A Merry little Christmas

So Christmas Day has come and gone for another year. Although we are still in the “Christmas Season”, I always feel that once the day has passed, the significance has gone. (Likewise we have always tried to celebrate birthdays before, rather than after the actual day, otherwise it feels somewhat as if the boat has been missed).

The traditional liturgical Church calendar starts with “Advent”. Advent comes from the Latin word meaning “coming.” Jesus is coming, and Advent – the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas – is intended to be a season of preparation for His arrival.

Advent Wreath Cheryl
Traditional Advent Wreath – the four outer candles are lit progressively each Sunday, the centre candle on Christmas Day. (Image thanks to Cheryl Naumann)

The idea of waiting, of anticipation, of leading up to and looking forward to, is almost a foreign concept in our modern world of instant gratification.

Likewise, even the idea of “church seasons” has been dispensed with in many churches as “denominational” or “outdated”, as they seek to be “Relevant” (with a capital “R”), which personally I feel is quite a shame, as then their worship, observance and celebration, while broadly Christian, can, I imagine, become a non-stop “Praise-fest”, without the ebb and flow of various emphasis and reflections.

It has been impossible not to notice that “Christmas is coming”, with local councils decorating streets, endless junk-mail with “Gift Ideas”, and stores full of tat. One department store was selling Christmas decorations and trees amid Halloween paraphernalia in the SEPTEMBER school holidays.

Big W Xmas Halloween

Typically cringe-worthy renditions of pseudo-carols have been piped through shopping centres for weeks. I guess, as a musician, I might notice this more than others – but why is that? There are exquisite recordings of traditional carols and religious music by the likes of the Choir of King’s College Cambridge.

Granted, however, this is not to everybody’s taste in the more secular realm. It must be acknowledged though, that Mariah Carey makes an excellent fist of “Have yourself a Merry little Christmas” and Celine Dion’s “O Holy Night” is spine chillingly beautiful.

For a touch of history, why not Bing Crosby? But no, our ears are assaulted with horrible cheesy Rudolphs and Up on the Housetops and Drummer Boys (a curious song which mixes the Biblical Story with absolute fiction).

This year my kids bought their own “Advent Calendars” (as a kindly retired friend who has gifted same to them in recent years has moved away). A bizarre mix of sacred and profane, my daughter chose the designs from the movies “Frozen” and “Inside Out” as a bit of an in-joke, as we feel that the excessive merchandise from these in particular is ubiquitous. Anyway, each night they have duly opened one of the 24 windows (one per day of December) and eaten the piece of chocolate within. So, despite the Disneyification, this has added to the sense of anticipation of and the gradual count-down until Christmas.

I was surprised and saddened when my daughter had a friend to visit who, despite coming from a Christian family, (identifying as Pentecostal) neither recognised the calendars nor even the word “Advent”. Another case of the quest for “Relevance” in newer churches throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater? Sometimes I think, despite my “Issues”. I genuinely am Too Lutheran!

By the same token, on 29th November, we spotted this outside Kmart. Looks like someone else doesn’t quite understand the concept of the “Advent Calendar”…Wreath Kmart

Christians agree that Jesus wasn’t actually born on 25th December, or in December at all. The general consensus is September, as that is when Israeli Shepherds would have been out in the fields with their sheep, but theories on the exact year abound.

Our western year-numbering system was introduced by the 6th-century Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus, who started the Anno Domini  (“in the year of the Lord”) designation, intending the beginning of the life of Jesus to be the reference date. Many scholars, however, would place Christ’s birth between 6 and 4BC, depending on the other supporting evidence used, such as the reign of contemporary kings, counting backwards from events such as the death of Jesus’ relative John the Baptist,  or the movement of stars and constellations which could have been the “Star of Bethlehem”.

My children were asking me “Why December 25?” and they seemed to know that Christmas had been grafted onto a Northern Hemisphere winter festival, and I was aware that the Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) was connected.

A little research, however, has proved fascinating.

For those who like to know these things, for the church’s first three centuries, Christmas wasn’t in December—or on the calendar at all.

If observed, the celebration of Christ’s birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church’s earliest established feasts.

Some early church leaders opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Others speculated on various dates. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favoured May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ’s birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day

The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of the early Fathers’ concerns about pagan gods and the church’s identification of God’s son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers.

The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that the people were already exalting deities with some parallels, Christian church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.

Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire’s favoured religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ’s birth and his baptism. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25, celebrating Christ’s birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6 to this day.

(Incidentally, the Western church does celebrate Epiphany on January 6, but as the arrival date of the Magi [Wise Men] rather than as the date of Christ’s baptism).

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My daughter’s nativity scene, gifted piece by piece over a number of years by my younger sister who lives in Europe. Our own “advent” as we tried to anticipate what the next piece might be!

The pagan origins for not only the Christmas date, but also many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have contributed to arguments against the holiday. The church, however, has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted way back in 320, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”

In our modern age it seems increasingly that Christmas is a commercial festival, devoid of much spiritual meaning, but used primarily as a driver of consumerism. If reports are to be believed, Australians will have spent $47 billion this Christmas on food, holidays and presents – with more spending to follow in the New Year sales. For a population of 26 million that is both obscene and unnecessary. Yesterday I indulged my daughter with a trip to the Boxing Day sales, a major bun-fight of human activity.

Far from peace and joy and wonder of a newborn baby born in a stable.

