Mark your calendars: 2018. This is the year that nothing stopped an even earlier Christmas from coming [EDIT 2020: This is the year Christmas beat Halloween a little; 2022: by a good bit]. In years prior, jokes and snide remarks have been made about Christmas being pushed back sooner and sooner. However, Thanksgiving always acted as a tacit barrier in U.S. culture. Shops might put up some trees early, but there was an understanding you couldn't go "full Christmas" until after the turkey was eaten and Thanksgiving night was upon us.
Here are just a few things I've noted in just a week of travels:
Columbus, GA had a Christmas fair November 2nd - 4th
Car companies are already advertising Christmas specials as of November 1st.
Coffee companies have put down their Autumn flavors and have already brought in the 'peppermint' flavors as of early November.
Grocery stores, craft stores, outlet malls already have out Christmas trees and Christmas songs fill their aisles in the first week of November.
Savannah, GA is having a "Christmas made in the South" on November 16th-18th
Christians everywhere are planning Christmas parties in the first or second week of Advent
[EDIT 2022: In numerous shops, the Christmas trees and decor are already front and center, not just in the back or in the side aisles waiting, right next to the pumpkins. Valentine's Day specials are being sold in coffee shops before Thanksgiving.]
This is not to hearken to some nostalgic sense of Thanksgiving being a meet and right beginning and a necessary requirement for Christmas. In Catholic Liturgical life, it is Advent that acts as the proper barrier to Christmas coming too soon. Every Feast is prefaced by a Fast. So it is that the Penitential Season of Advent prefaces the 12-day Feast of Christmastide. Thus Advent is a season where we prepare and make straight a highway for our God in our hearts before his first coming. The logic is that a fast helps us to keep a worthy Christmas. Fast in your bodies that Christ may come to dwell in your hearts. There is an internal logic to The Church's Kalendar that is based on more than mere 'holiday preferences.'
An Uncreative Secularism
How was Christmas coming this early possible and what does it mean?
Secularism is uncreative. Insofar as it is a consumer producing culture, its citizens can only devour, but they cannot create. Think about what characterizes every secular holiday: food, fornication, and quasi-sentimental ideas about family. Christmas is food and family, Valentine's day is food and fornication, and Easter is food and family. The Fourth of July and Memorial day are food, drink, family, and patriotism. Halloween is about food and fornication, just think about the costumes our businesses try to sell to young women. At the heart of the secular calendar is our appetites. Thus, it can only consume away in displeasure, and has no ability to create, only to destroy.
Thus the secular calendar can only drain holidays of meaning like so many vampires. They cannot come up with other holidays that are exciting or fun. This is unlike The Catholic Church who has slowly added Solemnities and Feasts over the millennia. The fervor of Easter, (30 AD), Christmas (126-200'ish AD), Advent (480-580 AD), or Corpus Christi (1247 AD) were all products of The Catholic Church. When Corpus Christi was created it became such a huge hit that within a century or two it was the most popular holiday after Easter and Christmas; people spent months preparing for a large procession around a town that was to be decorated by law. Now that's a festival.
Compare this to the weak attempts by Google to celebrate a secular innovator, scientist, or poet. Nobody is biting on that idea. Nobody goes home and says, "It's Hind Rostom's 87th birthday! Buy a turkey, pull out the wine, and invite our friends over!" Today we add a secular holiday and it isn't celebrated within 40 years, and they almost never are celebrated in ways that Catholics have been able to. The world will forget Google's Ordo Kalendar within a century, and the daily "Google Saint" will be forgotten within a day. But children all over the world put their shoes out on December 6th to commemorate the man who saved young girls from the streets by putting gold dowries into their shoes for Christ's sake (St. Nicholas).
In other words, Secularism has become a parasite. It can only feed on what is legitimately instituted, but it lacks the ability to propagate, renew, or refresh itself. Because it has no imagination, it can make no spiritual children that can give it an imagination. It can and will only devour the world in search of meaning. It's no wonder existentialist novels, shopping outlets, and buffets are popular in the same place that tries to celebrate Christmas two months early. There's an inner logic to the whole order centered around one's own consumptive appetite that can never be satisfied.
