The Christmas Build-up

lighthouseMost years, Christmas seems to have become something gruesome and obscene, going by the sights we see in our supermarkets and shopping centres. For them, Christmas has already begun. Lights and signs are already in place in our towns, and the pressure is on to spend and consume. As time goes past, we will find piles of dead poultry in the meat departments, many of which will run past their sell-by date and will be wasted. As we draw near the date, there will be the pressure to maintain certain conventions with our families.

It is often a time of hypocrisy and family loyalties that are less than sincere, covered by the exchange of presents and over-consumption of food and alcohol. As Christmas Day draws to an end, the guests leave, piles of washing up remain and the left-over food adds to the disorder. What is left when the bills are paid and life seems to slide back into “normal”?

Though I love my father and my family, some of my best Christmases have been spent at seminary or in a parish with a priest. My saddest was when I was with Bishop Hamlett in 1995 and found myself on my own, simply because everyone else were with their families. I would have had a long drive to be with mine. After the Mass of the Day, I went to where I was living, cooked a nice meal and watched some films, and went to bed.

We priests often preach to people about this gulf between secular Christmas and the Incarnation and Nativity of Christ. Much of what we say is hollow and lacks much meaning for others. To continue “normal” life on this feast would be like Scrooge being miserable and counting his money!

Like with Lent and Easter, the secret to this whole thing is Advent. In the old tradition of the Church, Advent is a kind of “light” Lent. We fast and pray, and prepare ourselves by meditating on the great Messianic Prophecies of such as Isaiah and the things we yearn for in this dark world. November (at least for us in the Northern Hemisphere) is a time when the days are dark and gloomy, wrapped in fog and dampness. We become prone to seasonal depression and thoughts of mortality and death. The Church gets us to pray for the dead and remember those who fell in the various wars of recent history. We find there isn’t much going on in the churchy blog world, and fewer comments are written now that the news is that there is no news. It is a time of emptiness and listlessness. Conversations with friends show the strident of three years ago in the “heady” days of Benedict XVI as keeping their heads down and waiting for days when thought and expression can become clear.

With this almost silence, which is not a bad thing, I attended my Bishop’s council meeting last Saturday in London. Much of the business was just ordinary mundane stuff, like questions of money and who does what. Some things came up, which I am not at liberty to discuss, but it was plain to me that we are a Church of friends, one of people who love each other and care for each other. We could speak our minds. As in the New Testament, we support each other’s sufferings and fully empathise. This is what being a Church is all about! This was a moment of light in these gloomy November days, as was a pleasant couple of hours I spent with a friend in a pub after the meeting. The world is dark and its evil is overwhelming, but there are also sparks of light like the stars in the night sky. These are little lights of divinity and holiness that restore in us a faith in humanity and God. I experienced that with my Bishop and brethren.

Advent is full of these images of seeking, waiting and looking for the signs. The culmination of the consolation is the coming of Christ. This is the “mere” message of Christmas without the blaring advertising of the businessmen and merchants. This is the light on the horizon of the dark sea giving the ship its bearing. There are so many things to meditate, like the lessons in our Office and short texts in the Mass. Advent is tightly associated with the Mother of God, much more so than Lent. Very often, when my prayer life is desolate and dry, as it so often is, the best is to go to Mary, in all simplicity and innocence. This is especially true with my earthly mother gone and passed away… Our Lady is precious for us who mourn.

How will we spend Christmas. My in-laws will go and spend Christmas in a guest-house in Brittany. Why so far away? I can’t imagine. I like to be at home, and going in and out of my chapel, not sitting round a fire being “Christmassy” but with nothing to say. This is also how my wife feels, so we will just be the two of us at home. Maybe there will be a friend on his own, and he will be welcome. We will certainly have a nice meal with seafood and stuffed guinea fowl, and we’ll order a couple of presents for each other on the internet. There will be Midnight Mass and the Mass of the Day, and I’ll try to get the second Mass (dawn) in somewhere. It is a day when we need to comfort each other and meditate on the goodness that discreetly penetrates through the evil of the unredeemed world.

I am thankful for Advent, and living in the country enables us to block our the blare of commercial “christmas”, so that we can move towards the very beginning of Advent. There it is, a new chapter opening in our lives as a new liturgical year begins.

