In the church of my childhood, the days leading up to Christmas included such activities as a Christmas play (my late great father, who was a ham, was often involved) and a visit by Santa Claus. Such activities weren’t very worshipful. But they were fun, and fun is a good thing to have in this old world. I guess our pastor would preach a Christmas sermon on the Sunday closest to the big day, but I really don’t remember. I do remember that once Christmas Day arrived, that was it. There was no more mention of the birth of Jesus until the next Christmas.
The word “advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” So the season of Advent is a time to anticipate the coming of Christ. The season encompasses the four weeks leading up to Christmas, so naturally we focus on the coming of the baby Jesus to our world two millennia ago. But we also look toward the second coming of Jesus. In addition, we think about ways in which Jesus may want to come to us here and now.
Usually, Advent worship culminates in a Christmas Eve service at which the Christ candle is lit. Then, Christmas starts on December 25.
Yes, Christmas starts on December 25. You probably know the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but you may not know that there actually are twelve days of Christmas. The Christmas season begins on December 25 and ends on January 5, the day before Epiphany, when we remember the visit of the Wise Men and the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.
We’re all aware of the brouhaha that breaks out every year about whether customer service folks are saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Well, from the perspective of the church calendar, we Christians really shouldn’t say “Merry Christmas” until December 25, and we should keep on saying it until January 5. Up until then, “Happy Holidays” works just fine, unless you want to say “Joyous Advent,” which will really get people wondering about you.
I have to admit that I’m trying to convince you of something at which I had little to no success convincing the churches I served as pastor over the past thirty years. Oh, we’d keep the Christmas decorations in the sanctuary and we’d keep the candles burning on the Advent wreath until Epiphany, but I could never get folks to see what a great opportunity we had to offer a needed witness to our community by observing the Twelve Days of Christmas.
We Christians tend to moan and groan about the materialism and commercialism associated with Christmas, even as we participate in it. As the comedian John Fugelsang said, “Black Friday is when we buy material things to celebrate the birthday of a guy who said give up material things.”
Here’s the thing, though: the “secular” aspects of Christmas are fun. My father told me that if I ever stopped believing in Santa Claus, I’d lose much of the joy of Christmas. So I still believe. The gift-giving and other aspects of the “Santa” side of Christmas are most enjoyable. I see no reason not to participate (in moderation) and I see no point in trying to convince folks that they shouldn’t.
But look at it this way: once Christmas Day arrives, Santa goes back to the North Pole and stays there until next Thanksgiving (or whenever he shows up at the malls). If we observe the Twelve Days of Christmas to which the Christian calendar summons us, we can give the celebration of the coming of Jesus to our world our full and undivided attention.
And, if we say “Merry Christmas” until January 5, people will think we’re strange (which we are).
But if they ask us why we’re doing that, we’ll get a chance to tell them about Jesus.
So for now, “Happy Holidays!” and “Joyous Advent!”
(First appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Thomaston (GA) Times on December 4, 2015)