I’m back after a long absence. I hope you are having a wonderful Christmas.
Yes. Present tense. Are having. Not “had”. Today is the Eleventh Day of Christmas. Tomorrow is the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Sunday will be Epiphany (when we commemorate the arrival of the Magi or Wise Men). You can even extend Christmas to Monday if you like, since January 7 on the Gregorian calendar (the one most of us use) is December 25 on the Julian calendar. Therefore, this coming Monday will be Christmas for many Christians around the world who are members of various Eastern Orthodox communions. So Christmas really won’t be over until Tuesday.
As I said before, I hope you’re having a wonderful Christmas.
It makes no sense for Christians who choose to celebrate Christmas (and some do not, such as some in the Reformed tradition) to do so according to the whims of secular forces rather than according to Christian tradition. No sense whatsoever. Scripture tells us to redeem the time: the way we mark time as Christians is important. Are we going to mark time according to the civil calendar, the school calendar, a corporation’s fiscal year, or the ecclesiastical calendar?
In reality, our lives are ruled by all of the above calendars in some way or another. The civil calendar says a new year has begun, so we have to write 2008 on our checks instead of 2007 now. The school year begins in August or September, so we have to make sure we have all the school supplies our children will need by that date. Our taxes are due on April 15, so we have to abide by that calendar as well.
None of this matters when it comes to our holy-days (holidays). A Christian holiday is a Christian holiday. Period. Its timing and celebration have nothing whatsoever to do with any other calendar, including the civil calendar. We should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. It was Caesar (Julius Caesar, to be exact) who decided that January 1 would be the first day of the year. Before he did that, the new year began in March. That’s why we have the names September, October, November, and December, which mean the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months, respectively. Those hearken back to a time when the year began in March. Julius Caesar changed the date of New Year’s Day, but not the names of those months.
So we render unto Caesar. We change our clocks, calendars, and the dates on our checks on January 1. But what does that have to do with the Christian holiday of Christmas? Not a darned thing. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but don’t you dare take away what is God’s or Christ’s. I’ll say it again: Christmas is a Christian holiday. It is a feast on the Christian Calendar. It is a religious observance. January 1, the civil “New Year’s Day”, happens to fall within the Feast of the Nativity, but that is merely by coincidence. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. So no, it’s not bad luck, or bad taste, or bad karma, or bad anything, to “leave your tree up after New Year’s” (I used to hear that one all the time growing up). Christmas is a twelve-day feast that begins on December 25. That means that January 1, on the Christian Calendar, is the Eighth Day of Christmas. Christ was circumcised on the Eighth Day according to the Law of Moses. For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church refers to the Eighth Day of Christmas as the Circumcision of our Lord, and Protestants usually refer to it as The Holy Name of Jesus (since in Jesus’ time baby boys were given their names on the day of their circumcision). New Year’s Day is not an observance on the Christian calendar: the Eighth Day of Christmas is. New Year’s Day does not signal the end of Christmas. It cannot: it is not a part of the Church Year at all, except in the sense that January 1 is the Eighth Day of Christmas, a.k.a. Holy Name of Jesus.
Look at it this way: what if your birthday happened to fall some time during the Christmas season, say on the 27th of December? Would you have to pack away all the Christmas decorations to celebrate your birthday? No. So your birthday falls during the Christmas season. What a happy coincidence. The same is true of New Year’s Day. New Year’s Day doesn’t signal the end of the Christmas season any more than your birthday would.
“Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould (Romans 12.1, as paraphrased by J. B. Phillips).” OK, maybe “normal people” behave as if the civil calendar holds sway over the Christian calendar, but “normal” simply means “according to the norm,” that is, according to what the majority thinks and does. Since when are Christians supposed to care about following the crowd? Is being a part of the norm more important than honoring the Feast of the Nativity? Does the civil calendar trump the Christian calendar when it comes to the timing of Christian feasts? Is it more important to render unto Caesar?
I grew up on Christmas music, on Fred Waring’s recordings that featured my grandfather’s glorious baritone, and Robert Shaw’s exquisite choral work. I love them. I do not have a bah! humbug! bone in my body. But raised as I was in a Reformed tradition, I spent my childhood being pounded from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve with “Christ is born” songs, when he wasn’t yet, so what was Advent? and then it was Christmas Day and by Christmas afternoon, poof! it was over. What happened to the other 12 days? What do you mean, just a song?
Laurel’s experience growing up is much the same as mine. But I would add the detail that for me growing up, Christmas was essentially a family holiday with religious themes rather than a religious holiday around which the family gathered. That may be a small distinction to make, but I think it probably describes the experience of most who grew up Evangelical. The first time we ever went to church on Christmas Eve was when I was 14 and we had joined a Presbyterian Church. Before that, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were all about going to relatives’ houses, eating big meals, and opening presents. I loved those activities and still do, but now I find it odd that worship was not central to our observance of what is, after all, a Christian holy-day. Similarly, all that Christmas stuff had to be packed away by New Year’s Day. Christmas by then had long since run its course. I had no idea what the Twelve Days of Christmas were, as Laurel mentions, other than just a silly song. I had heard the Luke 2 story (we had to memorize it in school), but I never heard, growing up, a sermon about the significance of the Circumcision of Christ, or the Slaughter of the Innocents, or the Flight into Egypt, or the Epiphany. The first sermon I ever heard on the Presentation of Christ at the Temple was one that I myself preached.
The above is not a complaint: it’s just a description of how it was. But people are capable of growing, learning, and changing. And as I have grown, learned more of the Christian tradition, and changed my worship practices, I will admit that I feel somewhat cheated when looking back at Christmases past (and Easters past too, as we had no acquaintance with Lent or Holy Week growing up either). Let’s not cheat ourselves or our families out of a Christmas that is both fun and meaningful, that makes time for gathered worship as well as gathered families, that gives the Lord his due by celebrating the entire twelve-day feast, not truncating it because of what the civil calendar says. It’s time to start thinking about next Christmas, and how you will celebrate it. Will you render unto Caesar, or unto Christ?
Oh yeah, it’s also time to start making some King Cakes for this Sunday. Bring ’em on!