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7 Responses to The Christmas Build-up

  1. raitchi2 says:

    Here in the States Christmas is longer and longer. Although I’m in my late 20s, when I was a teen, I remember American-consumerist-Christmas didn’t begin until the Friday after Thanksgiving (4th Thursday in November). This year I noted a few radio stations were already playing 24 hr Christmas music as of the 14th of Nov. It sounds like Christmas is now a holiday with 6 weeks of build-up–and mind you the build-up consists of “buy more, You want her/him to be happy, don’t be a scrooge (because you’re not spending money)”. No wonder we’re so eager for Christmas day, because we can finally put the tree, wreaths and lights away that we’ve suffered with for the last 6 weeks.

  2. Patricius says:

    Yes, Christmass is both the sweetest and bitterest time of the year. My family all call me Scrooge for some of the things I say about Christmass. What they don’t realise is that I do not hate Christmass. Quite the contrary. What I hate is the avarice, the hypocrisy, the social pressure, the tackiness, the fact that the season has extended to August and September, and many things beside. Charles Dickens is in part to blame. I know most people have a hear-say knowledge of his work but the idea of keeping Christmass as it were every day of the year strikes me as very odd indeed.

    I love Christmass so much that I believe in Father Christmass! I wrote a post about that last year. I find many of our Advent and Christmass traditions very warm and dear such as caroling, Christmass trees, The Nutcracker, good cheer, etc. Unfortunately, most of these things have been heavily exploited/exaggerated in the last century to the point where they are no longer what they were. This is, in part, why I personally keep Old Kalendar Christmass. It saves the season, somewhat, from the ravages of modern times.

    • As with our relationship in general between us “consumers” and the suppliers, we just need to sit down quietly and decide what we need, rather than succumbing to what “they” want to sell us because they need the business. Christmas is firstly the celebration of Christ’s Nativity and the Mystery of the Incarnation – and what that means to us. We also celebrate the pagan feast of the Sol Invictus, which prefigures the Christian mystery. We also try to make this feast help with the care we have for our family and friends. That means a good meal together and the custom of exchanging gifts. Those gifts can be quite modest and are designed to reinforce human love, not replace it. There is also the aspect of warmth and consolation in winter. If we can’t be with our family, we can be with friends or fellow clergy (when we are clergy).

      When considering the commercial pressure, they exist to supply their customers, not the customers for those who need their money. Of course, the exchange has to be fair and free. That is something I was taught when I once worked in an old-fashioned music shop.

      Also, have clear rules – no decorations (including the Crib) until about a week before Christmas and keep the decorations until the Octave of the Epiphany. The Crib traditionally stays in place until before the First Vespers of Candlemas (1st February) which marks the end of the Christmas season. Don’t overeat or waste excessive quantities of food. Don’t get blind drunk. Remember that it is firstly a Christian feast. Keep simple – and remember the poor. Then our Christmas may bring us joy and not bitterness.

  3. David says:

    Beautiful! It underlines exactly the emptiness of the secular “liturgical year”.

  4. Jim of Olym says:

    Also, have clear rules – no decorations (including the Crib) until about a week before Christmas and keep the decorations until the Octave of the Epiphany.

    We used to set up our nativity creche on the fireplace mantel, except for the crib (and Baby Jesus).

    We would move the wise men closer and closer as the day approached, and then on Christmas eve would set the Crib in place! It impressed the kids, as they didn’t see things moving (moves were done after they were asleep….).

    We now get our tree just before the day, sometimes it is one of the last on the lot, and rather pathetic, but sometimes it is refulgent with branches and needles, a wonder to behold!

    And since it’s just my wife and me now, we may go to a hotel, or possibly roast a turkey breast with herbs and wine. Yum. (Just looked up the Ottolenghi cookery book.)

    Two or three years ago we went to a local ‘resort’ for Christmas dinner. It was a disaster. Never again.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Sometimes it is one of the last on the lot” – sometimes most of the lots have cleared up by the time I arrive (and that’s for Gregorian, not Julian, Christmas, which seems a bit absurd, even ‘commericially’ – are there really so few traditionally-minded potential customers? – though it can often be just about as bad shopping for seasonal clothes when the season has actually arrived with its cold or heat…)

    I try to get a live tree, and keep the decorations till the Eve of Candlemas – or even (dubiously?) flip over to Julian Candlemas, as Gregorian arrives. (A garden full of live trees shown mercy can prove burdensome – we have one now taller than the house with alarmingly crooked trunk which (YouTube films and anecdotes of mortal mishaps have convinced me) will have to be felled professionally.)

    Tangentially: Fr. Anthony, is Advent ‘punctuated’ in your part of the world with a festive St. Nicholas?

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