From The Blog

Mission Monthly – November 2007

“Don’t Pre-celebrate Christmas.”

Fr. Andrew George (of the Greek Archdiocese)

The Nativity Fast (Advent Season), which begins for us on November 15 (November 28 old style), is a time for anticipating the “Good News” of the Lord’s Birth. As with all things in life, Scripture reminds us that we must be careful to be “in the world, but not of the world.” This is especially true of the celebration of Christmas. Many lament that the stores are decorated for Christmas from the end of October—an example of the overstressing and “early-stressing” of this great Christian Holy Day. But what do we do in our homes? I have noticed that on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, people begin to put up their Christmas trees and lights.

Our Orthodox Advent tradition gives us some guidelines of which many of us, perhaps, are not aware. Within this 40-day preparation period, a slow progression of events unfolds. This is seen in the general attitude, hymnology, prayers, and fasting practices which begin to intensify on the Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6) and progress through the feasts of St. Spyridon (Dec. 12), St. Herman (Dec. 13), Prophet Daniel (Dec 17), and St. Ignatius (Dec. 20). This last feast is specifically called “the day of preparation.” What do you think this tells us? Add to this the tradition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that begins on Christmas Day and runs to January 5, the day before Theophany, the next Great Feast. The “food fast” is most intense during the 12 days preceding Christmas, and there is no fasting during the 12 days after Christmas, not even on Wednesday or Friday! Again, what do you think this tells us?

It is interesting to note that, historically, we do not have an exact date for Jesus’ birth. The date of His Nativity was specifically selected by the early Church to coincide with pagan celebrations held in late December. These celebrations were riotous and foolish in nature, unbecoming for a follower of Christ. Thus, this date had a dual purpose: (1) to mark the Lord’s coming to earth as a man, and (2) to do it at a time which would help defeat an attitude and lifestyle which went against the Lord’s teachings. The early Church leaders knew that these Christians struggled with the temptation to return to their former ways. Once again, what would you think this tells us?

The Orthodox tradition is clearly not to “pre-celebrate” Christmas, but rather to withhold the celebration until the designated time. Once it arrives, we are to celebrate it joyously, not with overly riotous activity as did the pagans. Some 40 or 50 years ago here in America, people decorated their Christmas trees on Christmas Eve. Slowly, through the influence of merchants and media, we started to put up our decorations and trees earlier and earlier each year. As a result, we take them down earlier and earlier, not waiting for the Theophany observances of January 5-7, which are specifically part of the 12 day cycle beginning of Christmas.

Every year, there are more and more parties held during the height of the Christmas Fast, instead of during the festive period from December 25—January 7. On the day after Christmas, we hear people say, “Christmas is over,” and the Christmas trees are put out on the curb. Since they have pre-decorated and pre-celebrated and feasted, in their minds, “it is over”—when really, it should be just beginning.

I offer the following practical applications of our Orthodox theology and practice:

  • Do decorate, but don’t pre-decorate. Use the December 6-20 guide as a starting point.
  • Do celebrate, but don’t pre-celebrate, use the December 25-January 5 timeframe for your festivities.

The Scriptures instruct us: “In all things, be not like the pagans, but rather calm, joyful in praise, and giving of love to glorify Christ who came for us.” Since we Christians are called to be “in the world, but not of the world,” we are to transform the world and not have the secular world transform us. Secularism has crept into our Christmas observances. It is up to us to purify the celebration. This begins with our families, our households, doing the more proper and fitting things and, by example, teaching others to do likewise. I urge you to plan for a Christmas observance that will hold true to our Orthodox view and pattern for celebration.