As a little kid I loved Christmas, as most little kids do. With presents to open, songs to sing and a Christmas tree to decorate, it was an exciting time of year. When we were little, my sister and I used to hide the baby Jesus from our nativity scene in the Christmas tree for the other one to find.
As I grew up, however, I looked deeply at the true meaning of Christmas – the birth of our Lord Jesus – and compared it to the shiny, consumerist holiday that appeared in every shopping centre earlier every year (this year, I saw them in October). All the distractions seemed to take the focus away from Jesus, and I didn’t want that. I’d even heard some people say how it was important not to lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas, but just meaning spending time with loved ones and mentioning nothing about the Christ-child in the manger.
So, then, what was I to make of Christmas? Without going completely Grinch on everyone, I did step back for a year or two and take a slightly more cynical approach. I went wholeheartedly into singing Christmas carols and reading about the incarnation while rolling my eyes a little at the idea of putting Christmas lights up in our house. Still, something was missing.
It was actually as I understood more about the liturgical calendar, though, that I began to see how the two Christmases could live side by side. In Christian tradition, the days leading up to Christmas (usually starting around the beginning of December) are called Advent. Traditionally, Advent is a time of waiting and expectation, taking the time to reflect on the promise of Jesus in the Old Testament, to marvel at his incarnation and to wait in hope for his second coming. This seems to be at odds with the way society in general does December. Lots of end-of-year and Christmas parties, known as ‘the silly season’, rushing around getting everything done, building and building until Christmas Day after which everything comes to an abrupt stop.
My turning point came when I realised that the Twelve Days of Christmas so often sung about aren’t actually the twelve days leading up to Christmas. In the liturgical calendar, the twelve days of Christmas are the days after 25th December. These were days to celebrate the newborn king with feasting and merriment. Just because Advent is meant to be a time of reflection doesn’t mean we miss out on celebration. We just do our celebrations a little later than others.
The way I see it is that there are two Christmases with one overlapping day. The first Christmas is the cultural holiday that unofficially starts as early as October and ends 25th December. The worst excesses of this holiday lead to consumerism and frantic busyness. However, if you bypass all of that, there are treasures to be found. Spending time with friends and family, being generous to those in need, decorating a Christmas tree with tinsel and driving around looking at the lights on other people’s houses. This cultural Christmas runs parallel to the Christian Advent. There’s no reason why reflection and expectation can’t involve the tree, the lights and the Christmas songs. Although we might hold off on exuberant celebration until later, our reflection on Jesus and his coming is always meant to be filled with joy.
And once 25th December is finished, and the decorations in the shops start to disappear, our Christmas has only just started! Advent, with all its reflection and joy, was only leading up to the real celebration of Christmas. And it seems a whole lot more satisfying if it lasts for twelve days, rather than being over after just one.
Over the last few years, the twelve days have been a time for me to celebrate the incarnation by reading Christmas devotions and singing worship songs. This year I want to keep those things going, but I also want to add some more fun and feasting. Maybe we could open a small present each of those twelve days. Maybe we could do some Christmas baking (I haven’t done any yet). Maybe there will be singing and dancing accompanying our Christmas devotions. Whatever shape it takes, it’s a time to celebrate with family and friends and to draw closer to Jesus in praise and thanksgiving.
Love came down at Christmas! What a joyous reason for celebration!