No, I’m not about to tell a joke that refers to a recent tragedy. It’s not that kind of “too soon.”
It’s an all-too-familiar gripe with me, to be sure. If you’ve ever talked to me for any length of time, you know this is a soapbox of mine.
But please, hear me out. Please.
It’s about Christmas Creep. Particularly (for today’s post, anyway) the radio stations in this country that have already started playing non-stop Christmas music. Many did so the day after Halloween. November 1. All Saints’ Day. 55 days before the beginning of the Christmas season.
That’s right: December 25 is the beginning of the Christmas season: December 24 at sundown, if you prefer (and most of us do), since Christian holy days follow the Jewish custom of the day’s celebration beginning the evening before. (It all goes back to Genesis 1: “The evening and the morning were the first day,” etc., so a biblical day begins with the evening.) Christmas Eve through Epiphany (January 6) is the Christmas season. It just is. The season before Christmas, on the Christian calendar, is Advent, whose relationship to Christmas is analogous to Lent’s relationship to Easter. (In fact, in the Eastern Church, instead of Advent there is “Nativity Lent.”) We don’t celebrate Easter during Lent (far from it), and traditionally, in the same way, Christians have not celebrated Christmas during Advent. Advent is a season of preparation, Christmas a season of celebration (12 days), and the days after Epiphany (what some call “Kingdomtide”) as a season of reflection. The same rhythm is found in the spring cycle of holidays: Lent being the season of preparation, Easter the season of celebration (50 days), and the days after Pentecost (“Ordinary Time” or “Trinity Season”) the season of reflection.
If Advent is Christmas’s “Lent,” how and when did we come to see the days between Thanksgiving and December 25 as the “Christmas season”? Short answer: Macy’s. Other retailers followed suit soon after, but Macy’s was the retailer who first put the “shopping season” on our calendars with its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade which, by their own proclamation and theirs alone, heralded the start of “the Christmas season.” It of course does nothing of the sort: it rather heralds the start of the “shopping season.” Over the years, retailers have done a wonderful job of convincing us that celebrating Christmas must go hand in hand with buying lots and lots of expensive stuff. The U.S. economy has become hooked on the Shopping Season. It cannot survive without it. We are good Americans (which in popular folk-myth is synonymous with “good Christians”) when we jump in and help out Uncle Sam by buying as much as we can.
Enter the radio stations, and the advertisers that keep them on the air. Advertisers want us to get into this buying mood as soon as possible. The radio stations have told the advertisers that listeners tend to stick with the first station in town that begins playing non-stop Christmas music, so a few years ago the race began to see who could get on the air with the stuff first. This year, when some of these aforementioned stations switched to Christmas music on 1 November, a lot of people complained. A lot of them Tweeted about it. They lamented it on Facebook.
Even more listened. They are listening now. The ratings books prove it. If listeners were to avoid the non-stop Christmas music format during November, it would no longer be profitable to advertisers and stations would stop doing it. Maybe the economy is so bad, maybe things are so dismal, that people want something, anything, to provide some brightness in their lives. Maybe their attitude is, like Auntie Mame, “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute!”
Some Christians (like me) will put forth the “It’s not Christmas yet!” argument. Other Christians (mostly of Baptist-y bent) have countered this with “Well, we should celebrate Christmas every day!” This sounds nice, but it demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the Christian Year is about. Certainly we should be glad, every day, that the Incarnation occurred, but does that mean we should concentrate our preaching and worship specifically to that theme and that theme alone every day of the year? You see, that’s what the Christian Year is at its heart: a cycle of emphases that tells the Story of Christ systematically throughout the year. If you were teaching American History to 4th graders, would you teach them about George Washington every day? George Washington is the Father of our Country, and we owe him a great deal, but if you were to teach about him alone, to the exclusion of everyone and everything else in American History, you wouldn’t be much of a history teacher. Your students would never learn what they’re supposed to learn: the Story of America.
In the Christian Year, we are presenting the Story of Christ. Each day, each season, has its place. Yes, the birth of Jesus is included in the Story, but it is not the sum total of the story. So no, we CANNOT celebrate Christmas every day. We begin with the Promise of his Coming (Advent), then move to celebrate his Birth (Christmas), then his Manifestation to the Nations (Epiphany), then his sufferings (Lent), his death (Holy Week), his Resurrection (Easter), his Ascension, his sending of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), and his continuing reign, culminating in Christ the King Sunday, which happens to be this coming Sunday. I love Christmas, but I do not want to see Christmas displace Christ the King, Advent, or ANY of these seasons. Each is important. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each has its place.
Many Christians who celebrate Christmas know nothing of the Christian Year from which Christmas comes. If that describes you, I won’t be able to convince you in this short post to embrace the entire Church Calendar. I can, however, suggest to you that tearing Christmas from its context as a Chapter in the Story does violence to Christmas and to the Story as a whole. You may find that, by beginning to place Christmas within its context (falling as it does between Advent and Epiphany, seasons of spiritual preparation and reflection, respectively), your celebration of our Lord’s Incarnation will become richer and more satisfying. The “shopping season” does not do anything to prepare you for a Christian Christmas: Advent will. Taking down the tree on the 26th of December will not foster reflection on the deeper meaning of the Incarnation: observance of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Dec. 25-Jan. 5) and Epiphany (Jan. 6) will. (Aside: “New Year’s Day” is a civil holiday. That day on the Christian calendar is the Eighth Day of Christmas, a.k.a. The Holy Name of Jesus.)
Non-stop Christmas music on the radio? Now? Too soon? Yes. Much, much too soon. So don’t listen. When stations have poor ratings, they change the format to shake things up. If non-stop Christmas music proves to be a ratings loser, they’ll ditch it.
Now about my neighbors around the corner who’ve already gone Clark Griswold with the outdoor lights …