When he was hired by the Illustrated London News, G.K. Chesterton was told he could write about anything other than politics and religion. He responded that there was nothing else and then proceeded to spend the next 20 years writing about nothing other than politics and religion. He wrote about the truly important things. Judging by the frequency in which he wrote about Christmas (an average of 5 or 6 articles per year), he thought it to be among the most important. Never one to beat around the bush, he opens an essay simply titled Christmas with a statement that is just as relevant today as when he wrote it nearly 90 years ago—“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.”
With all of the talk about “Keeping Christ in Christmas,” Chesterton’s words seem particularly apropos. One of the reasons Christians are losing Christmas to the rising tide of materialism is because they have ceased to keep Advent with Christmas. How many Christmas parties have you been invited to and attended during Advent? How often have you exchanged Christmas gifts prior to Christmas? While it may seem like the Liturgical Calendar is meant to be something separate from the “real” calendar, there is a great wisdom behind it. Advent has a specific purpose behind it and only when it is lived fully and held distinct from Christmas can we truly celebrate Christmas.
The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus and means “presence” or “arrival.” According to Pope Benedict XVI, it was a term from classical antiquity that was used to “express the arrival of a deity who emerged from hiddenness and gave proof of his presence through mighty works.” In adopting this term, the Christians hoped to express two related truths. The first is that the Divine Son of God has not withdrawn His presence from us but is in hiding and this hiding will end with His manifestation in glory again. We use Advent then as a time of reflection upon the ways in which we find the hidden Christ and preparation for His definitive return.
Christmas on the other hand is a great feast that marks the reason for our faith that Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, and our hope that He will come again. The intensity with which we celebrate this “great day” is always in proportion to how much we have exercised our faith and our hope during those days of preparation. Only with proper reflection beforehand can we truly find reasons to celebrate the great feast. Otherwise we will get caught up in the materialist’s interpretation of Christmas. In other words, Advent is our protection and surest way to keep Christ in Christmas. If you want to get into the Spirit of the Season, then first get into the Spirit of the Season of Advent.
There is a second aspect of Chesterton’s quote that also bears mentioning. The Apostle of Common Sense reminds us of something that is so obvious that we easily forget it—“ It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.”
We have forgotten (or perhaps we have never known) how to proper celebrate holidays. In a short and very approachable book entitled In Tune with the World, Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper, develops a philosophy of festivity. He begins by quoting, of all people, Nietzsche who said “the trick is not to arrange a festival but to find people who can enjoy it.” His point is that it is not mere arrangements alone that make a festivity, but instead a recognition that what is being celebrated is a good thing. But it cannot be just some generic good thing, but the celebrant must have shared in a distinctly real experience of that good. To emphasize this point, Pieper says that “[S]trictly speaking, the past cannot be celebrated festively unless the celebrant community still draws glory and exaltation from that past, not merely as reflected history, but by virtue of a historical reality still operative in the present.”
With this in mind, we see the reason why the Church insists we keep Mass in Christmas(s)—only in the Mass is the historical reality of the Incarnation made actually operative in the present. All of the mysteries of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension are made present to us. Through the Mass, the Incarnation is protected from becoming just a historical event.
But it is more than just keeping the Mass in Christmas that enables us to enjoy the festival of Christmas. In taking on flesh, the Son has responded to our deepest desire to live with God. He has shared our human life so that we might eternally share his divine life. This is the reason for our joy in this festive season.
Although joy is an end in itself (it is absurd to ask why anyone wants to be joyful) this longing for joy is really a desire to have a reason and pretext for it. In other words, the reason for joy comes first, the joy comes second. Joy is an expression of love and it is the possessing or receiving what one loves (whether actually in the present or remembered in the past or hoped for in the future) that causes it. The reason for joy we can call the festive occasion and in order to celebrate men must also accept and acknowledge it as a reason for joy. They must experience it as a receiving of something they love.
Pieper’s explanation also helps us to see that Christmas is always in danger of becoming an absurdity. He says that “if the Incarnation of God is no longer understood as an event that directly concerns the present lives of men, it becomes impossible, even absurd, to celebrate Christmas festively.” In other words, it is nonsense to speak of keeping “Christ in Christmas” when we do not allow Christ to be Lord of every other day of the year. If the Incarnation is not something that touches someone’s life, then of course they will not see Christmas properly. Christmas just becomes one of the many celebrations of the “Holiday Season” without any real discernible difference from Kwanzaa or Festivus.
This makes it obvious why Christmas is becoming completely secularized—we have not preached the Gospel and presented Christ as a gift to be loved and enjoyed. To put our foot down and insist that people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” misses the point entirely. When we wish someone a “Merry” Christmas what we are really wishing is that the person receive all of the gifts that accompany festivity—namely renewal, transformation and rebirth. Why should we expect someone who has not experienced the real Christmas gift to want someone else to experience it?
Christmas is not being lost because of the “culture.” It is being lost because we have ceased to preach Christ. “Cult” is at the heart of culture. Culture both shapes and is shaped by what we believe. We can restore culture by restoring our uniquely Christian ways of revealing Christ is all that we do, and not just our words. One easy way to do this in the remaining days of Advent is by “preaching” the inner meaning of our Advent customs. Each of the Christmas customs is charged with meaning. The Christmas tree is meant to preach Christ—“then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes” (Ps 96:12). Our Christmas baking preaches Christ—“in that day, the mountains will drip sweetness, and the rivers will flow with milk and honey” (Joel 3:18). Lights that adorn the outside of our house preach Christ—like the wise virgins, we keep our lamps trimmed (Mt. 25:1-13). Christmas itself is not just a single day, but twelve—one for each of the tribes of Israel until Christ’s full manifestation to all the nations on Epiphany. Celebrate all twelve instead, especially in thanksgiving for His coming to the Gentiles. May all of our actions in the coming days, preach to the world, the true light that has come into the world.