How Advent and Christmas Are Losing Their Sense in the Modern World

Fr. Bill Olnhausen | 03 December 2018

So…they’ve taken Christmas out of Christmas and put it in Advent, and they’ve taken Christ out of Advent, except it’s not really Advent anymore, it’s Shopping Season, and then when the real Christmas comes, Christ is still in Christmas but Christmas is over. And who has done it is not who everybody thinks it is. (Are you still with me?) That is where modern American society is. The true Advent and Christmas are still here in the Church, but is anybody paying any attention?

Orthodox Advent and Christmas

Here’s how the Church intends us to keep this time of year: On November 15 our Orthodox Advent (Christmas) Fast begins. The calendars all say it should be kept like Great Lent. In parish use (outside the monasteries) I think it is usually just meatless. All Christians once kept an Advent Fast; now we Orthodox alone are left to tell you, and I’m not sure how many of us keep it. All the liturgical churches, east and west, follow approximately the same pattern. Advent is intended to be a time of quiet patient waiting, hope, prayer, repentance, reflection on the mystery of the Virgin and the coming of the Maker of all to our earth, as we move towards The Nativity of Christ – rather like Great Lent as we prepare for Pascha. Western Advent is shorter than ours but “fuller”, with many hymns and Scripture readings leading up to Christ’s birth. We Orthodox don’t have as much “verbal” preparation for Christmas. Some readings speak generally of darkness and light. On November 26, this year, we get our first Advent hymn, the lovely Kontakion “The Virgin Comes Today” – often sung slowly as we wait patiently.

Those who come to Sunday Matins/Orthros hear the Christmas Canon. The two Sundays before the Nativity of Christ are dedicated to Christ’s Ancestors and to those in his Genealogy. For us, that’s about it until a few days before Christmas. Hardly a celebration. The Christmas feast begins (surprise!) on Christmas and continues, with us Orthodox, for 8 days. Westerners get “The 12 Days of Christmas”. Our Fast goes off on Christmas and remains so till the great feast of the Epiphany, which originally was considered more important than Christmas.

How our culture has totally messed up Advent and Christmas

However today in popular secular practice the “Christmas” season now begins… when? well, one Milwaukee radio station has played wall to wall 24 hours a day pop “Christmas” music since late October. As I write this on November 21, the White House has announced that “the Christmas season has begun”. The White House press corps are skeptical of many things, but they didn’t question that. In stores where once they played Christmas carols, now they play pop winter songs. (This I think is a good thing. They no longer use songs about Jesus to sell merchandise.) Santa Claus now arrives, sometimes by helicopter (and sometimes accompanied by whoever this is!), in mid November to sell merchandise. (This is a very bad thing. Later we’ll talk here about “The Real Santa Claus” and how commercialism has turned our beloved Saint Nicholas into a car salesman.) Even many churches now schedule their Christmas concerts and activities before Christmas. Then after the Christian Christmas season actually arrives on December 25, it all stops. Just try to go to “The Nutcracker” or “The Christmas Carol” after Christmas Day. Sorry, it’s all over. Our neighbor lady across the street acts this out perfectly. Usually she puts her “Christmas” tree up on November 1 and takes it down on the day after Christmas. And as for poor Epiphany, after the holiday Shopping Season from Thanksgiving to Christmas, followed by civil New Years Day parties and a gazillion bowl games (there used to be 4), everybody is wiped out, and Epiphany is ignored.

To summarize: 1) In our culture there has been a War on Advent, and we have lost it. Advent has been almost completely secularized, and most Christians go right along with it. When I was a boy, at least in our part of Ohio, Christmas trees were not put up and decorated until Christmas Eve. No more. 2) Nobody has attempted to take Christ out of Christian Christmas. December 25 is still ours! But most Christians ignore the Christmas season and the Epiphany.

Now, I’m not trying to sound like Scrooge. But look: even Scrooge repented during Advent and then celebrated with the Cratchit family on Christmas Day. I’m only saying that the secular world around us has got it all backwards. And if we follow the secularists, we miss the joy of both seasons. One can hardly blame non-liturgical Christians who have no Church guide to the seasons. But we Orthodox and Roman Catholics and Anglicans and Lutherans have no excuse. We are living double lives at this time of year, and we really should know better.

Does this make any difference? Yes! Of course, sin and death are worse problems – keep it in perspective. But consider what a difference it would (will?) make if the commercial interests turned our Great Lent into a season of parties and shopping leading up the visit of the Easter Bunny, and if Christians just went along with it. What would we lose in our prayer life and spiritual growth and devotion to Christ? and if at the end of Lent we were so exhausted and our stomachs so full that the joy of the Paschal feast and Paschal season meant little to us? Think of what we would lose. Well, that’s what has already happened to Advent and Christmas. And by losing the Epiphany we have lost its theme of “Christ for the world”, the mission of the Church.

The War on Advent: How we lost it and who was behind it

Some television and political personalities say there’s a “War on Christmas”, that evil atheists are taking Christ out of Christmas. They’re onto something, but they haven’t got it straight. As I said, it’s really a War on Advent. And who’s behind it is not the atheists but the commercial interests, the very people who sponsor the television shows and the political campaigns of those who complain there’s a “War on Christmas”!

How did all this happen? Let’s do some history.