Secularism and the Unflexed Imagination
Why can't Secularism be creative? Because creativity is part of the spiritual sense. It rests on things like puns, play on words, equivocations, etc. People read less and most thought is being replaced with images. Further, the production or creation of images and thoughts is steadily decreasing. Most people passively consume images, but rarely actively create images. If the imagination is never worked out, then it is a passive storehouse, but it is not a factory. It is like the man who watches others work out but doesn't work out himself. Our imaginations are crippled, but we assure ourselves in a good democratic fashion, "I could write a better book or movie if I wanted to." But when people try to be creative it often comes off like a mashup of tropes and bad one liners. E.g. #1 Ever listen to original podcast stories? Full grown adults narrate their own tales and all it does is remind me of sitting through the awkwardly painful storytelling of middle school English class. E.g. #2 Have you noticed how movies are all reboots of reboots and sequels to sequels to sequels? That's a sign of a dying consumerism. Everyone is hungry but no one knows how to make food. We're at the point of being nostalgic for nostalgia, of being wanting to see reboots of films they never grew up seeing. We're eating echos of voices we don't know and wanting copies of originals we never knew. We desire experiences that were never ours. That's the sign modern man has become an amoeba sucking up everything in its path looking for meaning.
Thus, Secularism can only stretch out Christmas further and further. What's better than 12 days of Christmas? 25? 35? 45? Doesn't all that Christmas "cheer" get exhausting? Are human emotions made to function that way?
We all know The Invisible Hand of the Market drives the Christmas season for the Secular realm. When the grocers put out the trees, music, and snacks, we accept the season has changed. Why do we fall for it? Because we're given images, propaganda, and our sentiments are played upon by the picture of a crackling fire with hot steam coming off a coffee cup, a sleeping dog on a mat by the fire, and a lit Christmas tree next to a hearth ornamented with a green garland. We think by having all of it right now, we'll somehow be happier. But we all know it just makes you tired of Christmas by the time it arrives. It's like trying to eat more chips to feel full -- at some point you put the bag down, realize you feel sick, not full, and wish you had just waited for a real meal to begin with.
Imagine what this form of life does to our little ones. Perhaps some are old enough now to see it.
Harmony between The Church and the Home
As I mentioned in The Redemption of Time, Christ has come to save time and space, the whole created order. This literally happens by participating in The Liturgical Calendar. Don't over-spiritualize this one, just celebrate the fasts and feasts!
If it was Lent in the parish but Easter in my home, do you think it would be odd? What if at Mass every week I heard a collect about conjuring up sorrow for my sins and doing fitting penance, only to return home where I was celebrating by eating chocolate eggs, dyeing eggs, eating turkey, and singing joyful songs about Jesus' Resurrection? There would be a stark juxtaposition, right? Would you say Mass was outpouring into my home and my Christian life or that I was ignoring the Life of the Church and trying to make up my own form of Christianity in the home? What if celebrating Christmas in our homes while Advent is being celebrated in our parishes is just as odd as if we were celebrating Easter in our homes while the parish is celebrating Lent?
Likewise, what if we went to Mass together during Advent and heard the words of a wild, untamed man in the desert crying for us to "Repent!" What if we heard of Final Judgment, the Return of the King who will 'smash heads and heap high the corpses' or 'dissolve the world by fire' and of our Lord who will come to us like a thief in the night and that we, therefore, ought stay awake, keep vigil, and fast as if we were coming at any moment -- only to return home to Christmas Trees, Magi, lights, and snowmen? Wouldn't the juxtaposition between Mass and our homes, our ecclesia domestica (CCC 2656), be starkly different? Wouldn't an outsider watching our lives find this odd? How would a historian try to understand this 1,000 years later? As cultural unity between Church and Catholic homes or signs of disintegration of unity between The Church and the American Catholic home?
What does Mother Church say Catholics should celebrate?
107. The liturgical year is to be revised so that the traditional customs and discipline of the sacred seasons shall be preserved or restored to suit the conditions of modern times; their specific character is to be retained, so that they duly nourish the piety of the faithful who celebrate the mysteries of Christian redemption, and above all the paschal mystery. If certain adaptations are considered necessary on account of local conditions, they are to be made in accordance with the provisions of Art. 39 and 40. -Sacrosanctum Concilium (This Sacred Council); Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy; Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness St. Pope Pius VI on December 4, 1963
In 1963 The Church essentially said the character of liturgical seasons like the end of Trinitytide [aka Ordinary Time], Advent, and Christmas have distinct practices and should be practiced in accordance with their own nature. This is part of the faithful's role in the salvation of time. It is also how you baptize a culture, or create one in the shell of an anti-culture.
