Merry Third Day of Christmas!

threefrenchhensThere is so much that could be said about mainstream media coverage of Christmas this year. Religion reporter Frank Lockwood -- who is moving to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette -- had a post on his blog about a trend he's witnessed. He looks at a few examples of mainstream media ridiculing Christianity during the Christmas season. I noted last week my pet peeve about confusing the 12 Days of Christmas with the last 12 days of Advent. The Washington Post ran a 12 Days of Christmas feature that invited readers to share holiday stories. In Saturday's paper, the stories had absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Christ. I also think it's interesting how the Post handles its liturgical-calendar error:

We hoped we'd get a few responses when we asked you to share your holiday thoughts and memories. Instead, we've gotten bags of mail. Our mother, who was particular about such things, would want us to acknowledge that, yes, the Twelve Days of Christmas actually begin Dec. 25. We hope you will forgive the license we take.

Well then, no big deal, I guess. And I'm sure the Post will mark the New Year in March and Thanksgiving in July, too. Anyway, it is because of silliness such as this that I must commend Stephanie Innes of the Arizona Daily Star for her piece on how the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and lasts for 12 days. She tells the story of Manny Chavez, a Roman Catholic in the region who is encouraging neighbors to celebrate the full Christmas season:

The mistake many Christians make when they take down their Christmas tree and lights Dec. 26 is thinking Christmas is over, religious leaders say. The Twelve Days of Christmas don't begin until the night of Dec. 25, and end with festivities the night of Jan. 5 -- "Twelfth Night" -- the night before The Epiphany, the jubilant night many believe Shakespeare wrote about in his famous play.

"Functionally, in American culture the Christmas season begins after Thanksgiving and then the day after Christmas you take the lights down and it's over," said the Rev. Jim Hobert of the South Side St. Monica's Catholic Church. "Technically in the Catholic calendar, the time after Thanksgiving is Advent, a time of penitential preparation for Christmas. Then Christmas starts the party and it ends with the baptism of the Lord."

The piece is mostly from a Hispanic Catholic perspective, but it includes calendrical differences between the Eastern Church and the Western. It also has sidebars on where readers may celebrate the Christmas season after Dec. 25 and on the background behind the Christmas story and The Epiphany. Considering how lame most media coverage of Christmas is, I think more reporters could look to report more interesting stories such as Innes'.

I wrote about the so-called Christmas Wars for the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. It's an opinion piece but it deals with media coverage of the wars, so you may be interested in it. I argue that fighting about how -- and even whether -- to celebrate Christmas has been one of Americans' favorite pastimes for many years:

From the beginning, Mayflower Pilgrims didn't mark Christmas, considering it "diabolical" because its celebration was encouraged by their enemy, the pope. The Puritans' political influence was so strong in Massachusetts that the commonwealth banned the holiday's observance until 1681. Meanwhile, Roman Catholics in Maryland, Anglicans in Virginia and Lutherans in Pennsylvania celebrated Christmas.

Interdenominational disagreements and language barriers prevented the development of any broad consensus on how to celebrate the holiday. But in the early 19th century, businessmen and religious leaders began calling for a wider and more public observance of Christmas. Quakers, Congregationalists and Calvinists still balked at marking the day because of its commercialism and revelry. But acceptance of the holiday haltingly grew. By 1860, 16 of 33 states legally recognized Christmas. It took another 10 years before Congress made it a federal holiday.

But the debate over how much religious content should be in the celebration of Christmas continued. Liturgical Christians regarded the day as sacred because they believed it marked God's incarnation in Jesus. But the Baptist Teacher, a Sunday school periodical, editorialized in 1875: "We believe in Christmas -- not as a holy day but as a holiday. . . . Stripped as it ought to be, of all pretensions of religious sanctity and simply regarded as a social and domestic institution."

I received quite a bit of interesting feedback on the piece, but my favorite was from a pastor who told me he began his Christmas Eve sermon by noting that if Christmas hadn't become a secular holiday, there would be many fewer people in the pews right now. He continued that he only wished Madison Avenue could promote other holy days such as the less popular Ascension Day.

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