When is 'Christmas,' anyway?

Yes, 'tis the season to hear people arguing about Christmas, inspired by everything from the numbing effect of waves of holiday ads to the "Christmas Wars" coverage on cable TV news shows. At the same time, this is when small bands of traditional Christians in the West begin their brave attempts to honor the quiet, reflective season called Advent (or Nativity Lent in the East). From time to time, these realities receive a small amount of mainstream news coverage (including by me). Take, for example, this unusually prominent piece that ran recently in the Washington Post.

Here's the top of the report:

'Tis the season! Or 'tis it?

Amy Barker, for one, has no doubt that these first days of December are a fine time to start decking the halls. In fact, her halls are decked. Her Christmas season started in November.

"I get so excited about decorating for Christmas, it just seems like a month isn't enough," said Barker, an Alexandria mother of three who had two trees up and decorated and the family stockings hung within 48 hours of clearing away the turkey bones. "I figure after Thanksgiving, it's fair game."

But her husband, Brian, is in less of a hurry. He loves Christmas, too, he said -- just not quite so many weeks of it.

"In her opinion, November is fine," said Brian, a real estate developer. "In mine, mid-December is better. Besides laziness, it's that I kind of like to focus on the actual day of Christ's birth."

For many families, this is a time of some tinsel tension over a perennial question: Just when should Christmas begin? Some celebrants stretch the season across as many weekends as possible to gain more pleasure and more time for all the gift-buying, box-wrapping, card-writing and gay apparel-donning.

But others -- sometimes within the same family -- would rather hold back the flood tide of yuletide to avoid holiday burnout and keep things special around the Big Day itself.

At this point, I want to offer cheers that the Post team even attempts to include some material that takes seriously the history of the actual season of Christmas, which begins with the Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

For example, the story discusses -- gasps are heard all around -- the Western liturgical calendar.

Long gone for most American Christians are the Old World norms of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve and backloading much of the holiday into the last half of December. When the retail blizzard starts in September and FM radio's jingles ring before Halloween on some stations, it's little wonder that houses all over the region light up on the night after Thanksgiving. ...

In Utah ... the bishop of Salt Lake City sparked an online debate when he issued a pastoral letter urging Catholics to hold off on celebrations until the official liturgical start of the season: Christmas Eve. On the church calendar, Advent fills the first 24 days of December and Christmas starts at midnight. (Those 12 days of Christmas don't culminate on the 25th; they start then.)

The irony is in the math, although the Post only hints at this.

Many Christmas "traditionalists" delay their parties and decorating until mid-December, thinking that they are in some way observing the "12 days of Christmas," even though this kind of delay jumps ahead of centuries of Christian traditions.

So here is the irony of this interesting Christmas news story -- it isn't secular enough.

The actual calendar that is stomping on the religious rites of Advent and the Christmas season is a secular calendar now called "The Holidays." Truth be told, if more Christians wanted to celebrate Christmas during the season of Christmas it would be quite easy to do so, since most civic and family calendars are rather empty during the 12 days following the actual feast. Things are busy -- with the NFL playoffs, bowl games and all of that -- but they are nowhere near as busy as in the crunch weeks of the secular and, alas, church calendars that follow, well, Halloween.

There are painful delights to be found in the exploration of our culture's real traditions. For example, I must admit that the following inspireed a sad chuckle for me:

Catheryn Dowd, 55, a Kennedy Center staffer, said she and her four siblings have all maintained their mother's ironclad rule of not decorating for Christmas until mid-December.

"There's a strict dividing line at Dec. 15 in my mind," Dowd said. "Nothing before then."

When Dowd recently marveled to her parents that the tradition has held fast for so long, her mother surprised her by explaining the origin of the "sacred 15th": It was payday.

"That's all it was," Dowd said with a laugh. "She got paid and she went and bought the tree."

Now that's the American spirit.

Once again, let me note that this story is way better than the norm. Cheers!

Also, dare I hope that there will be a sequel. Does anyone out there hold Twelfth Night parties? That would be an interesting story about some true old-school Christmas revolutionaries. There's a tradition that is so, uh, traditional that it would be news.

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