When it comes to music or decorations, I am decidedly anti-Christmas. It’s not that I have an issue with the celebration of Christmas. On the contrary, I think it’s one of the most important celebrations of the year. Nor do I have an actual issue with the music or the decorations used. I can’t think of anything inherently wrong with Winter Wonderland or Christmas trees. What I have an issue with is the timing of these things.
Let me explain. Today is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It’s an important holiday that capstones an important theme (more on that in a second). Yet, especially for Catholics living in the United States, this important feast is all but forgotten. Why? Because, with the end of Halloween, we’ve entered the “Holiday Season.” Thoughts of Christmas are already running through our heads as we frantically decorate our houses to look Christmas-y until December 25th. And that’s sad, because when we divorce the season from the celebration, we lose the lessons that sit at the heart of these celebrations.
While I could dive deep into the history of the holidays, I’m going to save that for another series. Instead, trust me when I say that most of the religiously-themed holidays we have in the U.S. are of Catholic origin. The Catholic Church has been around for a couple thousand years and has carefully cultivated each of these celebrations. Take Christmas: in Catholic tradition, the Christmas season begins on December 25th but then continues for 12 days! (Yes, that’s where the song comes from.) This is the period of time when Christmas trees have traditionally been lit, not before Christmas. It also coincides with the period immediately following the winter solstice–the darkest period of time in the Northern hemisphere. The lesson here is that Christ comes into the world to shine in the darkness. Instead, with our modern practice of shutting the lights off after the 25th, we lose that presence of light during those dark days.
The period people usually associate with Christmas and hustle and bustle for their one day celebration is originally intended to be an extended period of preparation. Advent, consisting of the four weeks proceeding Christmas, is a time for us to do our decorating and cooking and preparing. Our ancestors used this time to get ready for the harsh, cold months ahead. This was the period that the harvest was done and winter began to threaten on making itself known. It’s over these four weeks that the Church calls us to prepare ourselves for Christ’s entrance into the world. By making Christmas a one day feast and transplanting the Christmas season over top of the Advent season, we’ve actually made a pleasant and slower time of year into one of extreme business.
During the month of November, we see the final stages of harvesting. Fields look barren and dead and trees lose their leaves. The Church uses these visuals to her advantage and reminds us to “memento mori”–remember death. But, it’s not meant to be gloomy. The “season of the end times” begins with a very joyful celebration: the Solemnity of All Saints. This is followed closely by All Soul’s Day. At Masses throughout November, the end times play a significant role in the readings. We are asked to contemplate the direction of our lives, but also to imagine the Kingdom of God. The Church seeks to remind us that this earth is temporary and that the Kingdom of God is eternal and all that will remain in the fullness of time. It is a time to think about the magnificence of God, amid the choirs of angels and the saints. It’s a time to marvel at the perfection that God will restore to his creation. And it culminates today, on Christ the King Sunday.
And yet, for so many, today was be just another day. So, do yourself a favor and put down that wreath. Take a moment to really reflect on whether you are filled with joy at the coming Kingdom. Ask yourself why or why not. And in a week or two, after the joy has had some time to settle, go ahead and throw those lights up. After all, this time around you’ll have a clear picture of why you need to shine that light into the darkness.