The church year commences with Advent, which includes the four Sundays before Christmas, the first in 2012 being December 2. Strictly observed Advent is a time of reflection, repentance, and preparation. “Prepare the way of the Lord” is its message. Then comes Christmas Day which begins the Twelve Days of Christmas, which conclude on Epiphany which celebrates the coming of the Wise Men and revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.
It’s early Christmas morning. Sitting on the sideboard are two eight layer cakes that didn’t come out of a box or the icing out of a can. One is chocolate and one coconut. A turkey was smoked overnight. A spiral sliced ham will go in the oven before long. The cornbread for the dressing, still hot, is on the counter. All sorts of favorite dishes are in various stages of preparation.
Old Dad just can’t stand it. He can’t wait for Christmas dinner to be served. He looks at the chocolate cake, his mother’s recipe, and he’s got to have a slice now. Just a slice. Then there is the turkey he smoked. He’s got to see how it turned out so he cuts himself an ample slice from the breast. Man that is good! He knows those spiral hams are always good, but the turkey has got his mouth watering, so he needs to taste the ham, then again, and one more time. And how great that hot cornbread would be slathered with butter. Just a piece broken off the edge, then a piece from another edge. He’s got to sample those other dishes as they progress. And that coconut cake, the kind his grandmother made with freshly grated coconut. He can’t let that go without confirming to himself how good it is. He’s a little full. But there are the nuts in the dish and the Mississippi State cheese they got as a gift and the candy from the kids’ stockings. He’ll nibble a little on those.
With the kids outside playing or in their rooms with their newest electronics and carols playing softly in the background he’s soon fast asleep on the couch. He’s startled awake at 1:00 by his wife calling, “Christmas dinner’s served! Come to the table.” He awakes and still groggy goes to the table, thinking without saying aloud, “I’m so full, I don’t think I can eat another bite. I am almost to the point of being sick of this stuff.” He says grace, nibbles at his food, and is glad when the meal is over. He doesn’t know if he’ll even be interested in leftovers tomorrow or the next day. Maybe it’s time to move on until next year.
It’s seems to me that this is the way many people will feel about Christmas itself by the time it gets here. The stores could hardly let Labor Day pass before they began displaying their Christmas trees and decorations for sale. Of course, you’ve got to be in the mood to shop, so store decorations went up and carols began to bombard ears in the stores that had got all the money they could from Halloween sales.
Even the day of Thanksgiving is affected by commercial interests. From the Presidency of Lincoln to that of the second Roosevelt the Thanksgiving proclamation was issued for the last Thursday of November. Most years the fourth Thursday would be the last Thursday of the month, but, as with this year of 2012, there could be five Thursdays some years and rarely Thanksgiving could fall as late as the 30th. But statics showed that people did not begin do their Christmas shopping till after Thanksgiving. During the Depression that became an issue for retailers. The first time during the Depression Thanksgiving fell on a fifth Thursday was 1933. Some businessmen asked the President to move Thanksgiving a week earlier, but he declined. The second time (1939) he made the change. This action encountered a lot of resistance so that Thanksgiving was celebrated on different Thursdays among the states. As usually happens the government had to step in with Congress in 1941 making Thanksgiving a national holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.
Commercial concerns have led to an ever increasingly early entrance of the “Christmas season.” But, there is another cause, too. It is our unwillingness to delay and thus to enhance the enjoyment of Christmas until Christmas itself arrives. We just can’t wait. We pull out the Christmas music the first of November. We put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving, if we wait that long. We eat the Christmas cookies and candy, and, if we can stand it, the fruitcake from the first day of December. By Christmas Day we are like the husband who gorged himself on food all Christmas morning. We are tired, if not sickof the whole thing. We are ready to see it over. Get that tree down and out of the house! Get those decorations boxed and back in the attic! We have had enough for this year!
Now, I know it’s a free country, and businesses, families, and individuals can do what they want. And, I know the followers of the English Puritan tradition think the whole thing is an unwelcome distraction at best, a pagan/Roman Catholic corruption at worst. Churches range from principled observance, to principled non-observance, to grudging observance, to doing whatever they like whenever they like.
IF, and it’s a big IF I know, you are going to observe Christmas, it makes sense at least to know how we in the Christian world got the observance. It comes from the “liturgical calendar” or the “Christian (church) year.” This calendar is observed by the Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches. Of the churches of the Reformation it is followed by the Lutheran and Anglican churches. To a lesser extent it is observed by the Continental Reformed churches. It is supposedly observed not at all by the English and Scottish Presbyterians. But, in America we pretty much do what we darn well please. Still, perhaps, it’s of some value to know from where the observance comes.
The church year commences with Advent, which includes the four Sundays before Christmas, the first in 2012 being December 2. Strictly observed Advent is a time of reflection, repentance, and preparation. “Prepare the way of the Lord” is its message. Then comes Christmas Day which begins the Twelve Days of Christmas, which conclude on Epiphany (January 6) which celebrates the coming of the Wise Men and revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.
As I say, people can do what they want. But, as one who keeps Christmas, I like the idea of letting Christmas gradually come to me through the time of Advent rather than forcing it to rush to me. I like the wait, the anticipation, the reenactment of the waiting experience of the Old Testament church and prophets. I want to hear the call of John the Baptist, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I like contemplating with Mary the angelic greeting. I want to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” before I sing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
We like to take a slower approach to the things we do at home. We don’t put the tree up the day after Thanksgiving, and we don’t take it down the day after Christmas. We don’t eat Christmas cookies till we put up the tree. We don’t listen to the music before Thanksgiving. I don’t like being bored with the whole thing by December 15. But feel free to go ahead and do it wrong.
So, I shall not now wish you a Merry Christmas, but I will a few days before it begins wish you a Blessed Advent.
Bill Smith is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Jackson, MS. This article first appeared at his blog and is used with his permission