Back on the Feast of Christ the King, I attended Mass in my childhood parish, Our Lady of Sorrows in St. Louis, with my 97-year-old dad and his wife, Joy. The priest who preached was an elderly, very distinguished-looking man. He began his homily by stating that during some recent shopping, he was angered (his word) by all the Christmas decorations, and yet there was NO reference to Jesus. Subsequently I also saw a rather heated rant on social media about the disregard for the real reason for the season.
I cannot help but think that these reactions, while sincere, are somewhat misguided. Because in fact, there are TWO separate and distinct holidays. Confusingly, they are both named “Christmas.” There is a corporate-sponsored holiday that emphasizes shopping (with Black Friday as a high holy day!), sugar-coated warm feelings of brotherhood, being nice, and family. It begins as soon as Halloween is over, kicks into high gear at Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and ends by midnight on Dec. 24. Immediately afterward, all the decorations come down, radio stations stop the incessant blare of Christmas music, and attention focuses on New Year’s parties and sales. This thoroughly secular holiday is not bad; it just does not have a lot of significance. It exists in part to encourage philanthropy and commercialism. Denying this commercialized holiday is impossible; getting angry over it seems pointless.
But there is also another, much older, if less prominent, celebration, which is a holy day. It is also called Christmas. It has TREMENDOUS meaning and importance, but little cultural support. This Christmas doesn’t need it. It is the nearly two millennia old celebration of the Mystery of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. While the stores are celebrating Christmas, we are celebrating Advent. While they have all the cute snowmen, elves, and Santas out for display, we are cherishing the Advent wreath, beautiful music of longing and anticipation, and prophecies from Isaiah and other ancient prophets. We start our Christmas celebration when the secular Christmas closes, and we go long afterwards, until Epiphany in January, when the other Christmas is a memory.
They are really two different and distinct events, even though called by the same name. And all of us Christians live in BOTH worlds. I think that is a large part of the tension that makes people upset over the “Happy Holidays” approach to Christmas. Living in both worlds can be disjointed and somewhat uncomfortable. I encourage you to suck it up and deal with it. We cannot flee from the world and become hermits in an insular and isolated Christian community. Nor can we sell out our birthright of Faith and ignore the real significance of Christmas. We must live in both.
I urge you to do your best to observe and promote the real Christmas. That will NOT be accomplished by wringing your hands and chiding the promoters of the secular Christmas. Getting angry won’t help. But being true to what you believe, recognizing the real depth and importance of this Feast, and living it out in the counter-cultural observance of Advent, and then the REAL Christmas starting on Dec. 24, will not be easy. But that will be witness to a stance of FAITH and just may lead some of those around you to stop and reflect on the true meaning of the season. And that would be a very good Christmas gift! Merry Christmas! God Bless!