Let me state this as plainly as I can: Traditional Christians are losing Christmas because we’re being jerks about it.
I confess to God, to Mary Ever Virgin, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I was just such a jerk for a long time. I was the proverbial Grinch. I didn’t start out that way. I loved Christmas as a kid. And yes, the Christmas that I loved had a lot to do with the culture. I loved getting presents. I loved watching Mickey’s Christmas Carol on repeat from about Halloween onward on an old VHS tape. I loved seeing the lights go up in the neighborhood and the Christmas train garden that my mother would set up around the Christmas tree.
And cookies. I really liked Christmas cookies.
So yeah, most of what I loved about this time of year was secular and perhaps even a bit shallow. I had no sense of Advent at all, except that it was the churchy name for getting ready for Christmas. But even in the middle of all the hoopla in my thoroughly secularized Christmas, there was a strange kind of grace imparted to me. There was a magic and wonder to the whole thing that was not just about Santa Claus. It was not intellectual. It was an experience, a feeling even, almost imperceptible, that Christmas meant that the world could change. Christmas meant that old things would die and something new and larger than life would be born. Christmas meant the beginning of the end of evil, as good was being born into the world — not exactly the doctrine of the Incarnation in all its fullness, but a good start along the path.
I carried that love of Christmas with me into seminary. It was during those years, like straw being spun into gold, that I encountered traditional Christian faith for the first time and found myself transformed by it. In so many ways, my encounters with other traditional Christians helped me through that transformation. They would challenge me, argue with me, encourage me to read the Fathers and take on new spiritual disciplines. It was a great gift.
But I also learned a few other less salutary lessons as well. I learned to be snobbish. I learned that being a part of the Cool Kids Club (TM) meant that I must only approve of certain things while eschewing others. And one of the things that the Cool Kids believe, I learned, was that cultural Christmas is stupid. We have to reclaim Advent — so the argument went — and the only way to do that is through a vicious mocking of the foolish plebeians around us who sing Christmas carols any time before 11:00 pm on Christmas Eve. Advent is a season of penitence and self denial. We must therefore shame the culture back into practicing such disciplines through an endless stream of criticism, snickering, and showing everyone how completely non-festive we can be.
I carried this belief with me into my first parish where it was reinforced by the other clergy and lamented by the parishioners. I inflicted it upon my poor wife and children, making scoffing sounds when my wife would begin to put up garlands and lights in early December. When I became Rector of my current parish, I carried the sentiment with me here as well. I removed the wreathes and Christmas decorations. I insisted upon calling the annual “Christmas bazaar” by some other name. I preached fire and brimstone against the apostasy of Christmas-themed baked goods any time prior to December 25.
I believed that what I was doing was guarding the treasure of Advent from the culture and giving my people a deeper, richer way to approach the season, but what I was actually doing was convincing my parishioners, along with my family and friends, that I hated Christmas. And when I really thought about it, I wondered if they weren’t right. I had abandoned all the wonder and awe that had made Christmas so special for me as a child. And what had I gained? Rather than shepherding people towards Christ by showing them the beautiful riches of a traditional Advent, I was convincing them that if they wanted to experience any joy this time of year then they had better look somewhere other than in the Church.
Of course, none of this is to say that we should ignore Advent. There is something profound that we have lost in the modern Church by not giving this season its due. Without the disciplines of Advent, we forget that what we are preparing for is not only the remembrance of Christ’s first coming but for the day when he will come again in great glory, setting all things right as every knee bows and every tongue confesses him as Lord. Christmas without Advent is merely sentimental.
The answer, however, is not to shove Advent down everyone’s throats but rather to do what the Church has always done at her best: find ways of bringing cultural goods together with the excellent things of our faith. Advent is a penitential season, but it is also a time of joyful preparation. It is a time of excitement. That excitement already lives in the world around us, even though the world does not realize what it is about.
So maybe we still want to keep the Christmas carols out of our Sunday morning liturgies during Advent, but we can still sing along with them when they come on the radio, thinking of them as an anticipation of what is to come. We can encourage Advent readings, quiet days, and the adoption of other devotions without frowning and blowing a gasket when we see the first bit of tinsel in store windows. We can appreciate the lights on the trees and the smiles on the faces of children without immediately launching into a snarky diatribe about the necessity of self-denial (which, frankly, is hard to take seriously when delivered via social media from the comfort of a warm, well-furnished Western home).
It’s easy to keep Advent holy while also enjoying the joyousness of this time of year. Just don’t be a jerk, friends. That’s all it takes. I admit, it takes some getting used to, but it can be done. I’m living proof. My own joy this time of year has done nothing but expand since I let go of the idea that I had to be the Advent Police. The more we can practice the riches of our faith alongside what is best in the culture, the more that those around us will find themselves not repelled by our snark but attracted to our joy.
The featured image is “Grinchey fellow” (2008) by Wikimedia Commons user istolethetv. It is licensed under Creative Commons.