We might say 'Yes, but it also says to fit modern times." A response? 'Yes, but it says restored to fit modern times, not abolished to fit modern times.' In other words, we can't change Advent to fit modern times, we can only adapt and play with it to fit modern times. I can restore a pair of cleats to play ball in, say changing out metal spikes for rubber ones, but coming in with boots or sneakers isn't "restoration," that would be abolition. But who am I to say? I'm not the authority on such matters. And who is to say what this might look like?
This paragraph finishes by saying "local conditions" can make such provisions. Who is that you ask? Why the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). They took Vatican II up on the opportunity and three years later wrote the following in 1966. [My emphasis added]. Here we might figure out what it looks like according to Vatican II documents, guided by the American Bishops, on how to restore Advent to modern times, keeping its traditional customs:
5. Changing customs, especially in connection with preparation for Christmas, have diminished popular appreciation of the Advent season. Something of a holiday mood of Christmas appears now to be anticipated in the days of the Advent season. As a result, this season has unfortunately lost in great measure the role of penitential preparation for Christmas that it once had.
6. Zealous Christians have striven to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent by resisting the trend away from the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season among us. Perhaps their devout purpose will be better accomplished, and the point of Advent will be better fostered if we rely on the liturgical renewal and the new emphasis on the liturgy to restore its deeper understanding as a season of effective preparation for the mystery of the Nativity.
7. For these reasons, we, the shepherds of souls of this conference,call upon Catholics to make the Advent season, beginning with 1966, a time of meditation on the lessons taught by the liturgy and of increased participation in the liturgical rites by which the Advent mysteries are exemplified and their sanctifying effect is accomplished.
8. If in all Christian homes, churches, schools, retreats and other religious houses, liturgical observances are practiced with fresh fervor and fidelity to the penitential spirit of the liturgy, then Advent will again come into its own. Its spiritual purpose will again be clearly perceived.
9. A rich literature concerning family and community liturgical observances appropriate to Advent has fortunately developed in recent years. We urge instruction based upon it, counting on the liturgical renewal of ourselves and our people to provide for our spiritual obligations with respect to this season.
-Pastoral Statement on Penance and Fasting; A Statement Issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops November 18, 1966
It would seem then, that the supernatural buffer to Christmas is Advent, not Thanksgiving [EDIT 2022: and definitely not Halloween]. The natural order has failed here. Surprise, surprise, we shall need grace to even worship God rightly. What's more, if we celebrated Advent in its full penitential sense, sentimentality and consumerism would not have such a steel grip on our lives.
But what about traditional Advent Joy?
Here we hear Advent is about Hope, Peace, Love, & Joy. I remember when people starting selling these tacky banners to churches in church catalogues. I remember being struck as recently out of seminary and wondering where this idea came from. I can't quite find any reference to this prior to the 2000s-2010s [if you find one tell me]. The Advent wreath itself is about mid-19th c., and doesn't hit America till the 1930s, meaning it's still new in the eyes of the Church.
If you check the Family Wreath devotion in the St. Gregory's Prayer Book the prayers all seem intensely penitential, making mention of being worthy of deliverance, mercy, etc., mixing language of judgment (Second Coming) and the Nativity (First Coming). Recall Advent comes from adventus = "coming."
If one reads the Mass lectionary (or hears it at daily Mass), prays the Daily Office (Morning & Evening Prayer, the main two hinges of the Church's Prayers), and says official devotions for Advent for the Church you get one of two conclusions about "hope, peace, love, & joy:"
(1) It doesn't fit The Church's explicit liturgies. You don't really find these words being emphasized.
(2) You could read charitably into the weeks. But then you could make any week fit any of the themes of hope, peace, love, & joy. E.g. I could make week 1 or 3 hope, 2 or 4 peace, 1 or 3 peace, etc. etc. (3) You could make every week all 4 if you're real charitable. At that point the distinctive hope, peace, love, joy weeks all fall apart.
So while this seems a very pious idea about the 'themes of Advent,' not only is it of recent origin, it doesn't really seem to fit any texts. Perhaps Rejoice (Gaudete) Sunday can claim Joy, but beyond that good luck assigning words to each week.
So what of Advent Joy? Is the whole season joyful? Is preparing for Christmas about building up joy?
