Advent, the new Christmas.
For old-fashioned Christians, Christmas used to start with the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Some lucky children got to see the Christmas tree and open some presents when they got back from Midnight Mass, but most were made to wait till the morning.
Now, of course, Christmas decorations go up in shops even before Thanksgiving, and even in many private homes. Crooned or frosted versions of Christmas hymns and carols ooze from every Muzak grille from November onwards.
The reaction of some church people is to Tut tut and deplore the whole thing. And, as with so much else, they can make the Christian Faith sound negative and repressive.
St Clement’s is taking the classical Anglican Via Media on this subject. On Sunday, December 5 at 6.30 p.m. our Choir is donating a wonderful Festival of Carols in aid of our Helping Others work. But they will be Advent Carols, not Christmas Carols. They will sing about “the coming feast of our redemption”, as the Collect puts it. This distinction may be lost on some of those who come, but it is an attempt to have something special and Adventish rather than swing into full-throated Christmas yet.
But in other ways, I (and I’m sure many other Catholic Christians) will feel that it is better to celebrate the Birth of Christ with half believers, agnostics and pagans in the weeks before Christmas than to withdraw into a holier-than-thou corner.
I’ll be at many Christmas parties before December 25, and if Christmas Carols are sung, I’ll join in heartily. When people wish me a Merry Christmas in the street before December 25, I’ll respond with “Merry Christmas” (but, of course, if anyone is foolish enough to wish me – in a clerical collar – “Happy Holiday”, my deafness will kick in, and I’ll wish them, very loudly and jovially, “And a very Merry Christmas to you too”!)
My crib will be up long before Christmas, and the Baby will be in it. There is nothing so stupid (and, for you theologians, Docetic) as Mary, Joseph and shepherds gazing adoringly at an empty crib, as though Jesus was going to appear there from a cloud, if they just wished long enough.
Maybe the time has come for the Church to invent a new thing (pause for gasps of shock and horror) and declare that the Christmas Season begins on Advent Sunday, has its climax on December 25 and finishes with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. They could be even more radical and fix the Feast of the Nativity itself on the last Sunday of the year instead of December 25, as it will be next year. And at the same time they could fix Easter Day on the first Sunday in April instead of something to do with the full moon rising over Tel Aviv – but now I’m getting carried away and must reserve that radical suggestion for spring.
Happy Christmas to you all, right now and through to January 6.