I admit it: I’m a bad Anglican. Among my various failings, I’ve never felt sufficiently punctilious in my observation of the liturgical calendar. While I try to keep Lent, the Advent-Christmas distinction has always proven hard for me to hold. This is not because I’m one of those people who must start blasting “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” around November 15th, nor because I’m a stiff Scrooge who pronounces all such celebration to be humbug. Rather, the whole holiday season has always felt chronologically disjointed to me. With the sprint of final papers, exams, sports games, Christmas plays, recitals, and now grading that come with the end of the academic term, I’m never in the right mindset to devote any meaningful attention to the holiday until (at the earliest) about a week out from Christmas, which then arrives suddenly with its overwhelming intensity of festivity. Then it all abruptly vaporizes on the 26th. In my experience, this creates a strange, blank week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, leaving Christmas’s once festive celebrants “confused, full of cheese, and unsure of the day of the week,” to quote a popular meme. And that’s for those of us who get time off; many others have to work longer, more unusual hours at a job to keep the world running while the rest of us are off. By the time it arrives at some point in the first week of January, the return of calendrical normalcy is greeted with a relief.
For this state of affairs, I chiefly blame what one of C. S. Lewis’s essays labels “Xmas” and what another distinguishes as the third sense of the word “Christmas”: not the Christian holiday, not the general atmosphere of merrymaking, but the commercial rush and freneticism that oppresses everyone from about fifty days out from December 25th. We all have our own war stories. Lewis quips that a family who tries to keep up with the expectations of Xmas doesn’t look especially merry by the end: “They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.” In my own case, the worst sickness I’ve ever had arrived like a special, surprise present on Christmas Day itself after the stressful holiday rush was supposed to have passed. This included twelve hours of fever dreams—scenes from the recently viewed X-Men Origins: Wolverine playing on a continuous loop in my addled brain—punctuated only by several exigent trips to the lavatory. In the years since, the Christmas lights have never quite managed to recover the fullness of their twinkly magic in my eyes, forsooth.
For the more fortunate, Lewis’s fundamental criticism is still broadly acknowledged to the point of it becoming a trope. So even if it never offers a particularly cogent explanation for what Christmas ought to be about, Hollywood’s Christmas movies universally underscore the stress and consumerism of the season. If Lewis’s Xmas has replaced Easter as the most important holiday of the year in the Western world, we collectively suffer a corresponding, ironic, and ever-expanding Lenten lead up. Unlike Lent, the only thing keeping this “celebration” of “Christmas time” from triumphantly marching ever farther back into the calendar with all its commercial pomp, obnoxious décor, and excessive sweets is the need for Halloween to be “celebrated” for several months with all its commercial pomp, ghoulish décor, and excessive sweets.
And yet, there appears to be very little will or even appetite to change anything, either within or without the Church. These reflections can leave one wishing that our culture would revert to something more like the liturgical calendar, which breaks the season up into a more sustainable rhythm. A slower, quieter, less anxious, more reflective, more temperate Advent would look extremely attractive to many Christians and non-Christians alike, particularly in a modern world which often resists those qualities with all its powers. When Christmastide arrives, then by all means: spend the next two weeks putting up the crazy decorations, having the Christmas parties, giving gifts, and otherwise making merry. Not only would this remove some of December’s temporal schizophrenia and fix the “blank week” between Christmas and January 1, but it would also have the pragmatic benefit of getting us further along into the cold months with something to focus our attention and keep us sanguine. Instead of facing down the depressing reality of the bleak midwinter on December 26, “very grave” and “internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and wine,” Christmas roisterers would recover that “blank” week and then gain most of another for real festivity. All of this would have the effect of spreading out and transferring the cheery, upbeat atmosphere that we ideally associate but often miss with the weeks leading up to Christmas. Would that.
Should our brasher Christian nationalist friends ever muster the kind of culture-shaping sway they covet in the political realm and successfully install a Christian princeps or magistracy, I advise them to take the low-hanging fruit at the outset of their venture: fix the calendrical problems. After all, there is righteous, statesmanlike precedent here—whence our months of July and August (let the reader understand). First, let the new princeps exorcize that old demon, Daylight Savings Time. Then let him—it will most certainly be a “him,” yes?—reform Advent-Christmas along the lines I suggest above. How exactly this outcome will be effected, I do not know, but I’m assured that far greater quandaries of culture can be solved cleanly and easily by political means. Let us leave it to his superior wisdom.
More seriously, is there any real obstacle stopping Christians and their churches from following something more like this regimen? Well, yes, quite a few of them, actually. Many of the habits we decry about the holidays have been ingrained with generations of cultural muscle memory. Undoing these habits would likely require the deliberate countereffort of multiple generations and an attendant willingness to seem somewhat weird to observers. But Christians are supposed to be countercultural—or at least that’s what I’ve been told, often most loudly by those Christians who tend to be the least countercultural in ways that might actually make one stand out awkwardly in the modern world. Short of this conscientious resistance, I foresee we are very much stuck with the status quo and with it the internal recognition that emerges around this time every year: “the thing is nightmare.”
Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.
C. S. Lewis, “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter From Herodotus,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 334–37 and “What Christmas Means to Me,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 338–40. ↑
C. S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me,” 339. ↑
C. S. Lewis, “Xmas and Christmas,” 336. ↑
C. S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me,” 339. ↑