Happy New Year! Or new liturgical year, at least. If you look closely at your Sunday missalette, you will notice a new edition came out Nov. 27. That’s about all that’s left to remind us of the liturgical year we celebrate as Christians. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Healthy cultures know how to insist upon their holidays, and religions cannot survive without them. The rhythm of feast and fast that pervades the Christian year is a vital part of a faith that is meant to be incarnate, embodied like Christ in the flesh and flux of the world.
In ancient Rome, the year began on the first of January, the month named for Janus, the god of transitions. He was also the first celestial war correspondent, since his temple’s doors were closed during Rome’s rare times of peace, but thrown open during wartime, presumably so he could watch the carnage.
Medieval Englishmen transferred New Year’s Day to March 25, the Annunciation, since for them new life began with the Incarnation of Christ in the Virgin Mary’s womb. Historians call this custom the “Annunciation Style.” After the Reformation, the English-speaking world gradually reverted to the older practice, dating the year from January 1, which until Vatican II was the Catholic Feast of the Circumcision. Thus certain chroniclers began to call the custom of celebrating Jan. 1 the “Circumcision Style.” Talk about starting the year on a painful note.
The church, which stands astride the centuries with one foot planted in this world, one in the next, has its own calendar, arranged according to eternal priorities. So the liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, with the first intimations of the coming of Christ. The colors in church change from green to purple, and the readings turn to the prophetic, emphasizing the desolate moral wilderness in which most of the world still slept until Christ illumined it. In most parishes and homes, the Advent Wreath still serves as a potent reminder of this movement from darkness to light.
Which brings us to all those Christmas lights. They used to go up the day after Thanksgiving but have lately begun to inch further back every year. And this seems only right, since for most us the beginning of Advent is a preparation for little more than shopping and supper. The first “holiday” decorations have now started springing up the day after Halloween—a feast which itself has become unhinged from any connection to the Saints or the Suffering Souls. It now centers largely on providing the maximum sugar possible to already hyperactive children dressed up as Harry Potter characters. What’s more, since the very notion of Thanksgiving implies that there’s Someone Up There to Whom we must be grateful, secularists have begun to call it by the numinous title “Turkey Day.” Give it ten more years, and Easter will be known as “Chocolate Egg Day.”
Our liturgical holidays—with our enthusiastic co-operation—have gradually been displaced by the consumer calendar, as determined by retail stores and greeting-card companies. It doesn’t help that under pressure from secularists, our public spaces are every year more thoroughly scrubbed of any Christian connotation to Christmas. In his wicked anti-utopian novel Love Among the Ruins, Evelyn Waugh detailed the reverent rites surrounding “Santaclaustide.” (On a much grimmer note, in Soviet Russia, Christmas was entirely replaced by a celebration of New Year’s; faithful Nazis were instructed to greet each other in December with a straight salute in honor of “Yule.”)
The newest piece of evidence that we’re sliding in some such direction comes from Wal-Mart. According to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, that retailer has ceased to use the word “Christmas” in its advertising and stores. When a shopper complained, she received the following message:
Walmart is a world wide organization and must remain conscious of this. The majority of the world still has different practices other than ‘christmas’ which is an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism. The colors associated with ‘christmas’ red and white are actually a representation of the aminita mascera mushroom. Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses, mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world.
After the Catholic League threatened a boycott, the employee who wrote that note was relieved of his duties. We feel bad for the poor soul, who wrote as if he’d been indulging in a certain sort of religious mushroom. But Wal-Mart still won’t let its employees say “Merry Christmas.”
Perhaps it’s just as well. The way things are going, by the time the Christmas season actually does begin—on Dec. 25—most of us are sick to death of it and ready to move on. Besides, we need time to prepare spiritually for New Year’s and Valentine’s Day.
Some pious, dour Christians have started a countermovement, attempting to revive the original significance of Advent as a season of penance and prayer. Noting that in the early church people fasted three times a week throughout this season and treated it as a little Lent, these people refuse to throw holiday dinners before Dec. 24, skip office parties, and hold off on shopping and decorating their homes. They pile the kids into the minivan full of pro-life bumper stickers and take them to weekly Confession as a condition for attending those mid-December “holiday” festivities. They light their Advent wreaths in a darkened house.
This suits us curmudgeons just fine: we usually forget to decorate until it’s too late—when trees just happen to be half-price. We’ve always gone shopping on Christmas Eve, usually in one stop at Barnes & Noble, which stays open till midnight and gift-wraps for free. We don’t attend office parties either—the combination of free liquor, forced good cheer, randy co-workers, and thinly suppressed office politics make such events a great occasion for getting in a foolish fling or a fist-fight, then fired.
By insisting pedantically on the true meaning of Advent, you acquire a righteous excuse for skipping all this blather and playing Scrooge right up through Dec. 24—after which you can enjoy the holiday season all alone. Open a bottle of wine and unwrap those presents you bought yourself. A blessed Santaclaustide to one and all.
John Zmirak is co-author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.