A recent poll conducted by ComRes found that nearly half of Britons consider the birth of Jesus “irrelevant” to their Christmas. Considering that far more than half of Britons actually celebrate Christmas, it is safe to assume that there are a large number of people in Britain, and no doubt the rest of the Western world, who celebrate a Christ-less ‘Christmas’. The very purpose of Christmas being to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we cannot honestly say they are celebrating ‘Christmas’. But if they are not celebrating Christmas, what holiday are they celebrating?
In the so-called ‘war against Christmas’ we have seen traditional Christians in the West fighting to retain the term ‘Christmas’ in common usage over such generic alternatives as the ‘festive season’, ‘holiday’, and ‘yuletide’. No doubt their cause is laudable, yet I cannot help but think that it may have the inadvertent effect of encouraging a sort of hypocrisy in some people. After all, what is the use of having an atheist or agnostic tell people that he is celebrating ‘Christ’s Mass’?
It seems we have arrived at a curious state of affairs in contemporary Western society. A massive group of people have detached themselves from their Christian beliefs, yet retained certain of its celebratory customs. The danger for Christians inherent in this situation is that the celebratory customs and traditions of Christmas may become eroded and distorted from their original religious purpose without our being conscious of the fact. I believe we need to be aware that there are two different ways of celebrating Christmas – the secular materialistic and the Christian liturgical.
The superficial commonalities between them are obvious; allow me to highlight some key differences. According to the secular way, the season of Christmas begins the day after Halloween, and essentially ends on December 25th. During this time Christmas-themed parties and decorations are ubiquitous. According to the Christian (particularly Catholic) liturgical year, however, the 22-28 days before Christmas constitute the Advent season. This is a season of penitence, marked by increased fasting, prayer, and the use of the Advent wreath.
On the day when members of the secular world are rolling out of bed with a hangover to begin the observance of Boxing Week, Christians have only really just begun the celebrations of Christmas. ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ from the famous carol do not refer to the twelve days leading up to Christmas, but rather the twelve days of the Feast of Christmas starting on Christmas Eve. In fact, the spiritual focus on Christmas continues past even Candlemas on February 2, all the way to the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday!
Sadly, so strong is the influence of the secular world on the lives of Christians today that how many of us can say we actually celebrate Christmas like a Christian? Certainly not myself. Many of us are quite tired of Christmas before the season has even begun! Taking back Christmas must begin with oneself, one’s family, and one’s Christian community, and entails a more radical rejection of the world than most Christians realize or are willing to admit. How can we teach the world to celebrate Christmas properly if we do not know how to do it ourselves?