Do you want to make the Christian perspective on the meaning of Christmas more prominent in our culture? Do you want to “keep Christ in Christmas,” as the bumper-sticker slogan says? There’s a way to do it that’s appropriate to our faith, and would certainly be noticeable to others. But it will take work. It will make you stand out as “different” among your friends. And it will feel odd. You will, in fact, seem weird to many people. So something in you will resist doing this; no one wants to be seen as weird. Notice this resistance. And ask whether you want Christians to stand out at Christmas, after all, if it costs something.
What is this action? Simply this: Observe the Liturgical cycle of our Catholic faith.
What does that mean? This: It is not Christmas until December 25. Up to that time, it is Advent, a time of anticipation, not celebration. Christmas celebrations do not belong during Advent. Christmas decorations (excepting preparatory actions) do not belong. Saying “Merry Christmas” does not belong. Christmas parties do not belong. Christmas lights do not belong. Christmas celebrations do not start until the Vigil Masses on December 24. “Keeping Christ in Christmas” means not letting “Christmas” leak out into Advent.
I admit that churches are terrible about this. We have “Christmas” parties during Advent, and frankly we shouldn’t. But going against the tide of culture (and against the fact that so many people are “done with” Christmas on December 26 and wouldn’t come to a post-December-25 Christmas party) is just too difficult. I’m not throwing stones from inside my own glass house. I’m pointing out that our Catholic tradition has surrendered to the culture around us, and not in the fake ways that make the news (like respecting the faith of others by not imposing “Merry Christmas” on them; it’s entirely respectful and appropriate to say “Happy Holidays” to people who don’t celebrate Christmas). We have surrendered by our own actions, and have erased our distinctiveness in the ways our Church encourages us to keep it.
Some of you older baseball fans may remember game one of the 1965 World Series. The game fell on Yom Kippur, and the Dodgers’ all-star pitcher, Sandy Koufax, refused to play because of his Jewish faith. While the days of Advent are less important religiously to us than Yom Kippur is to Jewish people, the lesson applies: Sometimes culture and faith conflict, and for the observant believer the choice can be painful, even sacrificial.
The season of Advent starts next Sunday, December 3, at the Vigil Mass on the 2nd. (Following Jewish tradition, major liturgical days are commonly begun at sundown on the evening before.) It runs through the beginning of the Vigil Mass of Christmas on December 24. In-home traditions such as the progressive lighting of the candles of the Advent wreath are a good thing. But it may be even more important to keep Advent from being contaminated with the cultural orgy that starts at Thanksgiving. Be gracious, certainly; don’t insist on saying “Happy Advent” if someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas” on December 20 (except at church; there, people may be suitably reminded that it’s still Advent).
Maybe we need a new slogan: Keep Christ in Advent! For four weeks leading up to Christmas, that’s where our Church reminds us He belongs. Until next week, peace.