Black Fridays and purple Sundays

Advent-CalendarEvery year we read about the War on Christmas. The mainstream media love to cover stories about those Scrooges who ban the use of any specific greetings related to Christmas and the old curmudgeons who complain about the same. But I like to cover the war on all the other seasons of the liturgical calendar. For one thing, how can it be a war on Christmas when this isn't even the Christmas Season? That begins on Christmas and lasts 12 days. You may have heard of these mysterious 12 days of Christmas. But half the time we get stories about the 12 days of Christmas, we get them as the final 12 days leading up to Dec. 25. A few years ago, there was a minor epidemic of Washington-area newspapers confusing the issue. This year we have an Associated Press story about how much it would cost to give the gifts mentioned in the famous "12 Days of Christmas" song ($87,403). But maybe the AP is just super early rather than wrong.

So Sunday was the start of the Advent season for Western Christians. Advent is the beginning of the church year and the time in which the church patiently and eagerly prepares for Christmas by confession and repentance, prayer, Scripture study, fasting and the singing of seasonal hymns. The liturgical color for the season is purple (or, I hear, blue).

This is a major season that isn't ignored so much as competed against with "Christmas." The first day of this alternative religious season begins with Black Friday. That's the day when we all pin our annual economic hopes on mass purchasing of retail goods. So here's how one recent Reuters story broke the news:

U.S. consumers spent significantly less per person at the start of the holiday season this weekend, dimming hopes for a retail comeback that would help propel the economy early in 2010.

My sister is a retail manager and she was forced to open her story at midnight after Thanksgiving. She worked two eight-hour shifts that day. I agree with Dell Dechant that there are religious components to the consumer culture. It might have something to do with why I avoided the malls.

And I might not be alone. Jeff Strickler of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune found others who rebel against the pressures of Black Friday:

William Doherty won't be among the throngs in the shopping malls Friday morning. He will be in church.

Doherty, a professor in the Family Social Science Department at the University of Minnesota, is part of a growing backlash against the commercialization of Christmas. Last year, he helped his church, Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul, hold a worship service on what has become known as Black Friday, the official kickoff of the holiday gift-buying bonanza and biggest retail shopping day of the year.

This year, he is helping launch a similar "Black Friday at Church" event at New Hope Baptist Church in St. Paul.

The protest against Christmas consumption, organized by the Advent Conspiracy, has become an international phenomenon. The program, created by three pastors in 2006, is being presented this year in as many as 1,500 churches, including several in the Twin Cities.

The story is a great local look at a religious trend in the area and he does a good job of explaining the theological approach of the folks behind the Advent Conspiracy, although the name isn't explained at all. I was also wondering why those of us liturgical Christians who are engaged in, um, an Advent conspiracy every year weren't mentioned. But it's okay because Strickler has another article devoted to nothing other than explaining the symbols of Advent:

This weekend marks the first Sunday in Advent, the month leading up to Christmas that Christians have marked for centuries -- but not always in the same spirit.

Originally, Advent and Lent were cut from the same theological cloth. They both were times of devotion, introspection and repentance. But while Lent has retained its initial tone, Advent has become more about parties than penance.

While the activities of Advent might have changed, its symbols live on. Many of the iconic images of Christmas actually started with Advent. The wreath, St. Nicholas and even the decorating of a Christmas tree trace their roots to the days leading up to the holiday.

Well, for some of us Advent is still a time of devotion and repentance rather than parties. The Orthodox even call this period Christmas Lent. But Strickler's point is clear. And with an economy of words, he quickly runs through many Advent traditions and where they come from. Here, for example, is a treatment of the color for the season:

The color purple: In most Protestant denominations, ministers wear purple vestments during Advent. Contrary to what many football fans might think, this has nothing to do with supporting the Minnesota Vikings (although if your minister shows up this weekend wearing green and yellow, be very suspicious).

There are various explanations for the choice of purple. The most common is that in ancient times, purple dye was the most expensive and was reserved for use by royalty. Therefore, the theory goes, it was chosen to designate the Christian year's most regal event, the birth of its new king.

Like I said, it's a real quick treatment. There are huge differences of opinion in the Western church over whether the proper color is violet, purple, blue, etc. And I'm not even sure that "most" Protestant denominations mark Advent, much less that its ministers wear vestments of any color. But purple was traditionally chosen for its royal ties and it's good to mention that.

And I'm just so happy that any major paper is treating Advent at all. This is a very important time for so very many liturgical Christians and it's wonderful that a paper would simply acknowledge that and instruct readers about it. And on that note, here's USA Today's Advent calendar shopping guide!

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