When do you think the “Christmas Season” starts? Is it the (ever earlier) day when stores begin displaying Christmas merchandise? When the radio starts playing carols? Right after Thanksgiving? When the television starts showing Christmas movies? Are we heading into a state of perpetual holiday preparation, or is there an official beginning to the Christmas season?
According to the church calendar, there certainly is: December 25.
Christmas begins on Christmas day and lasts until Epiphany, or January 6 (by which time traditionalists are pawning those five gold rings to board drummers, pipers, partridges, and the rest). Our culture tells us the four Sundays preceding Christmas are for kicking our holiday preparation into high gear, but they mark the beginning of the church year and the season of Advent.
Anyone wishing you “Merry Christmas” before that date is part of the media’s War On Advent.
Haven’t heard of that particular war? It’s the one that tells us to begin our materialistic holiday sprint in October and not stop until we collapse from exhaustion on January 2nd. Who has time to think about the first Sunday of Advent when we’re focused on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday? Or about the next three Sundays while we’re wrapping, baking, decorating, shopping, mailing, and partying?
Ironically, Advent is a season of reflection – a time intended for us to slow down to consider what it meant that Christ came into the world and why we long for his return. The season focuses on hope, love, joy, and peace. These themes are certainly cause for celebration, but they also remind us the world is desperately in need of each. Can we possibly reconcile Advent with the frenzy of “the holidays?” Some hard-core Advent fans will tell you a tree decorated before Christmas Eve is almost a sacrilege.
But maybe we can. Trees, presents, decorations – these are all secular aspects layered onto the traditions of our faith. Each of us can be intentionally reflective during this season, no matter what we are doing. Stringing up lights in the cold is a fine metaphor and opportunity for contemplating the coming of Christ into the world. Bargain hunting with the throngs at your local big box store is a challenge to honor the dignity of others under less than dignified circumstances. While we prepare holiday dinners, we can think of ways to reach those who lack food and loved ones. The important things we are meant to contemplate during Advent don’t stop being important after Christmas, New Year’s Day, or Epiphany. Our challenge is not simply to be solemn during Advent: it is to allow ourselves to be transformed by the presence of God in our meditations and celebrations, and in such transformation to find newer and better ways of living into the love of Christ through serving our neighbors. Be merry, but also be Mary.