Keeping the feast

Christmas traditions have
changed throughout history

Don't overlook Advent before Christmas

By Rev. Rick T. Draper
Contributing Writer

MADISON, IN (December 2009) Many years ago, I was called to serve three rural churches in the southern part of Virginia. Two of them were content to follow the practices of the Episcopal Church. The third was rather feisty and, while it proudly claimed its membership in our denomination, it was usually at odds with its customs – at least as I carried them out.
Every year about this time, (as they were publicly discussing why I didn’t deserve a raise for the next year) they would point out that it was after Thanksgiving but we were not singing Christmas Carols “like we’re supposed to” and we had not yet decorated for Christmas. My explanation – that it was not Christmas yet, it was Advent – was always met with a roll of the eyes and exasperated sighs. And the designated mutterer would traditionally opine, “Well, at least Bethel Church down the street gets it right!”
So why do we – and a few other brave denominations – stubbornly hold out for a Christmas season that begins with a Midnight Mass Christmas Eve and continue until the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 while the rest of the world has its trees out on the street and the After-Christmas sales cranking up by Dec. 26?
It actually has a long history – one far older than counting down the shopping days, or reindeer on rooftops.
There was no celebration of Christmas until the Fourth Century. It may come as a surprise to some that we don’t actually know the date of Jesus’ birth. Clement of Alexandria, (early 2nd Century) suggested observing it on May 20! By the mid-300s, the birth of the one who brings New Life was being celebrated in the place of festivals to the birth of a new solar year.
Eventually, Dec. 25 became the day. The three large festivals at the time were Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. Epiphany was first associated with the baptism of Jesus, but in the West, it was eventually connected to the visit of the Magi. This encouraged the giving of gifts – but on Jan. 6 – not Dec. 25. It would take the customs of many nations, the influence of Saints Nicolas and Lucia and the works of Charles Dickens, Clement Moore and Thomas Nast to transform Christmas into the mighty festival it has become.
Over the centuries, the Church developed a calendar that reflected the whole story of redemption. It starts with Advent, a time of waiting and anticipation, both the Old Testament’s long wait for a Savior and the Church’s belief that our King shall come again. Advent begins on the Sunday closest to Saint Andrew’s Day (Nov. 30) and ends with the Christmas Eve celebration. So we sing, “Come thou long expected Jesus” and “O come, O come, Emmanuel” in Advent, but we hold off on “O come, all ye faithful” for a few more weeks.
On Christmas Eve, we pull out all the stops! The purple of Advent is replaced by the white of Christmas, bedecked with red and gold. The “Midnight Mass” is planned so that Holy Communion takes place as close to midnight as we can make it. Candles light the darkness and the songs of Christmas fill the air! In spite of my old Virginia church, it is an event worth waiting for! The Church’s version of the Christmas season lasts 12 days. (Just like the song!) It ends with the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6.
Years ago, the gifts were given on “Old Christmas,” Jan. 6. Here, the marketing world has missed an opportunity. If only they had known, they could have added 12 more shopping days!
The Liturgical Calendar continues with Jesus’ ministry, anticipation of his sacrifice, the Passion, the Resurrection, Ascension, gift of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the Church, bringing us full circle to the next year’s Advent. Then, once again, someone will wonder why we aren’t into Christmas carols as soon as the leftover Thanksgiving turkey is in the fridge. And we just smile. Christmas is special; it’s worth the wait!

• The Rev. Richard T. Draper is the Rector at Christ Episcopal Church, 506 Mulberry St., in Madison, Ind. Call him at (812) 265-2158.

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