People of faith, we have a problem. It’s not that people say “Happy Holidays” (as a contraction of Holy and Days, ‘holidays’ actually reveres all of the sacred and special days in this season, from Solstice to Kwanzaa to Hanukkah to Christmas to Watch Night to New Year’s Day). It’s not that there’s a war on Christmas.
It’s that there are two Christmases.
One Christmas season starts on the day after Thanksgiving, maybe earlier. It features songs about snowy weather and Rudolph and Frosty and poems about Saint Nick. For it, people decorate in red and green, put up lighted trees and wreaths, and buy lots and lots and lots of gifts. It celebrates in its own way the spirit of generosity, the specialness, even sacredness, of giving and receiving, of being with the people you love in the midst of the cold. Santa reigns supreme on this Christmas, which arrives with tremendous fanfare on the morning of December 25, when households are filled with light and merriment and food and presents. And then the holiday ends. By December 26, the trees are down, the lights shut off, the music off the radio.
I celebrate this Christmas. I will not begrudge you if you do as well, whether or not you consider yourself Christian. It is a fun and good holiday, and teaches good values and practices joy.
But it’s not the only Christmas.
The other Christmas begins not after Thanksgiving, but after the season of Advent. It starts, like all good holidays in the tradition of its ancestral faith, at sundown– sundown on December 24. For this holiday, people decorate first in blue or purple for advent, but most primarily in white and gold. People sing songs about angels, shepherds, and a certain baby. They put up trees and wreaths and lights, yes, but also nativities and candles. This season arrives sometimes with great fanfare, sometimes with solemn prayer, sometimes at 5:30 or 7 pm, or 11 pm (which we somehow call “midnight”), and again on the morning of December 25. On this Christmas, the one who reigns supreme is a baby, born to set his people free. Jesus own this Christmas. It’s his birthday, and as such, it too embraces giving and family and joy, but it also teaches holy expectation, God’s promises, new birth, and the presence of Christ in the midst of the world’s ordinary brokenness.
This Christmas does not end on December 26.
From a theological perspective, this Christmas does not end at all, of course, but in this context, I am speaking purely seasonally, practically, decoration-ally. This Christmas, Jesus’ Christmas, lasts for twelve days (there’s a song about that somewhere), and ends on January 6 with the celebration of the Epiphany, or the feast of the Magi– traditionally a more appropriate time for giving– as the Wise Ones reveal the global significance of the baby Jesus and present gifts to him out of love and reverence.
I want to pry these two Christmases apart. The “secular” Christmas and the “sacred” Christmas (how I dislike that language!). The Santa Christmas and the Jesus Christmas. I think they should have two separate names. We could name the Jesus Christmas lots of things: Noel, Nativity, the Feast of Christ’s Birth. But I’m not willing to say that Santa can have the name Christmas. Good luck getting it back from him and his holiday, but it’s not his to keep. I mean, it’s got the other guy’s name in it, and the word for church service. Christ. Mass. Christmas. It’s kind of a word owned by the Christian tradition, even if the holiday no longer is.
So I don’t know what we call SantaTide, the Season of Giving, St. Nicholas Day. It’s a great holiday, and I celebrate it with joy and find it holy.
It’s just not the same holiday as Christmas, a holiday that I am still celebrating, with songs of Gloria and twinkling lights. I think we can celebrate both faithfully– those of us who choose to– and I think we can, in pulling them apart, offer up ways for people who dislike Santa’s bent toward consumerism or people who find the baby Jesus a myth from a faith not their own, a way to celebrate their holy day, their holiday, without having to buy into the other.
This is my new mission, as I enter a new year, but not yet a new season of the church (nope, not celebrating Epiphany on January 1 either, lectionary watchers!). How do we tease out St. Nicholas Day (like St. Patrick’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day– once named for a saint, but now cultural holidays with their own metaphors and themes) from the Nativity of Christ? Come to think of it, how do we reverence the beauty in our cultural celebrations and our religious ones, in ways that allow each to be holy in its own way?
And don’t even get me started on the Easter Bunny. We’ve got a few weeks before that candy comes out at least, so I have some time to prepare.