure symbol of the Christmas spirit is there than sacrificing financially to provide gifts to poor children? St. Nicholas, anyone?
Afterward, I perused a bit of the comment section (yes, I know you are not supposed to read the comments). Many commenters agreed with the author. Some agreed because they were of other religions or were atheists (what I thought the article was going to be about). Others, though, didn’t reject Christmas but rather the spectacle that it has become. One commenter replied, “Only 2-ish weeks before the schizophrenia is behind us. My favorite day of the year is January 1, when it’s all over.”
Christmas isn’t the problem
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. If there was a hidden camera in my house it would catch me randomly singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” My wife and I have curated the biggest (and best) Christmas display in a three or four block radius (in our estimation… opinions may vary). I love the feasting. I love the gift-giving. I love the Christmas liturgies, hymns, and candlelight services. I love all that because I love the message of Christ born to set his people free. I love the message of Immanuel, God-with-us, that the God of the Universe took on every bit of our broken humanity so that he could redeem it all. I love it because the incarnation is the only sufficient answer to the problem of evil in this world, as the best philosophers have realized, St. Augustine at the head. I love it because he became sin, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God. That’s the reason I’m singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” That’s the reason why I’ve lit my yard up in multicolored c-9 ceramic bulb nostalgic glory. That’s also the reason why I’m ecstatic that the whole world pauses once a year to celebrate the fact that God was born into the world.
And yet, I resonate with what that Washington Post author wrote. Because he’s right. The Christmas message is not what Hallmark, Home Depot, Honda, Hanes, Harley-Davidson, Hurley, and Hasbro are selling us. We have gotten off the rails, or jumped the shark, or whatever metaphor you want to use, in our overindulgence of the Coca-Cola commercialized version of Christmas. The songs, ads, and store displays start before Halloween now. That’s three full months on a peppermint Red Bull IV drip of wall-to-wall Christmas experience. There’s no expectation. There’s no preparation. There’s no self-denial. It’s just CHRISTMAS!!!!!, full-bore, full-tilt for three full months until December 26 when they turn off the spigot and we collapse into full-on exhaustion. No wonder some people hate it.
But that’s not the way Christmas was designed by those that developed the church year centuries ago. Yes, there was feasting. Yes, there was decorating and singing and gift-giving. But preceding it was a period of longing, expectation, and self-denial focused on something entirely un-Christmassy: the second coming of Christ. In other words, there was the season of Advent. And Advent was not Christmas.
Perhaps refocusing on the wisdom of those that created the autumnal portion of the Church calendar could help us in our current predicament. What can we learn by sitting at their feet?