Merry Christmas! (This is not a joke)

12daysof-christmasWhile my recent thread about rites on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rolls on and on, please allow me to raise another seasonal issue that is dear to my heart. As I mentioned the other day, it is hard for journalists to write fresh, newsy stories and columns about the major religious seasons to roll around year after year after year. It's hard not to write about the same topics over and over.

Well folks, several years ago I decided to quit trying to do something new this time of year.

Why? Because there is a topic that I think is so important that I have decided not to dodge it. I refer, of course, to the whole upside down nature of how most modern Christians celebrate Christmas. This is to say, they do not celebrate Christmas. Instead, they join in the cultural train wreck called "The Holidays," which turns a quiet, reflective season, penitential season called Advent -- Nativity Lent in the Eastern Churches -- into a free for all. Then, when the real 12-day festival of Christmas arrives, starting on Dec. 25th, almost everyone ignores it and moves on to the NFL playoffs.

So I write about this almost every year for the Scripps Howard News Service, either focusing on Advent, St. Nicholas, the Christmas calendar wars or the forgotten 12 days. Go ahead! Sue me. I think that it's an important topic, involving thousands of churches, millions of people and billions of dollars.

This year's offering opens like this, hooked into an online effort by one of the nation's most powerful Christian groups:

Merry Christmas.

No, honest, as in "the 12 days of" you know what between Dec. 25 and Jan. 5.

If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, you can head over to the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There you will find an interactive calendar that bravely documents the fact that, according to centuries of Christian tradition, the quiet season called Advent has just ended and the 12-day Christmas season has just begun.

So cease stripping the decorations off your tree and postpone its premature trip to the curb. There is still time to prepare for a Twelfth Night party and then the grand finale on Jan. 6, when the feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi.

Click here to see that website, which wasn't all that easy to put together, according to Joe Larson, the USCCB's director of digital media. He was stunned how few resources there were online to, as he put it, "help tell Catholics what we believe about these seasons and why we do what we do -- or what we are supposed to do -- during Advent and Christmas." They ended up with a rough draft that they hope to expand in future years.

I was stuck by the fact that many liturgical and mainline Protestant churches are trying to place more of an emphasis on Advent -- only without the penitential themes that were at the heart of the ancient traditions. Why? Well, stop and think about it. It's all about the cultural calendar, not the Christian calendar.

Here's the end of the column:

While many Christians still observe Advent -- especially Anglicans, Lutherans and other mainline Protestants -- some older Roman Catholics may remember when the guidelines for the season were stricter. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the season is still observed by many as "Nativity Lent."

"In a pre-Vatican II context, Advent looked a lot like Lent," noted Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the USCCB's Secretariat of Divine Worship. "It was the season you used to prepare for Christmas, the way Lent helps you prepare for Easter."

Today, it's even hard for priests to follow the rhythms of the church's prayers, hymns and rites, he said. Hilgartner said he tries to stay away from Christmas tree lots and shopping malls until at least halfway through Advent. He accepts invitations to some Christmas parties, even though they are held in Advent.

Now that it's finally Christmas, he feels a pang of frustration when he turns on a radio or television and finds that -- after being bombarded with "holiday" stuff for weeks -- the true season is missing in action.

"It would be different, of course, if we all lived in a monastic community and the liturgical calendar totally dominated our lives," said Hilgartner. "Then we could get away with celebrating the true seasons and we wouldn't even whisper the word 'Christmas' until the start of the Christmas Mass. But the church doesn't exist in a vacuum and we can't live in a cultural bubble. ...

"But it's good to try to be reasonable. It's good to slow down and it's good to celebrate Christmas, at least a little, during Christmas. It's good to try."

It's good to try.

So here is the next question: Did your church try?

Did your parish celebrate Advent or Nativity Lent as a penitential season? Did anyone try to avoid a few parties? Did anyone fast or take part in extra services of prayer and meditation? And, now that Christmas is here, the real Christmas, are any of your churches doing anything to keep celebrating? Is anyone planning, for example, 12th Night parties? Three Kings processionals?

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