With the media focusing on the Syrian refugee crisis, there seems to have been, this year, increasing political comment about the meaning of Christmas. One such example:

Middle East Family copy

Which has elements of truth, but is quite an over-simplification of the familiar Christmas story told in the Bible’s Luke Chapter 2.

Similarly, the concepts that Christmas is really about family, really for children, really about goodwill to all – these are worthwhile sentiments but still miss the mark.

Where I do agree is that we need to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk”.

And I have read a number of articles, in print and online, cautioning that Christmas is not necessarily a happy time for all, that many are lonely, isolated, depressed, grieving a missed loved one, feel pressure “to keep up with the Joneses” and so on.

A particularly insightful article, Joshua Becker’s “12 Steps to Avoid Disappointment this Holiday Season” includes:

  • Slow down.
  • Realise perfection is not possible.
  • Don’t push your expectations on to others.
  • Make room for rest.
  • Offer forgiveness  quickly.
  • Admit you can’t change others.
  • Realise the meaning is in the giving, not the gift.

Some of these I have had to discover or finesse over many years. “Don’t push your expectations on to others” and “Admit you can’t change others” are two that have taken me a long time to acquire. For example, my husband has a very small family. Both his parents are “Only Children”, consequently he has no Aunts or Uncles therefore no cousins either. In contrast, my Mum had three siblings and my Dad two. All of these Aunts and Uncles had at least two children, so I grew up with cousins on both sides of the family, who I saw reasonably regularly throughout childhood. But I have had to learn that my husband can find large family gatherings overwhelming, its just not something he is accustomed to.

Also, in social gatherings, it seems he is very rarely allowed just to hide in a corner or blend in– either the revelation that he is a Minister of Religion is a conversation-stopper or he is then button-holed by somebody and quizzed with complex theological questions, so it is quite hard for him to be “off duty”.

As far as Christmas and other celebrations such as birthdays go, we all, I think, have our mental concept of “How it should be done”, based on our own childhood memories. But of course, everyone has different memories and different traditions and what may be considered vital to one family member might be unimportant to another. Therefore, the potential for frustration and annoyance, and letting small things cause friction, is heightened. Which feeds into “Realise perfection is not possible”.

Deep breath, Kylie!

We actually did pretty well on theP1060224 “Slow Down” and “Make room for Rest” quotients this  year – in fact we have never been so well organised and tranquil in advance of Christmas Day…all gifts for the family were wrapped and under the tree before Christmas Eve and we even peeled and chopped vegetables for our Turkey Dinner the night before.

Regular readers will be aware that our historic church building is currently off-limits, due to asbestos concerns (see previous blog “You know the future is casting a shadow”). Meanwhile, our neighbouring school has extended to us the use of their beautiful chapel for our Sunday Services for the foreseeable future, so we are happy in our church-like temporary home.

One effect of being in “temporary accommodation”, however, is that the chapel was unavailable for services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. So, as the “Frozen” song says: “For the first time in forever”, they were not “Working days” for us.

Christmas Morning, while relaxed, felt quite odd. Although I don’t play the organ weekly, (I rotate monthly with three others), generally I play either organ or violin on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day. And of course, I have been part of, in one way or another a number of parishes, (four in England, three in Australia) over the last 25 years, with a variety of musicians.

My pattern is to just bring out the violin on “High days and Holy days”, so I have collaborated on playing Christmas Carols with many musical church friends. I believe that I have played every one of those 25 Christmases. More so for my Pastor husband, Christmas (and to a greater extent, Easter) is one of his busiest working times. Although we are accustomed to it, there is an aspect of feeling somewhat like swimming against the tide. When most people are on holidays and taking it easy, not so for clergy and their kin.

As a family, we decided to worship at one of our sister churches on Christmas Morning, and it was a quite pleasant service. I also realised, however, that an aspect of being “Staff”, both as a voluntary musician in church and as a teacher at school, is that you are, to some extent, in command and control of what happens, and you know what to expect. So not having the “inside track”was, for me, unusual.

It was also rather strange for all four of us Guthrigs to sit together in the congregation, all “off duty” and functioning as “normal people”. A recognition also, that part of the identities, public face, and, to an extent, confidence both we adults have, is bound up in what we do, the roles we play. Stripped bare of those things there is a level of uncertainty and even vulnerability.

At least we had the chance to heartily sing carols and have reinforced the true meaning of Christmas – Christ with us, expressed beautifully in the words of St. John, Chapter 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Manger CS Lewis

Afterwards we returned home to host the first Christmas dinner in our new house – sharing the rest of the day with my sister, her husband and two teenage boys who drove down from Brisbane. My husband took on chef duties and did a wonderful job coordinating the kitchen. I sensed he felt more comfortable and in command of his space, now having a sense of purpose. It was wonderful to have a “Family Christmas” and, yes, include a few traditions from when we all were children, and to pass these on to the next generation.

And so that was Christmas. Phew. Spent largely as a “Normal Person”.

Strange feeling, that.

Wishing you, in whichever corner of this ever-shrinking world you may be, an extended “Christmas Season”, one of true Peace and Joy.

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Joshua’s full post: http://www.becomingminimalist.com/avoid-christmas-disappointment/

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2 thoughts on “A Merry little Christmas”

    1. Quiet can be good. Perhaps its time to make some new traditions. One year B.C. (Before Children) my husband and I shared a Christmas Picnic in the hills, as there were just the two of us. Unusual but lovely at the same time.

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