Thanks to John Fea’s “Sunday Night Odds and Ends” this week for the link to this article on the rush to celebrate Christmas earlier and earlier. Of course, the author doesn’t really seem to make any arguments other than how much it annoys him to hear Christmas songs on the radio, and the assumed blame that he lays on the advertisers and retailers. He does mention that the season of Advent is different than Christmas, but I’m not sure he fully develops that.
I have a different problem with the rush to celebrate Christmas earlier and earlier. First, it has nothing to do with loving Halloween. We do not celebrate Halloween as a family, so I have no concerns with Christmas taking away from this “holiday”. My problem is this: starting to celebrate Christmas in late October or early November cheapens Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas! (One of my favorite writers, Gregg Easterbrook, “The Tuesday Morning Quarterback” on ESPN.com, runs a segment in his article each week about “Christmas-creep”. The segment starts appearing in August, and ends in mid-November.)
Think about it. Thanksgiving is coming this Thursday. Sure, telling people to be thankful for what they have doesn’t sell very many products, or benefit the economy. Still, all you see on TV this week is talking about the gluttony of the Thanksgiving feast, the coming “Black Friday” sales, and all of the things you need for Christmas this year. A few friends have been doing a “30 Days of Thanksgiving” exercise on facebook this year. They have been posting one new thing that they are thankful for each day for the month of November. Good for them! I have a feeling, however, that I will be seeing many more posts and comments on Friday from people who are out at the stores at some early hour of the morning (the outlet malls at Rockvale Square and Tanger in Lancaster open at midnight!) than I will from people continuing the thankful spirit of Thanksgiving. To be fair, I’m sure Thursday will be filled with the obligatory thankful posts apropos to the day, but where is the build-up? We, as a culture, seem to be making it clear that thankfulness is much less important than the materialism of our national Christmas celebration.
What about Advent? How does a focus on Christmas cheapen Advent? Well, what is the purpose of Advent? I submit that it is not what we have made it. Advent is a time of anticipation and preparation. In the traditional lighting of the advent candles, we remember the players in the story, and the work that God was doing. Mary had (roughly) nine months to prepare herself for her role in the drama that was to play out. Joseph probably had one or two less months (only finding out about the plan, and its divine nature, after Mary is found to be pregnant) to prepare himself and his heart. In the shepherds, we find the common person, unaware of all the build-up going on, but dedicated to the Scriptures so much that they react to the angels’ greeting with joy and rush off to find the fulfillment of the prophecy they had been hoping to see come to fruition in their lifetime. The Magi leave their land on a long journey to see the One the heavens foretold. Surely there was a lot of preparation necessary for this journey.
The Advent season in the Church is to be a time of preparing our hearts to truly appreciate and celebrate the arrival of our long-foretold Messiah. It is an attempt, in my view, to understand the hundreds of years of anticipation in that culture, and the excitement of being able to see your dreams come true in ways that we can hardly hope to wrap our minds around. I think even our anticipation of Christ’s return is nothing compared to how that society would have felt about the coming of the Messiah. Maybe Christians in China, Iraq, Iran, and other countries look for Christ in this way, but comfortable American Christians have to work very hard to understand how first century Jews would have anticipated for the Messiah.
The way our culture celebrates Christmas is more like the process between an election and when someone is inaugurated. As soon as the election is over, you know what is coming. You might spend some time preparing for the job, but you probably find it pretty easy to spend the whole time celebrating, and looking forward to the party at the end. This is how we celebrate Christmas. We know there is a big party coming, and we’re going to get lots of great stuff. The only preparation is to get some gifts for others. For kids, there is very little emphasis on this, and it is all about the receiving. The wonder is all about not knowing what you’ll get, and hoping for snow.
The true meaning of Christmas also gets lost. Christmas day is all about the gifts, and little if any mention is made of the Gift that is really the heart of the celebration. Christmas, for the Christian, is supposed to be all about Christ, all about our receiving the perfect Gift of a Messiah. Of course, this is only the perfect gift if we can admit that we need a Messiah. Largely, this is probably why the whole thing has gotten so far off track. We do not live in a society that much values admissions of weakness and need, especially the need for someone else to make up for our failures and sins. It is much easier to focus on the practice of gift-giving. Instead of gifts being a reminder of the gifts the Magi gave the Christ-child, or, better, the gift that God gave us, Christmas becomes about the exchange of gifts between each other.
So this is what Christmas has become. Two (or more) months of feel-good “Christmas” music (some of which is even about Christ) in which those of us who already have too much stuff (even if we don’t always realize it) focus on how we can get more of it, and give more to others who generally have too much stuff. This looks nothing like the way I want my kids to process things as we head through this season. Here’s what I think I want my kids to think through. Heading into November, I’d love to be able to take 1 November, and really think about All Saints Day. We could talk about the value of having people of God who have gone before us and shown us how we should live, and how we can hope to follow God more closely. Then we could extend this into talking about all that we have to be grateful for, leading up to a true Thanksgiving celebration. We can appreciate the seasons as well. We can thank God for the fruits of the earth, our personal garden and other local produce and such that God has enabled us to enjoy.
As we then come from that attitude, we are ready to focus on our need for a Savior. We have thanked God for his material provisions and blessings, and are hopefully ready to realize our spiritual need for His provision as well. We anticipate His provision for us, and remember those who so long ago were waiting with expectancy. As part of this, for our family, we include the celebration of Hanukkah. As the days get shorter, we celebrate the giving of light, and light the candles as we talk about God as our light, Jesus as the light of the world, and our call to be lights that draw others to God. We also do most of our gifts (one for each of the eight nights) associated with Hanukkah so that we can take some of the gift-focus away from Christmas. Then we look forward to Christmas Eve where we celebrate the impending Coming. Christmas morning we wake up, and read the story, celebrating with the shepherds what God has done while we were sleeping. We spend some time together focusing on God’s great gift, and then head out on our own journey to celebrate with family.
Are we perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reclaim to meaning of Christmas. It is not about the gifts, or the schmaltzy “holiday” music. It is about the Christ, our Messiah. It is a holy day, a day to remember how blessed we are to be on this side of Calvary. I want to do whatever I can to maintain my focus, and not to cheapen this time of year which gives so many opportunities for renewed perspective on my relation with my Maker. I pray that you, and your family, will have the chance to focus on Christ this Christmas. May God touch each of you where you are, and draw you closer to Himself.
If you have any other hints or ides that you have used to keep yourself or your family focused, please share below!