The feast of the Nativity of Christ dates back only to about the fourth century. Believe it or not, Christians did not celebrate Christmas for the first 3 centuries of the Christian era. Since we don’t know the date of Christ’s birth, Christians borrowed the date of the ancient pagan winter solstice festival of “Sol Invictus”, the return of the “Unconquered Sun” – since Christ is indeed the true Light that came into the world, that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. 

Most of the rest of what we think of as “traditional Christmas” is in fact modern. Most popular Christmas carols go back only to the 19th century. Christmas gift-giving as we know it seems to have begun a a couple of centuries ago. At first gifts were given to the poor. Then in the mid 19th century, about the time the lovely and bizarre poem “’Twas the Night before Christmas” became popular, people began to give Christmas gifts to children. In the late 19th century the commercial interests saw a marketing opportunity, and they promoted Christmas gift giving for all. Not surprisingly this caught on – for Jesus said “it is more blessed to give than to receive”, and after all who doesn’t also like getting presents?

However, the earlier you begin selling the more you can sell, so the holiday Shopping Season was pushed earlier and earlier. Finally, in recent years the commercial interests have also realized you can sell more stuff if you don’t limit your customers to Christians, so sales promotion has taken on a general Holiday theme rather than a Christian one, so now it’s all “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. (This is not evil. Christmas doesn’t come till December 25, and there are also the holidays of Thanksgiving and New Years Day to cover.) And recently, near the beginning of Advent, they’ve invented Black Friday so crowds can charge into stores, sometimes mauling and fighting with each other to grab bargains – all intended as Christmas gifts? I wonder. Downtown Cedarburg (below), is lovely on these dark nights, decorated for our “Five Festive Fridays” before Christmas. Nobody is mauling each other here. But the “Festive Fridays” are not about the coming of Jesus Christ. They are just nights when stores stay open late so they can sell more stuff. I would like to call them “Five Fasting Fridays.”

And Christians have given in to all this. On those same Advent Friday nights, at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, our Pastor Father David schedules a beautiful Advent Paraklisis service * to help us get ready for Christmas. Who comes? Usually we 2 priests and our wives. I guess people are too busy getting ready for Christmas to spend an evening getting ready for Christmas. Give that a thought. This is where we are today.

* Here is the Advent Paraklisis from Holy Cross Church (it doesn’t say which Holy Cross Church):  You may read it for your personal devotions. 

Christian Advent and Christmas: Can we recover them?

The rest of the truth is that genuine Christian Advent and Christmas are still available in the Church – if only we would take advantage of them and “use” them, so to speak.  Who is stopping us from keeping Advent with the Church?  How hard is it, really, for a family to do without meat for a while? or even just on weekdays? The internet has a multitude of meatless and vegan recipes. (Our old Antiochian Metropolitan Philip always gave us a “pass” to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.) Who is forcing us to order pepperoni on that pizza? We can’t pray a few more minutes a day during Advent? or just sit for a little while and ponder the wonder of Christ’s coming? If we go to a holiday party, who says we can’t choose meatless dishes – or if that’s not possible without calling attention to ourselves, then say “no, thank you” to second helpings, or omit desserts, or don’t take salt. Do something.  And above all, be charitable: most churches have Christmas offerings for the needy. Deny yourself a few things and give generously (how about to International Orthodox Christian Charities?) so the needy may have a merry Christmas. Get into the spirit of the true Advent Fast.

Then when December 25 comes and all the clamor stops and the world leaves us alone, we Christians are free to celebrate Christmas season. Why can’t we schedule our Christmas get-to-gethers and concerts then? Who will stop us from saying “Merry Christmas”? People will think we’re slightly balmy, of course, for what could be more counter-cultural than saying “Merry Christmas” during Christmas season?!

This is how it should be with us Christians, beginning with Advent.

Why do we need Advent?

Because in this go-go non-stop I-must-have-everything-now world, we desperately need this time to wait quietly and contemplate the wonder of the Virgin Birth and the coming of the light of Christ into our darkened world. We need to sit with the shepherds and wait for the Glory to be revealed.

Why the Advent Fast? Fasting also sets the tone of the season: patient waiting for Christmas. Why do we make our stomachs and taste buds wait? Because the way to our heart really is through our stomach. We practice self control and patience with something convenient, ordinary, everyday, food which is not a moral issue – so that when we need to give up something that is a moral issue (our neighbor’s wife or holding up gas stations or losing our temper or whatever) we will have had some practice in how to do it. Fasting helps us get control of our bad habits lest they get control of us, and two major fasting seasons a year seems about right. (What? You haven’t picked up any bad habits since the end of Great Lent? I doubt that.) So during Advent get control again, go to Confession and make a fresh start.

But most important, during Advent we Christians need to show that we are Christians, that we do not belong to the “world”. Who do you want to identify with? the secularists or the Christians? As time goes on and our society (and even some Christians, both conservative and liberal) become more secular, and as our cultural morals become looser (watch the TV news: God help us all), the need to make this choice is going to become ever more important. In small ways and large, choose to be a normal traditional Christian!

That is why it is vital for us not to become casualties of the War on Advent. Keep the season as an Orthodox Christian should. Then beginning on Christmas, make sure you “pig out” (moderately, of course) till Epiphany, and taste and enjoy and celebrate the true Orthodox Christmas.

Till then, a blessed and holy Advent to you.

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