As Advent approaches in less than a week, I have thought about the upcoming seasons a bit. Advent and Christmas are two of my favorite church seasons. Heck, I like them all for different reasons and on different levels, but Advent and Christmas have always stood out.
I think a lot of it has to do with the way my family celebrated the two seasons when I was a child. Growing up, I loved the times surrounding Christmas. People were generous and giving, and I saw family members I rarely saw other times. The season was contemplative and, in a way, mystical, filled with numerous symbols of light piercing the winter darkness. We played music on our stereo that was old and time-tested, and we were connected to lyrics and music from an earlier – sometimes much earlier – era. Basically, at least for a month a year, we allowed ourselves to be sacramental, traditional, mystical, and ritualistic, even if we didn’t really know it! And you know what, it was these very things that made us look forward to the season so eagerly.
Let me explain. We, an evangelical Protestant family, were not normally very sacramental, ritualistic, or overtly traditional in the way we did things. Usually our house didn’t have a lot of Christian statues or images. We weren’t opposed to them or anything; we just didn’t have them around. However, around Christmas, we had nativity sets, pictures of the baby Jesus, and even had decorations related to saints: Saint Nicholas and the Blessed Virgin Mary! We put electric candles in the windows, and lit real ones in the house. We brought part of God’s creation into our house, and decorated it with lights, and the fragrant pine tree became more than just a mere tree, but symbolic of the Christmas spirit. That almost sounds sacramental! We even put some lights up outside, but not as many as our friends and neighbors. We prayed around the Advent wreath together as a family. I remember looking forward to the weekly ritual of the lighting of the Advent wreath. I don’t remember much about our Advent theology, but I remember how special and meaningful that little ritual was.
Once when I was talking to a Protestant who was considering becoming Catholic, I remember describing my being drawn to Catholicism like this: I guess I just wanted it to be like Christmas all year long. I think I said this partly in jest, but there is a lot of truth to it. Think about it: most people start acting very Catholic around the Christmas season. Many Christians bring out the externals, and the more the better: nativity sets, trees, statues, lights, saint Nicholas images, and so forth. Very few think of these externals as distracting them from the true meaning of Christmas, but rather as leading them to the true meaning of Christmas. This includes lights and candles, which brighten the winter darkness, and (even though most people probably don’t make the connection) symbolize the light of Christ. All of this is very sacramental. Also, I notice that around Christmas time, many evangelical Christians embrace ritual and tradition, and understand the reason good ritual can be so powerful and meaningful. The Advent Wreath, setting up the Nativity set, trimming the tree, visiting grandma on the 24th, picking up Aunt Margaret at the nursing home for Christmas dinner, and the yearly Christmas Eve service are all examples of rituals many of us would never do without, and which we faithfully repeat every single year. In fact, many of us would get very angry if these rituals were tampered with, or even discontinued in the name of “doing something new.”
Of course after Christmas Day, I usually became deeply saddened: Christmas was over! We had to wait a whole year for more tradition, lights, and rituals. I remember once leaving up a clear star-of-Bethlehem ornament in my window for a few weeks after Christmas, just to kind of keep the spirit alive. If only I had known about Epiphany, which is symbolized by the star of Bethlehem. We did celebrate Easter in our house, but Easter never had the same feeling to it that Christmas did, mainly because we didn’t have as much ritual and tradition associated with it. However, when I became Catholic, the whole year basically began to possess that “Christmas feeling.” In the Catholic calendar (and the Orthodox and many Protestant calendars), not only does Christmas last over 12 days, but we then get to celebrate Epiphany and observe Lent, and the queen of feasts, Easter, soon follows. And throughout the whole year we have plenty of saint days, each with their own rituals. Plus, all of these festivities provide an excuse for big family and church festivities! As an example, I have often thought of having a huge Annunciation Party. It would be a nice break from the Lenten fast, and I know I would probably be the only person in town having one. The opportunities, spiritual and otherwise, are endless with the Church Year. After my brother and I became Catholic, I remember both of us commenting about how “Easter now feels like Christmas.” Perhaps we have a new angle when presenting the Catholic Calendar: “The Church Year: It Feels Like Christmas All Year Long!”
Image Taken by Me on Christmas Eve 2005