If you pray Evening Prayer in the first week of Advent you in fact hear this charming line from the second verse of "To earth descending, Word sublime" (Verbum supernum prodiens)
Each breast be lighten'd from above,
Each heart be kindl'd with Thy love;
That we, who hear Thy call today,
At length may cast earth's joys away.
The problem is we think God's love and natural, earthly joys are one and the same. What we see in The Church's liturgies though is a call away from earthly joy for the sake of heavenly joy, supernatural joy, the effect of Charity. Thus the call to be kindled by God's Love allows us to hear him and allows us to cast away sensual pleasures at this time. IE Advent is penitential. Why? The Office Hymn continues:
That so--when Thou, our Judge, art night, All secret deeds of men to try, Shalt mete to sin pangs rightly won, To just men joy for deeds well done--
For the sake of Judgment Day and for a joy rooted in good deed, which must be for God's sake, ie God's love (Charity again). This is why we called on God's love and cast away earth's joys. So when we speak of the "joy of the Gospel" or the "joy of the faith" or "a joyful Advent," we really mean something different than the World. This is the common Fallacy of Equivocation (the use of one word for two disparate meanings) going on as a justification for us not really being attentive to what Mother Church is asking us to do. When The Church says "Joy" she doesn't mean what you see on billboards, coffee cups, or streaming services trying to sell you something.
In other words, Catholics are called to put off "joy" so we can find "joy." One must be attentive to how the first "joy" is being used and how the second is being used.
What's at Stake?
What's really at stake here is that a Secularist Christmas threatens to sweep away the noble patrimony of The Catholic Church's rich liturgy from Catholics. This happens when we Catholics actively try to rationalize Secular Christmas as Catholic Advent or by inventing "meanings" to Advent not found in The Church's liturgies, but usually report themselves as "traditional" or "classic" or "historical" and turn out to be a Protestant idea fueled by a company selling Christians "Advent" stuff.
It is by celebrating the Liturgy, as The Church appoints them, that we participate in the life of Christ, suffer with him, add our sufferings to his body, and are merited the great gift of being co-workers in God's labor of redeeming the cosmos. And it all starts with The Liturgy, The Mass, and then it pours out into our homes. The Liturgy is the key way in which God's Kingdom spreads. To eliminate its practice and replace it with sentimental, secular liturgies is to do anti-missions, anti-evangelization. Liturgies form followers -- so we'll either follow Christ or our own appetites. One hour on a Sunday is not enough to resist 6-1/2 days of counter-culture. The ecclesia domestic listening to the Church and living the Church Kalendar is much needed here.
Some might think I exaggerate and think we can surely participate in Advent and do secular Christmas. But on the ground, our youth have largely never even heard of the word "Advent." I get blank stares when I ask about it [as a theology teacher at a Catholic school]. In a similar fashion, phrases like "suffer one's passions" seems a strange tongue to many of them. For children raised in the liturgy, this is the Catholic Patrimonial tongue, a normal way our people ought speak, "The term 'passions' belongs to the Christian patrimony" (Catholic Catechism #1763).
Secondly, we actually can't celebrate both, for if I am feasting and fasting at the same time, which means I'm actually not fasting. If I am practicing Advent virtues like silence, meditation, and vigilance, then my home is quiet. But if I'm rejoicing with Mariah Carey's "All I want for Christmas," then my home is full of noise. The two simply cannot coexist at the same time in me. I'll love one and hate the other, or vice versa. This doesn't mean Catholics are supposed to be boring, it just means Catholics have a reason to feast and a reason to fast. Secularists all consuming reason is always "because I want to." One made in the image of God is rational, not bestial. The cultural question here is how we want citizens shaped: rational or bestial, like Christ who is the Divine Logos (Reason) or like dogs.
What season are we actually in then? In Trinitytide 24 (Ordinary 32). We are weeks away from Christ the King Sunday. Our thoughts at church, at work, and in our homes, is thus turned to Final Judgment. St. Aelred has a Mass on Christ the King Sunday, November 25th at 3:30pm in the St. Joseph School Chapel.
[EDIT 2020: We are now located at 4951 Macon Highway and Mass is at 10 AM on Sundays. We are also now in the Weekdays before Advent, gearing up for Advent. This year Christmas broke through Halloween in some ways.
EDIT 2022: Masses now at 9:00 & 10:45 AM and we're in Advent I. This year Christmas broke straight through Halloween co-existing with it in shops and even on some people's houses. Valentine's specials were sold in coffee shops prior to Thanksgiving.]