For many American Catholics, Thanksgiving kicks off another season of “here we go again”—fending off the annual bombardment from advertisers and the temptation to measure Christmas in terms of presents. It’s a month long struggle to get all of our holiday work done and somehow keep Christ in Christmas, too.
Many of us look back to a simpler Christmas in the “good old days,” a mythical time when the holiday came wrapped in a stocking full of chocolates and maybe an orange. Well, let’s look back a little farther and stand where we can get some perspective on the matter.
For one thing, when you look at the liturgical calendar, you’ll notice that Christmas isn’t the Church’s major holiday. It never has been. Church Fathers such as Augustine didn’t include a commemoration of Christ’s birth in their lists of holidays at all. Early Christians focused their attention on Easter, the holiest day in the Church’s calendar, the solemnity of solemnities.
In fact, our pattern of activity each week still echoes the Easter Triduum. That’s why every Friday has always been a day of penance (it still is, by the way—the rule is either no meat or an equivalent penance, every Friday).
Saturday was originally a day to lie low and keep quiet, which is why we have two-day weekends instead of laboring six days, as it says in Genesis. Sunday is the “little Easter” commemorating the Resurrection in the splendid liturgies of the principal Mass of the week.
The early Church recalled this more explicitly in its weekly liturgies, but in the old days Easter itself was surrounded by vigils, processions, songs, presents, feasts, and parties for which everybody bought new clothes.
Today we’ve shifted much of the fuss and festivities to Christmas, and we pass over Easter almost entirely. But Easter still overshadows the commemoration of the birth of Jesus—spiritually, theologically, and liturgically—as the high holy day, the most solemn and joyous holiday of all.
That’s undoubtedly why we didn’t get around to commemorating the birth of Christ in the liturgy until about the late fourth century. The earliest surviving record of a specific celebration of the Nativity is a sermon by St. Optatus, bishop of Mileve in Africa, from about A.D. 383. Evidently, Optatus was the first to put a Feast of the Nativity into his diocese calendar.
The idea caught on almost immediately, but the feast was celebrated on different days in different places any time from November to March. It wasn’t set at December 25 for the whole Church until about 650, and even then it wasn’t a major holiday. It wasn’t called “Christmas” until about the year 1000. The Feast of the Nativity didn’t get loaded down with all secular customs of Christmas—the caroling, the banqueting, and the elaborate exchange of presents—until about 500 years later.
Christians in northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean were still observing Christmas low-profile around the year 1500. But it was different in northern Europe. About that time, that part of the world experienced a mini-Ice Age. Suddenly there was snow in the winter, lots of it; people had to work all summer to store up food for the weeks and months they’d be kept indoors. By the end of December you’d probably be stringing the dried fruit into endless garlands and singing incomprehensible songs anyway, holiday or no.
Certainly, having the neighbors in to sit around a blazing Yule log wouldn’t cut into your workday. All of the extras that naturally settled around Christmas—which comes just after the winter solstice—were not so much a burden as a welcome excuse for some social and physical activity. The parties back then were a well-earned celebration of a whole year’s work harvested and gathered into barns.
Nowadays, of course, we wear ourselves out doing all of that stuff in addition to our normal daily workload, which negates the whole point of it. Simplifying things to a leisurely level would be a courageous countercultural stand. But as our forebears in faith filled their empty hours with Yuletide cheer, they did something else, too, in the weeks before Christmas, something that can still put the holiday in perspective: they observed Advent.
Advent is really a lot like Lent. Both are roughly month long seasons of preparation for a joyful holiday. In fact, starting in about the sixth century, Advent and Lent used the same liturgies, Mass for Mass, in the Latin Rite. During both seasons, you would see the purple vestments of mourning, symbolism echoed today by the colored candles of the Advent wreath.
In the reign of Innocent III (1198-1216), the vestments of Advent were black. Long after that, pictures and statues were covered, the organ was silenced, and flowers were banned from the churches, just as during Lent. Even in the Ambrosian and Mozarabic rites, where there was no special Advent liturgy, there was still a requirement to fast during the season before the Nativity. It was designed to remind us of the need to repent in preparation for a holy season.
In Protestant denominations, of course, Advent has largely faded away. That’s probably why the secular observances of Christmas, as they rushed in to fill the void, got out of hand. Advent fasting and almsgiving used to keep people aware of the proper use of material goods and of the need to offset other people’s poverty with the excess from our own prosperity. If you take the penitential observances away, the secular celebrations can seem somehow obligatory, somehow the essence of Christmas.
Well, you wouldn’t get far asking people to give up Santa’s jolly red suit in favor of sackcloth and ashes. But there’s one crucial difference between Lent and Advent: Christmas doesn’t have Passion Week preceding it. The penitential observances of Advent always had a festive character to them. The idea was to contain your excitement before Christmas and to use that energy in preparing for Christ’s coming.
So people took on these penances joyfully—something that only a Christian could do. They’d pause in their celebrations to acknowledge their sins and to clean house spiritually, overjoyed that Christ came to us, but aware of our unworthiness to receive him.
We still use Advent calendars and wreaths to measure out joyful anticipation, but we can learn a lot from the old Advent practices that we’ve forgotten. Kids probably begged Optatus himself for Christmas presents, but for a month before that they would collect pennies for the poor, going door to door with a little Christ-child doll in an Advent variation on trick-or-treat.
Families would have meager meals and give the unused food to the needy. Parishes used to have penitential feasts after Mass during Advent, with menus that were abundant but austere: bread and water, maybe, or fish, but plenty of it.
People had a good time keeping Advent, although music and dancing were forbidden then, just as during Lent. It was all part of a “discipline of joy” that is still an important part of our heritage today. Listen to the Mass after the Lord’s Prayer: “In your mercy keep us free from sin . . . as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” That’s Advent, right there.
Maybe we can still recapture this uniquely Christian attitude of joyful penance. During these Advent weeks bring out that Lenten alms box and add coins to it before a meatless Friday dinner. Sing an Advent song as you do. Put the poor on your gift list: books and toys for the children, of course, but the whole family might save up for a bigger gift—an overcoat, maybe, for somebody who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
And pay more attention to Easter. It’s still our highest holy day. And the weather’s usually nicer, too.