Columbia, SC — WE’RE ONLY two weeks into December, and already I can’t escape Christmas.
My neighbors have the lights twinkling in their windows and draped over trees and spotlighting the giant red-and-white blow-up Santa every evening. At the office, I’m greeted each morning by sparkling Christmas trees and wreaths festooned in red, and poinsettias as far as the eye can see.
The cards have started arriving in the mail, at least one local radio station has been playing all Christmas music all the time since Thanksgiving, and even on NPR, the stories about things Christmas are proliferating. (Confession: I did put out my St. Nicholas collection the first week of the month; of course, it was St. Nicholas’ feast day.)
And the merchants. The ones who start decking their halls before Halloween and piping in their saccharine secular Christmas carols that I can’t make myself stop singing no matter how crazy they make me. The ones who, not content to invade the days surrounding Thanksgiving, now lure shoppers away from the table before the turkey is even cooked.
And yes, the traffic lights are blinking a bright read and green.
I love Christmas. In its time.
This is not its time.
At least I can be thankful that most people wish me “happy holidays,” which I choose to believe indicates they realize that a salutation of “merry Christmas” is premature. Sort of like wishing people a blessed Easter at a Mardi Gras party.
Of course, I know that’s not the reason. If it were, they’d wish me a blessed Advent, the season that since at least the fifth century Christians the world over have observed in the weeks leading up to Christmas. A penitential time of preparation and reflection and prayer. A time, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops puts it, “that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas.”
It might not be quite so objectionable for society to squeeze out Advent with all its unseasonable Christmasing if it really was about … Christmas. Good tidings of great joy. Peace on earth, and good-will to men. The creator of heaven and earth became flesh and dwelt among us, and all that. We do, after all, need a little Christmas, all day every day.
But it’s not; it’s about merchants selling stuff. People looking for an excuse to have a party, to overindulge in alcohol and engage in gluttony and all sorts of other activities that St. Paul warned against. And all of us thoughtlessly getting caught up in the rush.
Worse, it seems increasingly to be about people who proudly proclaim their Christianity while looking for another reason to get angry, to feel put upon. We have in this country a certain brand of Christians who can’t tolerate the fact that businesses and schools and the talking heads on TV celebrate their insipid “winter break” with “holiday cards” and “holiday trees” rather than wishing them “Merry Christmas” — during Advent.
As if Jesus hadn’t warned his disciples that “they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.”
I’d be more sympathetic to complaints about the war on Christmas if they weren’t coming from the very people who have waged a largely successful war on Advent. Because, let’s face it, the idea that Christmas should be celebrated in early December, or even mid-December, is not a Christian concept; Christmas celebrations historically were confined to … Christmas. They were even banned in several of the Protestant colonies, and once the bans were lifted, Christmas remained unrecognizably low-key by today’s standards. The monthlong Christmas celebration is a secular invention, promoted and pushed a little harder each year by a retail industry bent on doing what it does best: convince us to buy more and more things we don’t need.
And the complaint about a societal war on Christmas is not a religious complaint; it’s a political complaint, which politicians have used quite effectively to make too many people believe that Christians have been marginalized by the larger society — as if we weren’t ourselves the larger society.
Adding insult to spiritual injury, the assault on Advent crowds out the real observation of Christmas — the one that starts on the evening of Dec. 24 and runs through Epiphany, 12 days later. Try to find a Christmas carol then or, after the new year, anyone who even says “happy holidays,” much less “merry Christmas.”
This morning, I will join 1.5 billion other Anglicans and Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians and a smattering of Protestants in singing Advent hymns and lighting the third of the four Advent candles. We will hear from St. Matthew how Jesus answered questions from the imprisoned John the Baptist about whether he was the long-awaited Messiah. We will hear from the prophet Isaiah and James the brother of Jesus about the Messiah’s return.
And then we will go back out into a world that pretends to need a full month to celebrate the incarnation but that is in fact too fixated on jolly old fat men and toy-filled sleighs and finding the latest gadget to have time for any of that.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.